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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser