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.

Games: CLUE Secrets and Spies

December 15, 2012

There are actually two games called CLUE Secrets and Spies, as I discovered when I tried to find a link to include here. One is an online game, which I haven’t played. The other is a board game, which I recently purchased at Goodwill.

I bought CLUE Secrets and Spies because it can be played with only two people, unlike the original Clue board game. This is important because usually it’s just Al and me, when it comes to playing board games, especially now that Zach is at college most of the year.

As it turns out, there isn’t much this game has in common with the original game besides the brand name and the colors (scarlet, mustard, green, white, peacock, and plum) used to identify characters. And there is a certain amount of mystery involved – though you could say that about just about any game that isn’t based just on luck.

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Games: Word Zen

September 3, 2012

I had one game credit left at Big Fish Games (the result of forgetting to cancel my membership after buying a game for my son for Christmas), and only a couple of weeks left until it expired. Usually I have trouble finding any games there that appeal to me, but I had purchased two recently for my son (with the other game credits from forgetting to cancel), so I looked for something I could enjoy myself.

And I found Word Zen. Unlike most of the games at Big Fish Games, there is no storyline. That is a drawback in my son’s eyes, but it’s just fine with me. I’d rather the game developers put their time and effort into making the game run well, look good, and provide a good range of difficulty levels, rather than spend it on creating a storyline that neither makes the gameplay more interesting nor stands on its own as a compelling story.

The basic idea of the game is very simple. You form words using letter tiles, which are arranged in various Mahjong layouts. As with Mahjong, you can only use tiles that are open on at least one side. But instead of matching symbols, you use as many letters as you can to form words. At the level I’m currently at (Apprentice, which is the easiest), there is a limit of eleven letters; I don’t know if higher levels allow longer words.

As with other word games such as Bookworm Adventures, some tiles give you more points, and there is also a suggested “bonus” word, though I haven’t noticed that making those words seems to add many points. (Plus it often happens that one or more tiles needed to make the bonus word are not available.) There is also a timer, which ends the level when you run out of time. At the Apprentice level I sometimes clear the tiles before running out of time, but one of the reviews indicates that at the highest level the time is way too short.

The “reward” for finishing each level is an item in your “Zen Garden,” which provides “soothing visuals and sounds” to help you relax. I have the sound turned off right now, so I don’t know how soothing the sounds are. Somehow I can’t see looking at a picture of a garden on a computer screen to relax – reading a good book or taking a walk is much better for that purpose.

But I like making words. So far, my biggest problem is that my hand and wrist are getting tired from using the mouse to click on letters, as I go through level after level. So now it’s time to take a break and go relax with a good book.

If I ran a museum…

May 18, 2012

After my sons’ enthusiastic response to National Chocolate Chip Day on Tuesday, I decided to look for s0me more “days” to celebrate. But before I even got started, I opened an email from APTE (a provider of educational resources) and found out that today is International Museum Day.

I started thinking about what museum to visit this weekend. Then I realized that my son has a Boy Scout campout this weekend, so the museums will have to wait for another weekend. But in the meantime, I got thinking about the idea of museums.

The APTE email informed me that “the word museum literally means a seat or shrine to the muses. In Greek mythology the nine muses were brought to life to rid the world of evil and sorrow. Their job was to protect art and knowledge.”

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Never bored with this board game

January 19, 2012



When I first saw the question about a board game I would never get tired of, I had trouble thinking of one. When my son asks to play a game, I usually try to think of one we haven’t played in a while. Most of them are moderately entertaining, but not something I want to play frequently.

I thought of LIFE, Clue, Trouble, and the various other board games in our “gaming room” in the basement (including a few Al and I made up together). I looked at answers other people had given – checkers, chess, Monopoly. (How could someone not get tired of Monopoly?)

Then as I was walking out the door on my way to work I suddenly thought of Scrabble. Oh yes, Scrabble is a board game, isn’t it? I can’t remember the last time I played Scrabble on an actual gameboard instead of a computer screen.

I log on to Facebook at least once a day, usually more, to see if it’s my turn in Scrabble or Words with Friends (similar to Scrabble though not quite as good in my opinion). And sometimes my husband and I play Scrabble (which is also a standalone application) on his computer.

I would probably play it more often if it were loaded on my computer, though I don’t find it as fun to play against the computer as against another person. There’s no one to exclaim to over lousy letter choices or the fact that the built-in dictionary doesn’t allow a perfectly good word, or to suggest good words to (my husband and I regularly offer each other suggestions).

Back when I lived in the Philadelphia area, I had a friend who would occasionally invite me over for dinner and Scrabble (and sometimes to help her with her computer). Those were fun evenings. Playing on a computer is just not the same, though online Scrabble is better than a lot of the other games out there.

Scrabble was the one board game that my mother was willing to play, as I remember. She had no use for activities that were purely for entertainment, but Scrabble was educational. She didn’t care if she won, she just wanted to learn new words.

All in all I prefer to win than to lose, but the main thing I like about Scrabble is the game itself. I love word puzzles of any kind. (I amazed myself by finally managing to finish the acrostic from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal last night, after four days of struggling with it.) And Scrabble is a great word puzzle.

If you like Scrabble and you’re on Facebook, let’s play!

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Games: Quelf

December 27, 2011

I found Quelf on clearance at Walmart and decided it was worth buying based on one thing I read on the box. Among the contents listed (game board, game pieces, cards, etc.) is “1 giant invisible harpoon (it’s invisible for a reason, use it wisely).” I decided that any game maker with that kind of sense of humor was bound to have made a fun game.

My guess was confirmed when we started reading the rules. The objective of the game? “To have fun. Duh!” Unfortunately it is made for at least three players, and my husband is not into board games. So Al and I had to wait for Zach to get home from college. (Having played it now, I don’t recall anything that actually required three players, so Al and I may try playing it by ourselves.)

As a number of reviews at indicate, it is similar to Cranium, “but edgier.” I haven’t played the game Cranium, but we have some of the other games made by Cranium, Inc. Al and I both enjoy the wackiness of the games, and the variety of mixing stunts, trivia questions, word puzzles, and more. Quelf takes the wackiness even further.

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Games: The Great Museum Caper

August 5, 2011

About five years ago, when my husband was working at the Salvation Army, one of the youth activities he scheduled was a Game Night. Al was in kindergarten, so he and I spent our time playing games like Chutes and Ladders or Candyland. Zach, who was in middle school, spent the entire time playing Clue: The Great Museum Caper with a friend, and wished he could have played again.

For a long time I kept an eye out for the game at stores and at yard sales, but with no luck. Then this March, when I took part in a Toastmasters speech contest, Al and I found the game as an item in a silent auction to benefit a Toastmasters club held in a nearby prison. (Two members of other clubs participate, but the meetings are led by the inmates, and our division governor tells us that they have excellent speakers, at least as good as any other club in the area. The one difficulty they have is money to pay for dues, as the inmates don’t earn very much at their prison jobs – thus, the silent auction fundraiser.)

I had though Zach might like to play the game with Al while he was home for the summer, but I guess it no longer has the appeal to him that it had back then. This evening I finally agreed to play with Al. (Up to four can play, and according to the review at four is the best number, but it only requires two, unlike the traditional Clue board game.) It took a while to read through and understand the instructions, but once we started playing it wasn’t as complicated as it had seemed.

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