Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review for Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken

Image by Library Girl
If you are expecting Reality is Broken to instill within you an empowering cynicism toward real life and humanity, I would recommend reading a different book, because you will be sorely disappointed. McGonigal instead presents the case for video games as a meaningful way of influencing the real world and realizing our most grand human objectives. While she acknowledges that millions of people are "opting out of reality" in favor of digital worlds, she notes that that is only the case because we have failed to implement the lessons that video game designers have learned: that people want interaction and meaning and relevance, that humans like a good challenge, and that society as a whole can be transformed for good as we harness the untapped potential of millions of gamers throughout the United States and the world as a whole. Video games and other virtual realms are in fact fulfilling real human needs, and those who are able to see past the stigmas attached to video games currently will be armed with the tools necessary to effect powerful positive change in the world around them.


McGonigal ties video game culture back to the ancient Lydians, as described in Herodotus's works. Through eighteen years of famine and hardship, the Lydians survived using rudimentary games as a way to turn their thoughts away from their hunger. Modern games, McGonigal notes, serve no less of an important role in elevating people from their most primal hungers and in ultimately preparing them to shape the future of humanity. McGonigal uses various video games and 'gamified' real-world initiatives to show the potential of video games to make us happy, positively reinvent reality, and change the world in very real and very meaningful ways. She expresses her heartfelt hope that one day in the next twenty five years, a game developer will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the contributions that he/she makes through the principles of gaming and collaboration.

That being said, McGonigal's examples are in some cases rather odd, like a game that you play in graveyards to 'connect' people back to their dead relatives or another where you go around downtown 'killing others' with kindness by giving out compliments or winking at strangers. The book gives a broad introduction to the world of video games and positive change, but it ignores most of the contentions against video games and instead presents an idealistic, rosy view of where video games are taking humanity. Also, in that a number of the games presented are of McGonigal's own invention, the book seems a bit self-laudatory at times.

Overall, an enjoyable, easy read (if you can get past all of the unnecessary acronyms). It's written sort of like a bunch of blog posts that flow into each other, so each section comes as a bite-size chunk that introduces a particular aspect of gaming culture or evaluates how gaming culture can be applied to everyday reality. Reality is Broken is, admittedly, a bit Pollyanaish at times, and it's by no means a masterful work of literature, but for those engaged in video game design or the futures of digital literacy, this is an empowering work with a lot of good information to distill and apply. There were a couple of instances while reading when I fully glimpsed the import of what McGonigal was saying, and for me those few moments made it all worth it.