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Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
Jane McGonigal, Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £12.99

Why does a teenage boy who refuses to do his homework spend hours playing Call of Duty? Why do commuters play Angry Birds on their phone, instead of reading the improving books lying unloved in their bag?

These are the questions that Jane McGonigal sets out to answer in Reality Is Broken. Her premise is this -- computer games have been designed and developed to be rewarding and satisfying in a way that life rarely is. "Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment?" she asks. "The real world just doesn't offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments."

So, why not hijack the best aspects of games to make reality better?

But first, we should reflect on why games are so compelling. Unlike school or office work, the tasks they ask us to perform are constantly challenging and complicated by unnecessary obstacles. So: pressing a series of coloured buttons is boring. Pressing a series of coloured buttons in perfect time to a recording of "Sweet Child o' Mine", on the other hand, is the basis for the bestselling Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. Forced to operate at the edge of our ability, we are kept engaged and enthused, in a state of what psychologists call "flow".

Games also give constant feedback and they are progressive: fail a level once and there's always the possibility to continue or try again. Reality -- particularly our school testing system -- is much more focused on winning or losing at a specific time on a specific day. This creates a fear of failure that can stop us from trying in the first place.

After establishing why so many of us love games -- in Europe alone, there are 100 million people who play them for at least 13 hours a week -- McGonigal considers what we can learn from them. She presents 14 "fixes" for reality, from encouraging communities to form through shared gameplay to garnering more "epic wins" by taking part in projects on a grand scale.

As such, the key to happiness is not to play more Grand Theft Auto or Fruit Ninja but to approach our lives in a gameful way. Take Chore Wars, an alternative reality game designed to get flatmates to do more housework. Together the players draw up a list of chores and put it on to an online database. You then win points and rewards -- such as who gets control of the TV remote -- by completing the tasks. What makes it gameful, however, is that you choose which chore to do at a given moment from a large pool and you add in those unnecessary obstacles. There are double points if you put the laundry away in under five minutes, say, or if you empty the bins without anyone seeing you. "Even if household interest in the game dies down after a few weeks or months," writes McGonigal, "a major feat has been accomplished: players have had a rather memorable, positive experience of doing chores together."

A more sustainable approach to gameful living is provided by Quest to Learn, a New York City school that opened in 2009. It teaches a standard curriculum but the children approach their learning as they would a computer game. Instead of getting grades from a single test, students "level up", earning points towards a higher goal, such as becoming a Master Storyteller. In class tasks, they are encouraged to work in teams, each performing a different role that plays to his or her strength: historian, designer, architect. There are also optional quests hidden in the fabric of the school building -- a code-cracking maths assignment tucked away in a library book, for instance.

Reality Is Broken is peppered with examples of this sort and McGonigal and other "happiness hackers" can't be accused of peddling pie-in-the-sky wish-lists. It is an intensely optimistic book. Clearly she believes that if human beings can come together to form a raiding party in World of Warcraft, they can collaborate on saving their local library, or brainstorming strategies for a future without oil.

Yet this optimism leads to the book's only significant flaw: it takes little account of the innate resistance that many people have to the notion of games being anything other than the time-wasting obsession of socially awkward saddos. Neither does the author address the problem of "griefers" -- the disruptive few who won't play nicely with others, or who reduce any creative task to the lowest common denominator. At one point, she approvingly mentions the world of Spore, a game for PCs that allows players to evolve their own creatures from a single cell to a space-faring race, and to bring them into a virtual universe shared with others. She does not mention the "penis monster" meme, which led to thousands of creatures being designed to resemble phalluses. Similarly, The Sims Online had trouble in 2005 after one user set up a "virtual brothel".

Overall, however, this is an intriguing and thought-provoking book. And if the worst thing you can say about McGonigal's vision of the future is that she underestimates the human race's obsession with sex and fondness for puerile humour, that's pretty good.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman