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.