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)