Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Understanding the Digital Exodus with Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken

As somewhat of a social critic and one who at various times has been thoroughly involved in video games, I couldn't resist Jane McGonigal's title: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. It seems like McGonigal has a lot of great videos online about video games and virtual reality, so I see her work as key in understanding the 'exodus' to digital worlds.

Book Preview

After spending ten minutes previewing McGonigal's book, it looks like McGonigal's central question is this: "What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality?" In addressing this topic, it looks like McGonigal will cover how video games can help us to be happier, more successful, and more productive. I really found her reference to Heroditus's concept of games to be compelling and grounding in a sense, and I think I'd like to look more at the sociological and historical foundations of video games.

Social Proof

My Twitter followers were reticent to my requests for feedback, but I got some good social proof from Google+ and beloved Facebook. I posted "Why DO people play so many video games? Reading McGonigal's Reality is Broken to understand the 'exodus' to virtual worlds. #virtualworlds" alongside McGonigal's TED talk on Google+, and three people jumped into a conversation about video game addiction and cultural legitimacy. On Facebook, a similar post yielded one comment that, though perhaps encouraged by the name of the book, nonetheless proved insightful: "I play games on the days I had (sic) enough of the real world." It looks like there's some interest (both positive and negative) for this topic generally, so I think there will be some good relevance to the things that I discover as I carry out further research.

Similar Books

Amazon surprisingly had a ton of books on this topic. Looking through the various resources, I think James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy has some really great potential. Ian Bogost'How to Do Things with Videogames was one that I recognized from our class book list (and one that I had wanted to read anyway), and Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter likewise seems like it could provide some good insights on how video games can be seen as meaningful and productive. Also, in her introduction, McGonigal quotes from Bernard Suits's The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia and Edward Castranova's Exodus to the Virtual World, so it might be good to check both of those out to see what they have to say.

Who Cares?

There are apparently a ton of people who care about these topics. A simple Twitter search of "Reality is broken" yielded tons of people who are reading the book, and I found McGonigal herself and was able to follow her. Google+ likewise yielded lots of results, and almost everyone seemed to give an account of how much this book had changed their lives. There were literally people posting as I was doing my search, which was a major encouragement! I wasn't able to find anything on Facebook, though that's most likely because of privacy settings. On Diigo, however, I found a group called "Games Serious and Social," which has compiled a number of resources on how games can be used for social good. All in all, there are a lot of people that are engaging with these topics on a daily basis. I was able to follow a number of people and groups on various platforms, and it looks like these will be valuable in helping me to stay on the cusp of developments within the research area.

Formal Reviews

I used the HBLL online catalog to find reviews for McGonigal's book, and its reception was really positive througout. In a publication called CHOICE, N.A. Baker describes the book as "a game-design primer, a self-help book, a resource for workplace managers, and a utopian manifesto" all at once. In a New York Times book review, William Saletan suggests that McGonigal's "essence of games" as presented in Reality is Broken centers on "a thirst for community, a craving for hard work and a love of rules," concepts that can all be used to positively influence society and effect lasting positive changes in terms of psychiatric health and overall well-being. Saletan makes a really interesting claim that I'd like to address in a later post: "The Internet isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell, either. It’s just another new world. Like other worlds, it can be civilized." I think this idea of civilizing the digital world would tie in nicely with some ideas that I've been kicking around on the potential for digital civilizations and for video games as sophisticated expression.

Informal Reviews

Well, a blog search yielded a number of results (including McGonigal's blog), but one of the most useful reviews was one that contested a lot of the claims that McGonigal makes. The author suggests that McGonigal is overly positive, ignoring lots of the negative aspects of video games, and that she fails to truly recognize video games as an art form (instead condemning them to servile instrumentality in achieving wellness). This latter argument is one that I've been thinking about a little bit, but it wasn't until reading the review that I was really able to put it into words. Goodreads reviewers picked up on some of these same ideas, suggesting that McGonigal functions within a state of "partial megalomania" and "uncrushable optimism" and that her book fails to really situate us within a cultural moment. I found that most of the positive reviews basically just repeated ideas from McGonigal's work, while the negative reviews took apart her arguments and seemed to involve a lot more critical thinking.


A search for courses on Google led me to University of Pennsylvania's "Year of Games," which had a listing for a course on game design for business purposes. Aside from that, I found lots of individual lectures and reading clubs that addressed Reality is Broken as a subject of study. I also stumbled on a Gamification wiki, which, although not produced by a university, nonetheless has some interesting resources pertaining to virtual worlds and video games.


I found lots of different multimedia resources for better understanding Reality is Broken. NPR, for example, featured an hour-long interview where McGonigal talks about her book and her ideas for gaming. One Youtuber posted a critical book review, criticizing McGonigal's approach through "positive psychology," a fairly recent movement that is seen by some as ungrounded and excessively idealistic. Youtube had a number of other videos featuring McGonigal, including a number of TED talks. I also found a fan music video for a song written as part of the above-mentioned University of Pennsylvania "Year of Games." I feel like McGonigal has been really proactive about getting her name out there, and it shows in the sheer volume of material based on her contributions to the field of video game studies. 

First Impressions of the Book

From what I've read so far, I find myself drawn to McGonigal's point of view but wish that she addressed the idea of video games as art more. Her concept of video games seems to serve a purely social function, which isn't necessarily bad, but at the same time, I feel like forward thinking has to be expansive in its scope. I am really like what McGonigal has to say about reinventing reality, and I think Ch. 7, "The Benefits of Alternate Realities," will likely be the most useful for me as I continue reading.

My Thinking So Far

McGonigal presents some important points relating to virtual worlds, and I think I'll look into some of her other work as well as I broaden my research scope. I'm honestly having a tough time focusing in on any kind of central argument, because digital worlds have such broad applications across so many different fields of study. I've been especially fascinated with the idea of digital civilizations, and that's realistically what I'll pursue, but Paul Bills's work on video games has been really influential  for me as well. In terms of a cause, that is more enticing for me, but I still need to figure out where my niche is in that conversation.