Reality could use more epic wins. In her debut book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World, game designer Jane McGonigal writes that reality just can’t compete with a well-designed videogame. The solution is to try to apply the elements that make videogames so engaging to real-world challenges. While she cites plenty of examples of how useful games can be, her arguments are never deep enough to feel like more than unbounded optimism.
McGonigal takes great care to explain gaming concepts and specific games like Halo and World Of Warcraft to make her book accessible to non-gamers, but Reality Is Broken is still preaching to the choir. She ably argues that videogames aren’t a waste of time, delivering research that shows that they’re an excellent way to relax, while helping introverted people socialize and improving players’ collaborative skills. But she doesn’t satisfyingly answer any of the other major complaints leveled against videogames. In a section on collaborative play, she devotes a single line to the graphic violent content in player-vs.-player games and how the anonymity of the Internet can produce toxic social interactions. Then she moves on without addressing either point.
To be fair, as much as McGonigal praises Spore and LittleBigPlanet, she just sees them as laying groundwork for games that actually can help improve the world. Her book details some fascinating ways this is already happening, such as a charter school that turns homework into quests, a puzzle game where players help medical researchers figure out how proteins fold, and a social-network game that encourages innovation by people living in the developing world, and rewards successful players with mentorships and scholarships. McGonigal also devotes a good deal of space to detailing games she’s designed. While many of them sound fun, she seems to have an inflated view of their potential impact. Her games designed to help sick people stay connected to friends and family and encourage young people to talk to seniors may help improve the lives of a few individuals or groups, but she also believes that a game that brought people together to think up ways to avoid future global crises could be more than a nice thought exercise. She proudly describes some of her players’ ideas, such as ATMs that dispense free seeds so people can grow their own food, and a state for African refugees. They’re creative ideas, but without huge resources behind them, they could never be put into effect. With only a few thousand people playing her games, their ability to push for world-changing policy seems limited.
Toward the end of Reality Is Broken, McGonigal mentions an idea for a thousand-year game that would encourage people to think on a longer scale, but acknowledges that it would only be possible if everyone in the world had Internet access, and there was free communication across all borders. That would be a truly epic win, but any reality where it was true probably wouldn’t be broken enough to need McGonigal’s games.