Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

book club: Reality is Broken, Chapter 1

I’m back! We’re wrapping up the World Development Report and it is game on for me.

To get myself gaming again, I am reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.  Having fallen behind in my gaming, I didn’t know anything about it until I saw McGonigal on Colbert.  I was intrigued by the idea of the book, it promises some of the visionary motivation for what games can be that have driven this blog into existence and keep the field moving (and exciting!).  As I read it, I’ll post here and if any of you out there are reading it, you can weigh in on comments.

I’m only 5% in, but I was struck by McGonigal’s definition of a game and thought it might interest our readers here.  She argues that all games share four defining traits:  The Goal, The Rules, A Feedback System and Voluntary Participation.  In the first chapter she looks at golf, Scrabble and Tetris to compare these traits.

The Goal and Feedback System are fairly self-explanatory – a player needs to know what she is working toward and whether she is making progress.  McGonigal notes that we need not have complete information on goals and voluntary participation at the outset of the game, demonstrating with Portal how players learn goals and feedback through play of the game (and GlaDOS encourages voluntary participation, with promises of cake).   Nor does the goal always have to be “win” – she cites Tetris as a game with brilliant feedback systems and the seemingly Sisyphean goal of playing until you lose.

Rules and Voluntary Participation are also fairly obvious to the reader here – but what intrigued me was her combination of the two.  McGonigal argues that fairly arbitrary rules are often what make games, games – the most efficient way to put the ball in the hole in golf would be to walk up to the hole and drop the ball in – but we’ve collectively decided that what makes it a game, is the challenge of hitting the ball great distances with very skinny bats and counting the number of hits we use with a bunch of other rules.  It is that voluntary participation, committing to the rules (no matter how arbitrary they may be), collectively, that creates the “game”.  Even solitaire play is only meaningful if it follows the rules that have been set.  Likewise, she argues that this is a lot of what separates “games” from “work” – if you want to free spell words, you should just type, Scrabble is the experience of drawing limited, random letters and trying to spell in a lattice governed by rules.

McGonigal argues that together these four traits minimally define a “game” and is going on in the first chapter to argue that many of these features are what is missing from reality.  On my kindle, I also have Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers so I flipped and searched in that to find what he defined as three qualities of rewarding work:  autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  Certainly feedback systems are responsible for aligning efforts and reward and rewards are themselves goals.  Obviously, for most of us, games aren’t work (though, happily, our work is often games), but the overlap is interesting.  I would argue that autonomy includes some features of voluntary participation (I am not actually playing a game if I am on a team with no authority or independent action).  McGonigal and Gladwell don’t overlap on complexity, but that may be subjective (some experiences may not be games to me if they are not complex – or may be too complex to be considered games) .  I find these minimal definitions intriguing, but I still remain skeptical that they are sufficient.

Interestingly, McGonigal was also involved in Evoke, which we’ve reviewed here and here.  While we weren’t impressed by Evoke, going back and reading the reviews I see that we were most disappointed by missing goals (it was really a freeform experience and the point wasn’t really clear), the rules were good but difficult to learn and the feedback system was largely user driven (which isn’t inherently bad, but highly dependent on herding and group think).   Thus far I’m enjoying the book, it is a nice, light read, well written, by someone that clearly loves games and the promise they have for positive change. Having traveled a bit and seen how games are variously received in different cultures, I am a bit skeptical of how much her messages will spread beyond gaming cultures, but I am intrigued enough to keep reading – look for book club on following chapters soon.

3 responses to “book club: Reality is Broken, Chapter 1

  1. strict view of precedent 02/06/2013 at 7:09 am

    Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog post or vice-versa?
    My blog goes over a lot of the same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.

    If you might be interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the way!

  2. Brian Train 09/02/2011 at 5:02 pm

    I saw McGonigal on Colbert too, and I was less than impressed. She burbles that there are 500 million gamers out there – that may be a large number, but it’s still less than 8% of the world’s population. And Colbert’s crack about bringing XBoxes to sub-Saharan Africa (with the unspoken implication that things like electricity, clean water, housing, economic and political stability, and leisure time should probably be in place first) got swept aside in her enthusiasm. It’s human, all too human, that well-educated affluent First Worlders seem to think that everyone else on the planet has the same problems they do, or should at least read the book they’ve written about their problems.

    However, I am basing my judgement on seven or eight minutes of one appearance on Colbert, so I should give her the benefit of the doubt. Gary has summarized her early points and they are good.

    Thanks for the review Gary! I’d like to see more of what you think before adding this to the teetering mountain of books by my bed.

  3. Rex Brynen 09/02/2011 at 3:13 pm

    Welcome back to the (almost) post-WDR land of the living, Gary!

    I’m also part way through the book. While some of the gaming evangelism is a little over-the-top, and I would have preferred to have seen a more balanced treatment of the issues that McGonigal addresses, I’m certainly enjoying it too.

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