Review: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal

>>Published: January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

***

In Reality is Broken, author and game designer Jane McGonigal presents a manifesto that illustrates how games are critical to the advancement of our species and the world—essential even, if we hope to change in order to match the speed and potential of our imaginations. She posits that games are tools by which we can overcome depression, anxiety, feelings of social irrelevance and the lack of self worth that so many of us struggle with as we sit trapped in mundane, closely-choreographed nine-to-five lifestyles. She goes on to suggest that the catharsis games provide at an individual level can be used in a transitory manner to affect genuine, widespread social change.

From the introduction:

If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You have been building up a wealth of virtual experience that, as the first half of this book will show you, can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what makes you happiest. As you’ll see, you have also developed world-changing ways of thinking, organizing, and acting.

I’ve grown up with games as a large part of my life. There were times when games were a far stronger presence than they are today, but they’ve never dominated my existence. They were, and still are, an accentuation—something to trigger my imagination, or to help me relax in ways that a film or a good book just aren’t capable of. Because, as McGonigal writes, we are at are most psychologically sound when we are accomplishing things—when we are working through skill- or mind-based challenges and puzzles—and not simply relaxing. The level of engagement is what makes all the difference, and games provide a level of engagement on a one-to-one basis that no other medium can match.

As McGonigal moves from singular video games and into massively multiplayer games and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), she brings social change and advancement into the equation—the idea that, as productive and detail-oriented as passionate gamers are, should their skills be used in games that can enact real-world change, the results would be immediately noticeable. The possibilities range from affecting social moods and placing gaming’s relevancy into the sights of as many people as possible in the hopes that they will come to understand the benefits of gaming’s psychological and emotional catharsis and problem solving potential, to using gamers to hunt and reveal the criminal actions of politicians through parsing mass amounts of financial data, to bridging the gaps to Third World and underprivileged nations in need of the information we have at our fingertips. Alternate Reality Gaming and massively multiplayer online systems have this potential, should we choose to accept that games are not simply child’s play, and in fact can teach and reveal a great deal about our psychology, what drives us, and how we can use that to strike forward into unparalleled realms of social constructivism. Because:

When enough people play a game, it becomes a massively collaborative study of a problem, an extreme-scale test of potential action in a specific possibility space.

If the future McGonigal conceives does in fact come to pass, it will be a realization of the Global Village concept popularized by Marshall McLuhan, one in which we are all tied to one another not just by technology, but by shared knowledge the depth and detail of which we’ve never before been capable of—because we won’t just be reading about the worlds of others, we’ll be playing in them, manipulating them, and at the same time, enacting real-time change, just as people from around the world will be able to do with our own backyards.

Games don’t distract from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They’re leading us to its reinvention.

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