Books: Reality Is Broken

August 12, 2017

I was intrigued enough by the title of this audiobook, Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Change Us and Make the World a Better Place, that I decided to listen to it, even though the title also provoked negative feelings in me toward the book and its author. Reality is broken? Really? And games are going to make it better?

The book is very interesting (and since I listen to audiobooks while I drive, they don’t have to be quite as interesting as printed books that I can easily put down in favor of something else), but I found myself constantly struggling to keep an open mind as I listened. McGonigal makes some good points about why we enjoy games, but I am less convinced about some of the ways she thinks games can make the world a better place.

The first part of the book explains why games, especially computer and video games, are so satisfying. We tend to think of games as “fun” as opposed to work, but in fact many games involve activities that would be considered work in a different context. Is there really anything inherent fun about dribbling a basketball? Finding ways to make shapes fit together? Assembling letters into words? These take effort and attention, and if you had a job where you were being paid to do these things, you’d probably get tired of them at some point.

But in a game, we take on such activities by choice, so long as the game matches our abilities and interests. I’ve never cared for basketball (I did make a real effort to learn it as a teenager, but my lack of physical coordination made it unpleasant work rather than fun), but I have spent hours happily manipulating shapes in Tetris or assembling letters into words in games such as Scrabble or Boggle.

We actually welcome games that challenge us to work harder. What makes the difference is that the obstacles we face in games are ones we choose rather than being required to do them, and we have reason to anticipate success in the games that we choose (obviously I do not choose to play basketball). If we are matched against an opponent of a similar skill level, winning will never be easy but we keep playing because we know it is within reach, if we just keep reaching for it. (And if a game is consistently too easy or too hard, we’ll quit playing and find a better one.)

In traditional (non-digital) games, it may be hard to find that well-matched opponent in a game that uses the skills we’re good at and enjoy. But in computer and video games, the program is able to constantly monitor our performance and make the game harder as we get better, so we’re always playing at the edge of our abilities. (At least in a well-designed game, and these days there are lots of them out there.)

Of course, there also have to be clear objectives and clear rules on how to achieve them, and a good feedback system so that you know how well you’re doing, how much progress you are making toward your goal. Again, digital games are very good at providing feedback, often using both visual and auditory cues.

McGonigal talks about the idea of “flow,” an experience of being completely absorbed in an activity. Non-digital games often have lots of pauses, such as when you wait for an opponent or teammate to take a turn, and even an enjoyable game can get dull if you have to spend too much time waiting. But digital games generally keep you doing something constantly, so it’s easy to get into a state of flow. Even if you lose, you just start over and try again.

Looking at games from this perspective, it’s easy to see why people may choose to spend hours playing computer and video games. It’s challenging and rewarding, even if the reward is simply the satisfaction to achievement within the game. And it gives us a chance to experience flow, which many of us rarely experience in “real life.”

I thought about some of the activities that I enjoy most, and realized how much being completely absorbed in the activity is a part of why I like them. The kind of exercise I enjoy most is running, perhaps because it involves my whole body, and even though there is nothing intellectually stimulating about it, I quickly become tired enough that I just focus on keeping myself going and don’t have energy left to feel bored. (But unfortunately my knees and feet no longer deal well with the pounding and I have to find other, less satisfying, types of exercise.)

When I read, on the other hand, my body has nothing to do, but my mind is so absorbed in the story that I am only marginally aware of anything going on outside the book. (Watching TV, on the other hand, rarely gets me that absorbed, which is perhaps why I happily gave up watching TV years ago.)

My job involves creating reports by writing SQL queries, and when I have a challenging project I’m working on, trying to find the right way to structure the query to get the data that has been requested, or trying to figure out why I’m not getting the results I expected, I am completely absorbed in the task and thoroughly enjoy it. My co-workers sometimes apologize for giving me difficult requests, and I’m not sure they really believe me that I enjoy those projects most.

So what do we do with those insights about what makes computer games satisfying? McGonigal says we need to have a more positive view of games, and recognize that they are producing real-world benefits by giving people positive feelings that they don’t get from real-world activities. She suggests finding ways to make real life more game-ful, and the second part of the book describes some examples.

One is a computer game set in the airport, designed to be played at airports on mobile devices. McGonigal cites it as a way to improve real life by giving flying-phobic people an enjoyable distraction from the stress of air travel. It sounds like a well-designed game, doing what games do well. I prefer to read while traveling, but playing a computer game is a perfectly good alternative to fill those hours, if that’s what people enjoy. This may be a better game than some others to play in an airport, but any good game can fill that purpose. I’d do crossword puzzles or Sudoku if I didn’t have a good book handy.

Another example she gives is a charter school where they structure learning in such a way that students are challenged in areas where they can be confident of success, as in computer games, rather than bored with busywork or discouraged by work that is too hard, as so often happens in schools. Instead of giving traditional letter grades where students do well or poorly on a unit and then go on to another, regardless of how well they learned the previous one, students “level up” the way players do in computer games.

It must have been challenging to put that curriculum together, but I have long thought that schools would do much better at educating children with that approach. Why make everyone who happened to be born the same year learn the same lessons at the same pace, when some clearly could go faster and others need a lot of review? Schools sometimes do use “tracks” to group students of similar ability in a subject, but even in those tracks, some students will still be bored and others will struggle and get discouraged. I’m glad to know that at least that school managed to find a way to make a better approach work.

When it comes to some of the other examples, though, I fail to see how the games really improve things. McGonigal describes a game she created to help herself in recovering from a concussion. She found it hard to ask friends or family for help, but when it was framed as a game she found it much easier to ask them to do something in the “game” that would help her, and she found it easier to motivate herself to do things that would help her healing.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it seems to me that it would be better to learn how to ask people for help without needing the excuse of a game, and how to motivate oneself without needing to invent “missions” and “superpowers.” In another example, McGonigal talked about how people find it “hokey” to try to follow the advice of psychologists who tell us that it will make us happier when we compliment people or do kind things for them.

Personally I find the game she talks about a lot more hokey. Perhaps there are lots of people who would be motivated by pretending that they are secret agents, that ordinary activities are “missions,” and being able to keep “leveling up.” It doesn’t sound at all appealing to me.

The third part of the book is all about using online collaboration to tackle real-world problems. This part has less to do with games, and is more about how playing multiplayer online games supposedly has given people greater ability at collaborating. I found this part the least convincing.

People who have played a lot of computer games may be more comfortable using technology than people whose experience with computers has been struggling to get a word processor or spreadsheet to work, but I did not hear any evidence that they really had better skill at collaborating. People who want to work together and to invest their time and effort at working to solve problems will find a way to do it. Technology can certainly help with communications, but I’m not sure how much games have to do with it.

In short, I just don’t agree with her premise that “reality is broken.” I kept telling myself she couldn’t believe it either, she just used it as a metaphor for how we can learn from games. But as she kept talking about “fixes” for reality, and how playing games more would make for a better world, I wasn’t sure.

A review by another game designer agrees that reality is a mess, but disagrees about it being broken, and points out that we don’t get to fix it. “It’s flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning,” he says. “Reality is alright.” Another article offers a critique of her ideas which points out some of the drawbacks of the push for gamification.

There are plenty of good ways to incorporate game elements into our lives. Every evening I use Duolingo to help me practice languages I have already studied (French, Spanish, and most recently German), and to learn a little bit of Welsh. My husband has always wanted to learn Welsh, and this seemed like something we could do together. Unfortunately he was disappointed with Duolingo’s course because it uses the pronunciation of southern Wales, and he wanted to learn the northern dialect. But having started the course, I’m keeping up with it, just because I like learning languages.

Duolingo incorporates some game elements, such as giving “experience points” and letting you know when you “level up.” I also earn points called “lingots” which I can spend in the site’s virtual store, but there’s not much there that interests me and I have more lingots than I know what to do with. If you think you know a lesson (from previous study of the language), you can try to test out. You get three “hearts,” which are like “lives” in many games, where each time you get the answer wrong you lose one, and when you’re out of them and get another answer wrong, you’ve lost.

What I do like is the immediate feedback, both visual and audio, when I get an answer right or wrong. I also like being able to use hints (by hovering over a word I’m not sure of), though I try not to use them too much. To me these features are just good design, not “game” aspects of the program, but it may well be that games helped the designers get this program right. I’ve tried other language-learning software but I like Duolingo better. Not because I earn XP or level up, but because I can study at a rate that is challenging but not too hard. Just how McGonigal says a good game works.


Books: The Boys in the Bunkhouse

July 13, 2017

When I saw The Boys in the Bunkhouse in the library and read on the back cover what it was about, I vaguely remembered having read about this in the paper a few years ago. I don’t know if it was in 2009 when the men’s plight was discovered, or in 2013 when a jury awarded them $240 million. I wonder now why it made so little impression on me that I have only the vaguest memory of having read about it at all.

I suppose the fact that it had happened only 25 miles from where I lived (since 2005, anyway) may have been the main reason I took notice of it to begin with. I’ve never been to Atalissa, but I’ve passed the I-80 exit for Atalissa enough times to know it was not all that far away. I know people who live in West Liberty, where the turkey processing plant is located where these mentally disabled men worked.

Perhaps I just read a brief article and expected to read more as the case unfolded. Perhaps I had personal issues occupying my mind at the time and didn’t give my full attention to the problems of people I had never met and was not likely to ever cross paths with. Perhaps I thought, “Well, it’s bad what was done to them, but now the situation is being taken care of,” and went on to another article.

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Books: The Wednesday Wars

July 1, 2017

One thing I like about reading challenges is that I read – and enjoy – books I would not have picked up otherwise. I generally read widely enough that I can check off most of the items on the list without going looking for them. Often I discover that a book I picked for one category fits another, one that would have been harder to find a match for. For instance, I picked Amor Towles’ excellent novel A Gentleman in Moscow because it was a bestseller in 2016, but discovered that it was set in a hotel (and it’s amazing how a book about a man living in a hotel manages to seem so much bigger than its setting).

By now I’m down to the categories that I don’t fill just by accident. I had already read a book with one of the seasons in the title (An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell, who is one of my current favorite mystery writers, along with Louise Penny, who wrote Still Life, which is set around a holiday other than Christmas), but browsing in the library hadn’t uncovered any books with a month or day of the week in the title.

With Google, however, it was easy to discover The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and a quick look at reviews on amazon.com convinced me it was worth reading. Some coming-of-age novels annoy me (I realize that by definition, the main character is at least somewhat immature to start with, but sometimes the characters are just plain hard to care about, let alone like), but this one is wonderful.

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Books: Garlic and Sapphires

June 26, 2017

Garlic and Sapphires isn’t the sort of book I’d probably have read if the library hadn’t been closed last week (due to water damage from a recent storm). But I mentioned to a friend in Toastmasters that what I really missed was access to their audiobooks, since I listen to books on CD during my daily commute (45 minutes each way). And he offered to let me use the audiobook he had just finished and hadn’t yet returned to the library.

He acknowledged that it wasn’t my sort of book (after a few years of hearing each other’s speeches you get to know a fair amount about what they like and don’t like), and I have to admit that the idea of a book written by a restaurant critic did not exactly grab my interest. But between the fact that the audiobook I had planned to listen to next was currently unavailable until the library reopened, and that one of the books in this 2017 Reading Challenge is “a book about food,” I decided to give it a try.

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Books: Hidden Figures

June 17, 2017

I don’t remember a lot of details of watching the first moon landing, in July 1969. Mostly I remember being bored with how long it took before they finally opened the door of the lunar module. I don’t actually know if my memories of scenes from Mission Control are from that night, or from movies I’ve seen since then. But my impression of Mission Control is of a bunch of men sitting at banks of computers.

White men, in white shirts, figuring out whatever needed to be figured out to get three men to the moon and back. It never occurred to me, until reading Hidden Figures recently, that a lot of the work behind the scenes had been done by black women.

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Books: This Is Your Brain on Music

March 27, 2017

Some weeks ago, I read about BookBub and signed up. I don’t care for reading eBooks, but I thought I might see some deals that would change my mind. So far I haven’t found any that persuaded me to read them on an electronic device (either borrowing my husband’s tablet or reading on the computer monitor). But the lists of books available has made me aware of books I hadn’t heard of, that I then decided to read the old-fashioned way.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin explores how the brain processes music. It’s more about the brain than it is about music, but it attempts to find answers to questions many of us would not have even thought to ask. How do we tell the difference between one instrument and another playing the same note? What makes your foot tap when listening to music? Why do some kinds of music make us happy while others evoke a feeling of sadness?

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Books: A Thread of Grace

March 26, 2017

Having read Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I was glad to find another book by her on the library shelves. (Though I have to admit I did not check it out the first time I saw it – I knew from her other books that it would be very well-written but also suspected it would be emotionally pummeling at times.)

It is quite a change from the science fiction of the other books, though unlike most science fiction those have as much philosophy as science, and reflect Russell’s background as an anthropologist (she creates entire civilizations to populate a faraway planet). I enjoy historical fiction, and this novel explores an aspect of World War II that I have read little about if at all previously.

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