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.

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Back on my bike

July 9, 2016

I rode my bike a lot when I was growing up. My bike was a single-speed 20-inch with baskets in the back. It wasn’t fast, but I could carry a load of books back to the library and come home with a bunch more. On Saturdays I could ride from one garage sale (which I knew as a “tag sale” growing up in Connecticut) to another around town, occasionally buying a used paperback or jigsaw puzzle (as long as they could fit in my bike baskets).

Often I just rode my bike for the fun of riding it. When I was a teenager, I got a full-size bike, with three speeds, and I could manage hills better, but I still struggled to keep up on weekly bike rides with the local American Youth Hostels group. I dreamed of someday getting a ten-speed bike.

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Books: Calico Joe

February 23, 2015

This is not really the kind of book I was looking for to listen to on my iPod. I used to listen to books on tape while riding my exercise bike, but changing technology has put an end to that. I hadn’t thought I had any interest in strapping an MP3 player to my arm as so many people do at the Y, because I had no interest in listening to music while exercising. (The classical music I enjoy just doesn’t have the driving beat that goes with pushing yourself physically.)

Then recently it occurred to me that these days you can listen to books on an MP3 player. Our library participates in a service that makes more titles available to me than just what is owned by our own library. Surely there must be enough out there to motivate me to get on the bike so I can listen to another installment of a gripping story.

It turns out there is less out there than I had hoped, at least of the sort of story I enjoy. I don’t mind a certain amount of violence in mysteries and thrillers (pretty hard to have a murder mystery without some violence) but not as much as a lot of books have these days. I have no interest in most romances or any vampire stories.

But I like John Grisham’s writing. Most of it, anyway – I did not enjoy A Painted House. The description of Calico Joe indicated it was about baseball, which I’ve had little interest in for the last forty years, but as a young child I loved it. I borrowed books from the library about children playing baseball, I slowed my steps passing the baseball diamond on the way home from the pool if there was a game going on, and I practiced hitting a softball in the back yard (hard to do, though, without anyone to pitch it to me). Besides, there was some mystery involved in the story of Calico Joe.

I did enjoy the book. It is well-written, giving out information bit by bit about what really happened when narrator Paul Tracey was 11 years old in 1973 (when, as it happens, I was also 11 years old). It’s about family, and about behavior that can destroy family relationships. It’s about the need to tell the truth, and about the pride and fear and stubbornness that can make it so hard to let the truth be told.

And of course it’s also about baseball. Enough memories of my onetime love of the sport remain that I enjoyed even the descriptions of games. I knew nothing of most of the players mentioned, but Grisham is a good enough writer that my ignorance didn’t get in the way of appreciating the story.

But it’s not such a gripping novel that I felt compelled to ride my bike just to hear what happened next. I did feel compelled to ride it enough to finish the book before having to “return” it to the library, but I really want to be exercising every day that time permits. The library director tells me that soon many more titles will be available, so I look forward to an expanded selection.


Movies: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

January 31, 2015

The reviews of this movie didn’t impress us enough to go see it in the theater, as we did the first installment. But when we were shopping recently for a DVD player for a friend, we saw both the first two installments on DVD at a good price, and there was no question about whether we were going to want to own all three eventually.

So the question was just whether to go ahead and watch the second movie, or first watch again the one we had already seen to refresh our memories. Since I hadn’t actually seen most of the first movie (we watched in 3D and I spend most of the movie feeling nauseous, listening to the movie with my eyes shut and hoping it would be over soon), I opted to watch it first.

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Movies: God’s Not Dead

August 31, 2014

I had not planned on watching God’s Not Dead with the church youth group. I was taking our younger son, and since we don’t live nearby, I was going to spend the time in another room reading a novel rather than make the trip to church twice in one evening.

But the meeting got moved from the church to someone’s home, and when I was invited in to join them, it was naturally assumed I would be joining them all to watch the movie. I decided it was probably just as well, as this way I would know what my son had seen and be better able to answer any questions he might ask.

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Movies: Robot and Frank

June 22, 2014

I was waiting in line to check out books at the library when I noticed Robot and Frank on a nearby rack displaying a dozen or so DVDs. I’m not sure if their placement there means they’re popular, or recommended, or what. I often recognize the titles but rarely see any I want to watch.

As this was one I hadn’t heard of and it involved a robot, I was interested enough to pick up the box and read the description on the back. If it had been a book, that would have been enough for me to take it home to read. But since a movie would be for the whole family to watch, I first wanted to read some reviews.

The reviews were all positive, but the next time I went to the library it was checked out. I suppose it must be relatively popular, because it was weeks before I managed to find it again (back in the regular movie stacks but set apart on a display shelf).

It’s hard to sum up briefly, which is probably a large part of what I like about it. It doesn’t fit the usual categories of Hollywood movies (not surprising since it was an indie film, distributed by studios after it won a prize at the Sundance festival).

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Movies: Odd Thomas

June 11, 2014

Dean Koontz is one of my favorite authors, and Odd Thomas is one of my favorite books by Koontz. I was surprised, however, to discover that it had been made into a movie. Part of what appeals to me so much about the character of Odd Thomas is his “voice” – the way he tells his story and how he talks about himself and about life. That didn’t seem like it would translate well onto the screen.

But it does, surprisingly well, because the movie allows Odd to narrate the story, rather than just trying to display it through images and action. It’s not the same as the book, of course – a movie adaptation always has to pick and choose and leave out a great deal. But on the whole I think it is very faithful to the book – and I ended up choked up at the end of the movie just as I did at the end of the book.

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