McGonigal's Reality is Broken: using games to improve the world

Jane McGonigal is one of my favorite thinkers, and it's a delight to have her philosophy neatly distilled to a single book, her just-published debut Reality Is Broken. McGonigal is the leading practicioner in the use of games to motivate people to solve real problems with their lives and with the world.

McGonigal starts from the observation that games compel our attention in great sucking draughts, dropping us into flow-like states in which we compete against the machine and each other -- as well as collaborating -- with all the hours we can find. McGonigal takes us through mechanisms that make games so consuming: a series of tasks that increase in difficulty at a rate that keeps us fully engaged; failure modes that are fun and amusing; activities that feel epic in scale.

Then she walks us through the work that she and her colleagues have done in adapting these mechanisms to real-world tasks -- from the game she devised to help herself with an awful head-injury to mass-scale outdoor events that combine players and passers-by in a series of delightful encounters that make everyone feel great and want to do more.

This is the ground-work -- McGonigal wants us to see that small, voluntary modifications to the already arbitrary rules by which we conduct our affairs (social norms, conventions and laws) can make us work in ways that make us happier, that fill us with motivation, that encourage us to help and value our friends and neighbors.

Then she moves beyond the theoretical and starts to examine the still-nascent field of social participation games that have -- with varying success -- used game-like systems to motivate large groups of people in the service of social causes, giving those people a framework that allows for meaningful participation, mastery, and large-scale collaboration that plays into the things we find inherently stimulating and engaging. Projects like the Guardian's "Investigate Your MP" game that convinced thousands of people to examine and catalog hundreds of thousands of obscure documents, revealing millions of pounds' worth of irregularities in British Parliamentary expense claims.

McGonigal is careful to examine the projects that have failed, and performs expert post-mortem examinations on them, providing clues so that we can avoid their missteps in the future.

Finally, there is a call to arms, a series of more ambitious examples and optimistic hopes for the future of this field. McGonigal is an infectious optimist, and it's hard not to read this book without smiling and even laughing with delight at her wonderful real-world examples.

Fundamentally, McGonigal is talking about systematizing those happy accidents where we find ourselves working in smooth concert with others, filled with satisfaction and purpose, and creating a disciplined approach to reproducing those moments on demand, when they are needed most.

The problem of working well with others is the most important one we as a species have contended with. Successful strategies for collaboration are what make religions, companies, political systems, sports teams and movements work.

As Bruce Sterling says, everything with the potential for good also has the potential for evil. It's certainly conceivable that someone might use McGonigal's techniques to motivate people to do bad things more efficiently and with greater efficacy. Though McGonigal notes how some game designs give rise to more trolling and awful trash-talking than others, overall the book is thin on this subject. I think McGongigal natural optimism would suggest that positive interactions win out over negative ones, all things being equal, and she might be right, but I think it's far from a sure thing.

Still, it'd be a pretty poor world if we abandoned every force for good because it might also be a force for evil. Altogether, Reality is Broken is a force for good: reading it leads you to believe that game-like mechanics might succeed in making us better together, in fields as diverse as conservation, education, play and health.

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

(Thumbnail: Jane McGonigal, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joi's photostream)


  1. I’ve always found her to be a little off putting, as she’s really self congratulatory with her own work – that said, I do like the way she has been pushing people to think of gaming, and its potential to change lives, in new ways.

  2. Sometimes i want to criticize her ultra-positivistic outlook and her incredible optimism towards games. Then again I believe that it is this kind of attitude that allows for new kinds of thinking. And boy has this book got me to think, even though I have so far only read the first 100 pages…

  3. I’m may be a little biased because I work in the industry, but I think this is an incredible example of using games to improve the world:

    Marcus Pierce
    The Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness

    1. I haven’t read the book either, but I couldn’t get through that review. I have little tolerance for people who have to shit all over something just because they don’t like it.

      And from what I’ve seen of her, I don’t think McGonigal deserves to have that kind of vinegar spat at her.

      1. Same here. I have no idea whether the book is good or not, it certainly sounds interesting, but I am certain that whoever wrote that review needs to get laid more.

      2. It is a little provocative, but there’s really no need to be so proxy-offended.

        I’m guessing you don’t read many reviews? Pro-tip: They’re not all positive.

        Also, he makes a lot of very good points.

    2. I haven’t read the book either, but the rant seems to be the work of an erudite idiot who works his thesaurus to death trying to twist his target’s words around.

      Also, there is an undercurrent of misogyny that makes me think he wouldn’t have been nearly so venomous or dismissive had McGonigal had the foresight to have a properly rational male brain.

      1. It seems that a lot of the people complaining about that most interesting review didn’t bother to read it properly.

        IMO it’s a lot more eye-opening than the book appears to be; and simply providing an alternative view-point.

        I’m a lover of games, but I would align myself much more closely with his opinion than hers. She’s self serving an industry she’s directly attached to – it’s pretty basic psychology (something she really does only have a basic grasp of) that she would apply such a great meaning to the work that she does.

        Aggressive, yes; but the man’s from NY, not Florida for crying out loud. Put your crocodile tears away folks.

  4. I just put this book on hold at my local library. Huzzah! I guess I’ll have to judge it for myself, that review posted by DixieFlatline was intense.

  5. The link in the article is to the hardback version. At least in the UK, the paperback is just out (and I’ve ordered it).

  6. There is something inspiring in the observation that the desire to play can be such a powerful motivator in our lives.

  7. From what I understood in an interview I saw, she develops games for a living. I can see why she would think that the world is a better place and that 3 billion people should be gaming.

  8. The edrants review was one of the strangest I have ever read. I felt as though its author was looking for a convenient combination strawman/whipping boy and found it, or rather her, in this publication. I am not certain if he dislikes gaming, the author of the book or the operations of the universe.I,too, have read the book and found it quite interesting as an explanation of the gaming phenomenon with which I am not really that familiar as I am of an age when gaming meant puting a dime in a pinball machine and promising not to tilt the table. As a teacher I hoped to learn more about games as a means to engage my students in the learning process. I have found that my students do play games and there are games out there made for the classroom that fit in well within the curriculum. Will games replace a good lecture or discussion or textbooks? I don’t think so but seem to me to be an effective ancillary addition to the instruction. I don’t believe the author of Reality Is Broken makes any grandiose claims that games will overturn traditional instruction, just that they can help motivate otherwise unengaged students. By the way I did try to play a game she helped create called World Without Oil. My students actually became quite engaged in the game, that is until the school administration literally pulled the plug and had the net nanny screen out the game from student access. No, I don’t think gaming will help us achieve nirvana in this world, but I don’t know of any other activity that will. I do not think it warrented, however, that edrants should blast Jane for saying that gaming will do that. She simply says that turning mundane activities into games is usefull and that gaming just might enable people to be more creative in problem solving. Her assertion that gaming could be used to solve some, not all, just some, mega problems ought not to be dismissed out of hand. The game of Evoke which she also helped create may have had real tangible beneficial outcomes for some of the Africans who played that game. No, Evoke did not end the drought in the Sudan or remove Mugabe from power but perhaps it did create a modest irrigation project in Kenya or an agricultural co-op in Zambia and if it did only that what is the harm in playing the game? As for the notion that gaming attracts the emotionally unbalanced, I would like to see a study of who is attracted to some of the other recreational activities people engage in, from binge buying to stock car racing to writing blogs. It might well turn out that gaming is no more of an outlet for the unstable as some other popular activities people engage in. To assert that gaming has become the opiate of the people is an asserion based on tenuous evidence. If I read Reality is Broken correctly, again admitedly as a non gamer, I would simply say that Jane makes a good arguement for games to be more than just fun, that they have the potential to unleash an individual’s creativity and they just may be able to improve the lot of mankind in ways we have not yet fully explored. I don’t think that’s a bad thesis for a book and not a bad idea to contemplate.

  9. I’m a gamer, and currently find myself being a teacher as well (teaching English in Korea). And this is awesome.

    I’m constantly finding new ways to motivate my students, trying to design games better than the frillion Jeopardy! clones I played in grade school. Just played one with my students based off of League of Legends (or DoTA, if you’re oldschool) and it worked so insanely well, it motivated a 2nd grader who’s never had a moment of interest in English all year. He’s now my most advanced student (on the subject of prepositions); he’s always first with the answer now, and prepositions are the first English words he’s every been able to read (which he does fluently).

    I’m currently working on structuring my class off the same neurological and statistical principles that makes World of Warcraft fun, and designing a variant of Magic: the Gathering that will teach vocabulary and English Grammar.

  10. I loved her TED talk, and when I showed it to a bunch of teenagers I was teaching on an academic enrichment summer course they loved it too. I’d never seen them that enthusiastic about anything. I watched the video several times and every time I felt like jumping on my chair and cheering.

    I was also reminded of Cory’s “whuffie” from “Magic Kingdom,” and how that acted as a kind of video game in real life. I thought, listening to McGonigal speak, that the missing link was virtual reality — to help get digital world break out of glowing rectangles and escape into the “real world.”

  11. I think the edrants review, although overly hostile, points to some of the dangers lurking in McGonigal’s thesis.

    The power of rewards and “epic wins” in a social context are huge, but are seldom forces for good. It’s very easy to ignore the reality of a situation when you overlay it with powerful reward mechanisms. The drug correlation may be harsh, but it gets the point across.

    If an individual defines goals and works towards them, they may run contrary to the norm and never have the satisfaction of unlocking achievements. A truly noble society must be open to achievements that don’t fit the status quo.

    I think McGonigal makes a very important point about how games play a fundamental role in developing as a collaborative and engaged society. I just think she skims over the important step of learning to define goals and think critically about the goals that are set before us.

  12. As a game designer, I like Jane’s enthusiasm, but most of her games have been pretty unsuccessful. It’s mostly her incredible gift of gab that has covered her tracks.

    When playing Urgent Evoke or World Without Oil I kept asking myself if I was having fun or not, or if I was going out and doing what both games were asking of me in my physical life (games are real too guys). Most of the time, I wasn’t having a great time. It was interesting, but I’ll leave it at that. And neither game, though they may have expanded my world view, changed how I live my day to day life.

    If you had fun, look at who else had fun as well. Evoke has only had roughly 140 players who have completed the entire game – World Without Oil though containing 1900 users, only 1500 stories were uploaded, and many stories were written the same users.

    Just for some contrast, has had 190,327 submissions (flash videos/games/art/music). Though not a game in itself, most of the uploads are, and most of those are collaborations between users.

    I don’t like McGonigal’s overall idea that playing too many traditional videogames fundamentally bad. This is like saying reading a book is bad, but if you read it out-loud to your friends, it’s good. This may be true for Go Dog’s Go, but it’s not so great for Motherless Brooklyn.

    I admire McGonigal’s gift, and her optimism, and I love hearing her talk – I’m just disappointed by how quickly she grabs the attention of non-gamedesigners, and those outside of the field, and directs them towards her own work, rather than at lot of the great examples that have come before her.

    I haven’t read her book, but I have played a few of her Larps, and have played WWO and Evoke, and have watched many videos of her online; this post isn’t commenting on her book so much as it’s commenting on my experience with other peoples experiences with Jane McGonigal.

  13. McGonigal’s optimism is certainly admirable and contagious, but also reality-defying. I’d love her to be right, but I don’t think she is. At least, not on her most radical points.

    I do believe in the power of games, and there are certainly a lot of valuable skills that can be learned in games. Lots of articles have already been written about kids learning some serious CEO-level skills managing their guilds on WoW and similar games, for example.

    I think there are plenty of other ways in which games can shape the way we think and learn, and that’s not just a powerful tool, but also a big risk. Because we are already shaping our minds with them, without having thought about where we want to go.

    And creating a game that accomplishes something useful and is still fun is hardly a trivial task. We mostly just discover by accident that some forms of fun and useful skills go together, like WoW and management/cooperation, or deep strategy games and analysis/thinking from your opponent’s point of view. Learning games for kids can be awesome too.

    But fixing reality itself through games? That’s quite a few steps beyond learning some tactical skills.

  14. I’m looking forward to reading this book. McGonigal’s previous work based on the ARG I Love Bees,

    was a really wonderful combination of constructivist theories of learning, and Levy’s theory of collective intelligence.

    As for the hatchet job review, it just feels like the guy doesn’t really understand the type of game McGonigal is talking about. That, or in this book McGonigal extends her basic thesis about cooperative learning out to ‘normal’ video games–that would be a stretch.

    Oh, and I’ll just leave this here:

  15. I noticed the link to this article from the front page’s right hand nav column. The image is of a woman wearing a knit face mask and before I never would have thought anything of it, but after attending Stitches West in Santa Clara this past weekend I recognized the face mask as a pattern released by Handknit Heroes.

    I’m curious why the image was chosen to link to this article since the two don’t really relate (to me anyway). Or was it just chosen at random?

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