A glance at the book ‘Reality is Broken’

(published in 2011, it’s like 5 years old now)

It has been a bit difficult for me to get back into my routine since I’ve returned from my little trip to South Korea. Not that blogging here has been a longstanding routine of mine, … but two days ago I thought I’d look at my list of things to blog about. One thing that caught my eye was writing about the book “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal. I hadn’t read the book, but I’ve watched a couple of her videos. Grand sweeping statements about reality? I’m in! So, for fun I just checked to see if my local college library had it, and surprisingly they did. I picked it up and read it over the last couple days

FYI: This isn’t really a good book review or anything. My brain is like a giant pachinko machine and I hold a book over the top of the machine and shake it. The ideas bounce around the pegs and sometimes they touch my emotions, give me new ideas. At other time I’m rather apathetic. In the case of Reality if Broken, I had a few different reactions. One was jealousy, actually.

In the beginning of the book Jane tells us a little about her background and how she came to be in the games industry. She did, was it a master’s thesis?, on how games can inform the academic world on a great deal of things like government and such. She had extremely supportive faculty and, well, it seemed like she hit a nice slip-stream in her academic career and she took off. As a graduate student, I wanted to be able to not so much apply game design to government practices, but apply various elements that can be found in game design, to government. The idea (and this is nothing new) is ‘citizen experience design’, design that actually doesn’t make a citizen hate dealing with their governmental offices, websites and such. The reason I’m a bit jealous is because she was trying something ‘cutting edge’, at least for the academic world, a notoriously stubborn, bitter world, and many of my ideas were shot down. Many for good reason I admit, but many because of faculty just not pickin up what I was puttin down, y’know? So a begrudging ‘good for her’.  Wow, I’m so salty. So honest so salty.

My life is like the ocean; so honest, so salty. 

Onto the content of the book. The main thrust of the entire book can be summed up for me in a couple small paragraphs of her final chapter on page 348:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It’s unproductive, and hopeless. It’s disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. It’s unambitious. It’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in at least one crucially important way, reality is also better: reality is our destiny.

Basically the entire book spells out how reality sucks and how games are fixing it. But the plot twist is that reality is better! It just needs some ludic lotion to moisturize its itchy irritable crappiness.

She’s obviously talking about social reality being broken, not the ontologically independent reality, like trees and birds and stuff. She’s talking about the reality of money, cars, governments, interstellar war, cyber-sleuthing, beer pong and raving critics. Am I a raving critic right now?

Yes, yes I am!

Of course, what has led us to this ‘broken reality’ are thousands of years of human histories colliding with each other, zillions of theoretical debates and a crap ton of war, treaties, and technological progress. She uses positive psychology to highlight how games are creating optimal experiences for people and the rest of the world should get down with it. The book is an exposition of a rational ideological faith that we can game the world into betterness. That’s cool with me, I mean I’m right there with you that human experience can be improved using great design practices, but…

…Games aren’t the answer.

“Flow” isn’t just found in game-like experiences, it’s also in having a good conversation, talking a nice walk in the park and all sorts of non-gamey stuff. That doesn’t diminish the fact that games bring tons of joy and happiness to people, but its just one point where the elixir of games simply isn’t necessary. In fact, many so-called video games don’t clearly meet her four defining traits of games, yet are actually great fun and joyful. Minecraft doesn’t have a clear goal. She said the goal of Tetris is to keep playing as long as possible. I think this is kind of a stretch because that is a rather subjective goal, not a designed goal. It is a goal that someone has set for themselves. But wait, like most arcade games of the time, there is a high-score list where you can put your initial in. This was the go-to goal of the time for game designers that was assumed to keep people playing and it was clearly put in there on purpose. So Tetris does have a designed goal; getting the highest score. Yet Minecraft, and other sandbox games, don’t have any obvious goal. Craft? Build? Dig as far down as possible and die in lava while trying to mine some diamonds? Nope, not a game. It’s an designed interactive experience, but not really a game. And that’s okay, man.

I ain’t playin to keep playin. I’m in it for the prestige yo!

Designed, crafted, experience for the user is really what shows how much of our social reality can be improved. It just so happens that the game industry is paving the way. I don’t think the future is in video games, but in virtual reality. Not the medium, but actually creating virtual worlds and places that people want to be in with or without game-like elements, with or without story-like elements. And it won’t be the solution to our woes either, but it will point to many of the glaring issues of how our social world is poorly designed for personal enjoyment. Until it gets ruined. Much like the Internet was hailed as the savior of the human race, virtual social worlds, will eventually be at the hands of the power hungry, competing governments and those who want to exploit us. No magic bullet, but the fairy tales keep on coming. So if you think any sort of technology is going to solve the problems of the world, do forget what mom always said: “Life just isn’t fair”. But, I do enjoy a good story.

All in all, I think the main point of the book would fare better as a good 15-20 page essay. The full-on uppercut it attempts to deliver just didn’t quite hit the mark with me. I do appreciate that she wrote it and what it stands for, and I learned a lot from it. There are all sorts of games that people play that I had no idea about. Her personal story was entertaining, inspiring and pretty amazing really. I’m not a big fan of the backbone of the book, but all the little details and stories that went into it made it worth the read.

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