Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review - Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

I recently finished reading Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, and unlike most other books I read I feel like this one could be worth commenting on, especially since it's about one of our favorite subjects - games. If you've never heard of McGonigal, Wikipedia will tell you that;

"Jane McGonigal, Ph.D. (born 1977) is a game designer, games researcher, and author, specializing in pervasive gaming and alternate reality games (ARGs). (...) Recently, McGonigal has grown especially interested in the way that alternate reality games and massively multiplayer online gaming generate collective intelligence, and interested in the way that the collective intelligences generated can be utilized as a means of improving the world, either by improving the quality of human life or by working towards the solution of social ills. She has expressed a desire that gaming should be moving "towards Nobel Prizes."[1] McGonigal has been called "the current public face of gamification".[2]"

My first encounter with her ideas was when I was writing a chapter for a book in pedagogy aimed at helping teachers (and other people in a teaching position) to know how they could use childrens internet usage to their advantage in a teaching environment. What I found then was a lecture on where she spoke about what is mentioned above, her desire to learn how we can harness the creative power and will to "do stuff" that people seemingly possess in near infinite amounts, to the benefit of mankind. I was intrigued by the idea, but didn't think much of it until my mom sent me this book, in which McGonigal discusses her ideas in more detail. So what did I think of it?

The Good
Like I said, I think the concept of trying to turn all the creative power of humankind into something useful is extremely interesting. Right now, we have millions of people who spend countless of working hours doing things for no other reason than that they can. We've got all the people who spend time writing blogs (like me), doing vlogs, creating memes and all the other things that the internet is filled with and that keeps us entertained on a daily basis, with no other reward than knowing that other people are interested in what I am doing. I don't even know how many hours I've put into this blog of my spare time, and all for free. I do it because it is fun, of course, and to me it is as if I would be playing WoW or do any other thing that I do just for fun. One could perhaps question the practical value of a blog like mine. It makes me happy to write, and hopefully some of you people happy to read, but does it really help people more than that? Some people instead spend countless hours creating things of more practical value like Wikipedia or all and any free source-code out there. While at the same time we don't spend very much time doing our homework, cleaning our apartment or helping people in need. What is the difference between blogging and cleaning? This is really what McGonigal is trying to get to. She thinks that if we could make anything as fun as whatever we enjoy the most, we'd be able to harness all that creative and working force that people has and put it into practical use, into something that could benefit all of mankind. This is something that I have been discussing before as well.

McGonigal argues that constantly doing stuff is what people want to do. There is really no one out there who prefers to sit around and do nothing. When we have time to do things we want to do, as opposed to being forced to do things we don't really want to do, we choose to play games, meet with friends, watch movies, write blog posts and so on. These are all things that take time and effort, only we choose to do them. This is one of the biggest differences between fun work and boring work according to McGonigal, and although it seems obvious it really does makes all the difference. It's not the amount of work, how much time it takes, how stressful it is, that we have a lot of responsibility or any of the other things we normally associate with work that are the defining factor for "boring work". We enjoy all of the above as long as it is work we have chosen for ourselves. We can put on a butt load of work for ourselves, like clearing a raid instance, as long as it's fun. We don't mind that it takes time (again raiding, or the amount we spend with any game if we feel like it), if it's fun. Raiding can be plenty stressful, and I know I've had my heart racing like crazy a lot of times when we're damn near a difficult kill, I have to do everything right and 9/24 other people depend on me. It all really comes down to whether we want to do it or not, and McGonigal argues that what we consider "fun" is arbitrary enough to be anything, if only presented in the right way. We could make cleaning fun, we could make doing homeworks fun, we could make saving the world fun.

In many ways, I think McGonigal is on to something. I am constantly amazed by human teamwork, from the everyday things like 50 workers erecting a new building in my town or an orchestra where every one person has an important part of the whole but they all need eachother to get it done, to the more majestic human collaborative accomplishments like the already mentioned Wikipedia or actually just about anything created by people for other people just because (I am still amazed that no matter how obscure a game I happen to play, there is always at least someone who has spent countless hours writing a walkthrough to it) . It sounds cheesy, but it is a truly beautiful thing to see in action (and what would internet be without it?). The old saying "money is what makes the world turn" seems further and further from the truth. On a less beautiful note we've actually seen this kind of work in action plenty of times, although rarely voluntarily, but sometimes at least disguised as a game - in Communist China the Communist Party used to issue "games" for youngsters to participate in, in which they would do the society some good while also having fun (or so they said) and most importantly, try to become the best in that game. That could be anything from trying to find as much iron as possibe, killing as many flies or sparrows as possible or finding as many anti-communists as possible. McGonigal actually takes this one step further, what if you could turn a suicide bomber into a happiness "bomber" (p316), who spreads joy instead of sadness? Couldn't it be possible to turn that angry power into happy power?

I definitely think that corporations and institutions should consider using this "power" more often when they need help or when something needs to be done. My mom (again) showed me a link to a site powered by the University of Oxford in which they ask the public (that is you) to help them decipher ancient Greek on old Papyruses. Because they have thousands and thousands of snippets of papyrus, but only so many people who can read old Greek, it would take them years to get the job done. But hang on a second, you say, I don't read Ancient Greek! Well, you don't have to. All you have to do is look at a snippet, see if you can find any symbols and then mark it - quite like the captcha works actually. This way the real Ancient Greek readers will know which snippets are worth looking at and also what might be on them. To you, it could be a fun little puzzle game, to them you're saving them a whole lot of time. McGonigal has many more examples like these in her book with games more or less aimed at using the vast amount of people on the internet and the old saying that "someone has always done it". People shouldn't underestimate the amount of people out there who will do anything to get away from the "boring work" for a little while. Even if it's another kind of work. You just really have to present it in the right way. Unlike McGonigal I don't think people do it for some need to do the "right thing", but simply because they feel like it, because it is there. That's exactly why you need to present it like a game in the first place. If doing the right thing was all that was needed, we wouldn't even need this kind of idea and McGonigal would be out of a job.

The Bad
Although I really did enjoy the overall concept of McGonigals idea, there were still plenty of stuff that bothered me while reading the book. I'll mention them as I remember them.

Games are better than Life
McGonigal presents a couple of "truths" that act as a foundation to the ideas she later on produce, and I don't agree with all of them. The one that bothered me the most is when she tells us that games, in a sense, are better than reality, because reality is all about "fake rewards". She tells us that according to a study conducted by the University of Rochester, aimed to find the difference between extrinsic (outside) and intrinsic (inside) rewards, they found that;

"the attainment of extrinsic, or 'American Dream', goals - money, fame and being considered physically attractive by others - does not contribute to happiness at all" p46. 

In essence, we're not happy about things that are fun, unless they're fun just for being fun. If I lost you somewhere there, I can tell you it only sounds like more mumbojumbo when you read the book. The worst part is probably when McGonigal tells us that;

"We only ever play because we want to. Games don't fuel our appetite for extrinsic rewards: they don't pay us, they don't advance our careers and they don't help us accumulate luxury goods" p50.

Has McGonigal ever played a game? To me, the above things are exactly what games do, and exactly why they are so much fun. Through games we can achieve all these "extrinsic" rewards easily, while in real life they're usually difficult to attain. And that is really the difference between them, not that the one holds some sort of "better" form of happiness. Let's just look at WoW as an example - we accumulate luxury goods and get constantly paid in all the gear and money that are thrown at us, and everyone aims at advancing their careers either through succesful raiding or pvping. Even a player who only levels a character a couple of levels will have attained all of the above. And most games follow this formula - they allow us to attain rewards in a constant and clear manner. McGonigal lists the four intrinsic rewards that are most essential to our happiness: satisfying work, the experience (or hope) of being succesful, social connection and meaning. All sound like stuff you're looking for in real life? I'm not saying that they can't be difficult to obtain outside of games, that's exactly why games are so popular, because they're easier to get in games. But that doesn't mean you can't obtain these things in real life, or that when you get it, it would be some sort of "fake" happiness. The real problem is more often that we don't really know what we want, but only think we know what we want and chase the wrong kind or unattainable goals. This happens in games all the time too, in fact games are far from always just about fun, but then we always have to choice to simply put it away (or disband the guild). Indeed, it is the choice that makes the difference, but that's it.

In the last page of the book she finishes;

"Games don't distract us from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences and positive strengths". (p354)

What bothers me about this isn't necessarily that McGonigal dismisses activities like wanting to become popular among your friends as "fake" happiness and wanting to brag about your new epic mount to your friends as "true" happiness (after all, the research says it's so and it's always right), but that she says there is a difference between these two kinds of happiness. The gaming industry, and more specifically gamers, have fought since the late 70's to be considered a part of the normal entertainment system. In sweden we fight to have games considered culture as much as movies and literature. We don't want to be considered less, but we don't want to be considered more either. Going out and saying that real life can't satisfy our needs and that we can only find true happiness in games is like when feminists go out and say men should pay special tax because they're usually the most violent. That's shooting way off target and it definitely won't have people with disbeliefs think any more of us gamers. We don't play games because they're better than real life, we play them because they are like real life and because so much in real life works like games do. I'm guessing that people who feel bad about getting money, fame and physical attractiveness are people who are just plain sad (seriously, who can be sad about those things), and they wouldn't be much better off in a game either.

What McGonigal is really talking about is how games make us mindful of our rewards, of course - this is a typical approach of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and good old mindfulness. Games help us point out that we did something good, and help us pick ourselves up when we fail - these are tools we can use anywhere and not some property unique to games. It's ironic because what she's really after is to make people understand that games are more than just escapist entertainment (p349), but she takes it so far that she actually comes out like saying gaming is the best way to spend any kind of spare time, and the best way to do things generally.

It also annoys me when someone writes about a topic, and then somehow manages to only mention one brand within that topic. It feels so much like a misplaced advertisement that it disturbs my reading. If I was reading a book on how milk could make you a better person, I don't want the author to mention only one brand of milk producers - unless only that type of milk will make me a better person. McGonigal does this when she discusses how various music games can allow us to connect with other people and live out our dream to become rock stars. Somehow she manages to only mention Rock Band in this context, although a game like Guitar Hero is basically the same (and there are a bunch of other games with similar design that could be mentioned as well). In the entire book, Guitar Hero is barely mentioned, while Rock Band gets an entire subchapter. It makes no sense. Especially since Guitar Hero has sold just about four times as much as Rock Band and was released first. Spore, which wasn't even that good, is another example of a game that gets too much space for my comfort. If there is some reason to this (like GH being published by Activision and she thinks they are bastards that don't deserve recognition) I would like to know about it, otherwise it feels like I can tell pretty easily whom she got her funding money from.

Towards the end of the book McGonigal gets a little too fond of the big pretty words and concepts. She starts throwing around terms like how we can save a doomed world from almost certain demise (not exactly like that, but in essence). In fact she's got an entire chapter named - Saving the real world together. I realize this is what she probably was aiming at with the entire book - how can we use this creative force to actually help, like really, really help? But as soon as you start using phrases like "we can break free of the cognitive chains of the short-term isolated thinking, with games that direct our collective attention to the future and challenge us to take the global perspective" (p301) and "clearly we were embarking on a decade of extreme-scale challenges: economic collapse, pandemics, climate change, the continuing risk of global terrorism, and distruptions to our global food supply chain, to name just a few. (...) Our hunch for surviving the next decade would require entirely new ways of cooperating, coordinating, and creating together". (p318) it makes me cringe and think about those flashy ads saying "single girls in your hometown, only a credit card number away!" or "you can also get happy and rich, with this simple 10-step method!". It's too extreme, it's promising or wanting too much. It's what Jerry Bruckheimer would write if he produced a book.

She is talking about "surviving the next decade" like if some huge ship loads of aliens had just landed or like the Zombie Apocalyps truly was upon us. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot that needs to be fixed in our world, and I think using multi-games to make people interested into caring could be a very good way to do something about it. But let's not overdo it, shall we. It will only make people take the whole idea less seriously when you try to cover the real ideas in words like "Make a difference now". That is exactly what we've already been hearing all our lives, we're reading this book to see what we can do about it. It is as if McGonigal was worried we wouldn't bother with this concept unless we could truly change the lives of the entire planet, and preferrably within the next decade. She forgets that the people that really are worried and really care are the ones already out there doing a difference (maybe like her). The rest of us will only get turned off by challenges like these - we prefer to sit in our comfy homes and do a little good now and then, we don't want to be the saviors of the world. That is exactly the point of bringing in a game to allow us to have fun and (in the background) help people at the same time. And would it be so horrible if this concept didn't involve saving the entire planet from certain demise? Would that be the only thing that makes it worthwhile?

It's unecessary, because McGonigal actually offers a bunch of really interesting ideas for how you could practically put this into use, and I don't want her to cover it up in "sure we can do this, but most importantly, we can save lives!". One of my favorites is the Groundcrew, which basically is a site on which anyone can post a wish and anyone can fulfill that wish. McGonigal gives the example with a woman at work who desperately needs a latte - someone reads her wish, happens to be in the neighbourhood and comes by with a latte. Now this would be a really cool way to use the wanna-do-good of other people who have some spare time. Another idea (that I had heard of before) is the folding@home where Stanford University gets to use the ps3 computer power of players when they weren't using their consoles (unfortunately that too was advertised with phrases like "It's time to do your part for humanity" and announcements like "PS3 gamers are trying to save the world!" Can't just let it be about folding proteins, can you?) (p239). Or like when she tells us how she got through an awful concussion by playing her days like a game (again about mindfulness). There is nothing wrong with allowing an idea to start off small and then escalate. Or letting it be about what it is instead of trying to hausse it as the mankind-saving solution of a millenia.

The Verdict
In the end I'm not sure what to say about the book. Like I mentioned I really like the idea, and I'm fascinated to read about how it has been put to use, and could be put to use in the future. On the other hand, there is much about the presentation that I don't like. McGonigal is obviously deeply engaged in this concept, and I don't blame her. But in some instances I feel like she want it to sound so much better than it is. I think there is great potential in this concept, and definitely something worth spending more time into analyzing how it could be best put to use, but the nearly religious aura that covers the book does put me off. I often don't agree at all with her interpretation of the result of some of the research she presents in the book (as mentioned above), and that does of course make it more difficult for me to just accept everything else she says too. I love the parts where she gets into specific examples about how the concept has been used (and what result has been given), but I dislike the parts where she gets unfoundedly (in my meaning) enthusiastic about its implications.

So, the benefit of the book is that you get a run down on some of the games developed with this concept in mind, which definitely was interesting in case you're into knowing more about this subject. I must admit it did have me ponder some ideas for myself, how to get me to do stuff I don't enjoy doing and things like it (not that I actually did anything about it in the end, but still). But otherwise I think you get as good an idea of the concept as a whole by watching one of McGonigals lectures than reading an entire book about it. Ironically, McGonigal mentions herself that the book medium isn't a very good one to convey this kind of idea, because most people read about it, nod to themselves, put the book away and forget all about it - or in any case, they won't actually do anything about it. That is probably true, and unfortunately probably what I will do too.


  1. And through the entire post all I could think was: Where dose Harry Potter come in to all of this?

  2. Urgh, gamification, definitely not my cup of tea. I agree to what you're getting at, that it promises too much.

    I havn't gone that far into it, but one of the issues I have with is that it falls within the extrinsic motivation bucket way too quickly. Businesses think of it as this sheet of fun you can pull over any kind of boring labour and it will fix it.
    When applied it seems to end up just trying to give you points for ... random stuff.
    I think WoWhead has an achievement system in place that awards you achievements for posting on the forum, DING! Amazing, huh?
    Doesn't it just make you want to skill up your virtual wowhead persona and get another achievement?

  3. "clearly we were embarking on a decade of extreme-scale challenges: economic collapse, pandemics, climate change, the continuing risk of global terrorism, and distruptions to our global food supply chain, to name just a few. (...) Our hunch for surviving the next decade would require entirely new ways of cooperating, coordinating, and creating together". (p318)

    I am not sure how an Orc yelling "For the Horde!" can actually help with this.

    It amuses me that she, and others woudl put it in this perspective. Its almost as if she is saying if everyone played the world would be a better place.

    Has she ever stepped foot in Azeroth. At this point even if all the Goverment high mucka mucks started to play to learn to be better, they would be labeled noobs, ridiculed, and run out of Ogrimmar.

    I am nto sure how much better online gaming can help things get. Anyone who has played WoW for the past 4 or 5 years can tell you it has become a much more viscious place.

    Yes there are still decent folks, but overall it has seriously become a much worse place as people will say and do things to others in game they would seriously think twice about doing face to face in the real world.

    Yes people have to work together to raid and what not, but these are the guilds who do this the best, and even then I KNOW that all guildies dont even like eachother in game. Outside of a raid there are ppl who really dont even speak to one another even in the same guild.

    And PS3 players saving the world? I am nto sure how John Madden 2012 or Call of Duty can do that.


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. (After posting previous comment, I realized the tone I used might have been insulting, so I tried to rewrite it not to be.)

    I'm not sure if I understood it well but it seems as if you said her book dismissed gamification at one moment?

    Regarding rewards, I would say each activity can award any (or none) of three types of rewards:
    1) Intrinsic, i. e. the activity is fun in itself without offering any rewards (or any obvious ones).
    2) Extrinsic
    2.1) Useful items (I'm not sure whether it's the right word), i. e. something that provides a certain benefit.
    2.2) Luxury items which do not provide any benefit besides impressing people who get impressed by luxury items.

    I think that the primary focus of work is 2.1 and 2.2 is secondary. 1 is less important - that doesn't mean that work isn't fun (it is for some people, it might be even most of the time) but the primary focus is the useful items IMO.

    For games... I would say that originally games were meant for the intrinsic rewards - on the other hand, while writing this post I realized the MMOs (especially the old ones) did contain quite a lot of useful rewards ("you need to level to X to be allowed to the 'real game' and also farm Y hours per hour of 'real game' for your character to be effective") and luxury ones (titles, gear etc.).

    Even after reconsidering, I still think that the main focus of games is the intrinsic fun unlike work which concentrates on the useful rewards, however it might be wishful thinking.

  6. Really interesting post that makes me want to read the book or at least watch some of the lectures. The whole idea of intrinsic v extrinsic rewards is fascinating. Companies talk about reward & recognition programmes all the time, but for me they only work if they are based on intrinsic rewards. Often extrinsic ones (on a budget!) seem lame & cheesy. In a game in my opinion the sense of achievement we get is normally not through something extrinsic & tangible (eg real money in a real bank) but symbolic and virtual (eg pixel money in a pixel bank). It makes us happy because we have done something to earn it - it is a recognition of our worth, but has no practical value in the real world. But it can help us progress in the virtal world so is a virtual extrinsic reward - but that sense of worth can make us feel valued in the real world - a real intrinsic reward. I think virtual worlds and online gaming is starting to need its own vocabulary!!

  7. @Hartland
    Harry Potter? o.O

    Yeah, that's the risk as I see it too. If they make everything about games, we'll sort among that too. In the end we'll -always- choose and maybe there just isn't a way to control those choices? But can't hurt to try perhaps...

    Indeed, as more and more of us live our lives on the internet and in games (nothing wrong with that) maybe we will take our extrinsic rewards into our gaming world, much as we already have. People can obviously be plenty douchebag in WoW <.<

    @Imakulata & Bravetank
    Don't worry! As long as a post is constructive I am happy :) You don't need to agree with me at all, in fact maybe that would make things a little boring ;) you could be right in that older games are more about intrinsic rewards. Take a game like Tetris, we get happy about getting better and better at it. But in what way does this happiness, or sense of accomplishment really differ in how we feel when we beat a deadline, get done with the dishes or any other of the tasks we set for ourselves? Are we really talking about two different forms of gratification? I don't think so, I even think they couldn't be or we wouldn't even care with games in the first place. It's not like nature gave us a special "game enjoyment" centre in the brain, did i? Reality just presents problems and rewards in a different way, and it seems we prefer the game presentation most of the time.

  8. @Nelthie
    To get viewers and more traffic, I'd recommend you to engage yourself in the WoW blogging community, find some posts others have written that you feel inspired by and write a reply to them.

    So if you want Zinn to link to you, I'd say get in a dialogue with her writing (which is easy with a blogger like her) and at some point I'm sure she'll be curious enough to check your blog out.

    That's just my advice :)

  9. I know there is an "i" in her name but I still read McGongall (as in Harry's teacher).

    About gamification... I don't really know. It is a fact however that it easy to learn what we think is fun and can take an active interest. And wouldn't it would be wonderful if we could tap in to creativeness the way we fold proteins at home?

  10. I was reading up on some old SMBC comics and found this. It made me think about this blog post so here it is.

  11. In WoW we typically have set goals we are trying to accomplish. How many people run instances/raids over and over to get that one special piece of gear or weapon. How many dailies have been done to get that special mount or pet. How many jp/hp have been collected to buy that piece of gear. We grind away to get to a set goal. It is not always fun but we do it and in the long run we enjoy it.

    The problem with real world goals is were to draw the line. How rich is rich enough or how attractive is attractive enough. How many real world people have you seen that just keep getting righer and richer with no sign of stopping. Or how many celebrities (and not so much) nowadays have so many plastic surgeries they begin to look like freaks.

    I think the reason we like games is because we strive for an attainable goal and reach it (which makes up happy). In real life that goal is never really attainable.