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

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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