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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism