Reality is Broken
Posted at 14:22 on 16th December 2011 - permalink

Reality is Broken
Jane McGonigal
ISBN 978-0-22-408925-8

Firstly, for those of you in a hurry: if you’re looking for a good gaming-related book to read over the holidays, I would emphatically recommend Tristan Donovan’s Replay (a deep and absorbing gaming history that looks far beyond the well-worn stories of the American and Japanese giants), closely followed by Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life and David Kushner’s Masters of Doom (both fascinating pieces of journalism). If you’re still morbidly curious about this book, flick through chapters six and twelve (the most concentratedly ridiculous parts) in your local book shop.

Reality is Broken isn’t the worst book on games that I’ve read (although bear in mind that line-up includes things like the novelisation of Golden Axe), but it’s undoubtedly the one that’s created the greatest amount of hoopla from the smallest amount of actual substance. And certainly one of the strangest.

As a popular science book it’s built on very shaky foundations. The stated aims of the book are to explore ways in which playing games “make you a better person”, and how games can positively affect the real world. In practice, this amounts to a mixture of feel-good platitudes and exhaustive promotion of McGonigal’s other work.

While pandering to gamers’ egos is a bankable marketing tactic (as practitioners from Buckner and Garcia to Penny Arcade have consistently proven), it doesn’t result in a book that makes much effort to challenge or surprise the reader. It’s not quite the cultish self-help manual that McGonigal’s happy clappy online presence had led me to expect, but it’s still incongruous for a ‘science-y’ book to keep nudging the reader to remind them that they’re special because they play games.

Several ‘proper’ book reviewers have already thoroughly skewered the book’s aspirations to big ideas. (see: Reluctant Habits, Wall Street Journal – seriously, check these out. They really don’t pull any punches.) I will instead focus mainly on my reaction to the book as someone coming from a relatively deep gaming background.

I’m not going to go into too much discussion about the merits of gamification (a term the book never uses). There’s a lot of evidence that it works (see: anti-truancy programmes involving sports shop vouchers if you’re from the UK, or literacy programmes involving Personal Pan Pizzas if you’re American), and, sure, while it’s in vogue it will continue to be unthinkingly applied to inappropriate problems.

I. Let me tell you about my World of Warcraft character

The first section of the book is primarily concerned with examining existing computer and video games, determining the vital components they all share and the means by which they elicit different emotional and physiological responses from players.

It rapidly becomes apparent that McGonigal views games purely as ‘validation engines’: superficial tools to be mastered, gloated over and used as venues to solicit approval. Scrabble is described as being a game about playing long, complicated words (as someone pointed out on twitter). Grim Fandango is mentioned at one point simply as a set of puzzles to beat, similarly Portal. There’s no place for beauty, contemplation, ambiguity, fear, wit or empathy. One has to wonder what McGonigal would make of To The Moon, Proteus, Gyossait, Animal Crossing or Machinarium (etc.).

This limited model of what games should be dovetails perfectly with McGonigal’s favourite topic of conversation in this section (and indeed much of the book), World of Warcraft. Frequently observations are made about “computer and video games” (usually making a song and dance about revenue numbers, player numbers or other headline stats that play up games’ impact on society) which will then surreptitiously drift into meaning “networked multiplayer games” (as the fact most video games – even some MMOs – are primarily a solitary pursuit doesn’t fit McGonigal’s line that all gamers are a vast hivemind with a shared purpose) before inevitably dropping the pretense (of McGonigal having spent any appreciable amount of leisure time in the last few years playing anything else) and directly referencing World of Warcraft.

Praise is lavished on WoW’s gameplay and levelling system, as is to be expected from a proponent of gamification (in the form of grafting levels and achievements onto real world tasks). Completing quests to make a number get bigger and increase the player’s horde of virtual trinkets is described as “meaningful” (and “epic” of course). Terms such as “treadmill”, “grinding”, “padding”, “Skinner box”, or “extremely cheap-to-build content to cynically keep gamers paying for months” are conspicuously absent.

(I’m willing to concede that this material might have been written a few years ago before it became obvious that WoW’s gameplay was a millstone around the MMO genre’s neck, and the social gaming phenomenon stripped away any remaining vestiges of fun or skill from the drudgery-based gameplay model. Not that that excuses such an unbalanced view.)

I. (b.) Reality is Missing

The sixth chapter of the book was the point where I first contemplated just giving up and walking away. Up until this point, the constant mild fudging of facts and wishful exaggerations had been a mild irritant. However this chapter cheekily expects the (assumed gaming-illiterate) reader to swallow a whole raft of canards.

Making a welcome break from World of Warcraft, the topic turns to Halo 3, or more accurately, to various marketing initiatives concocted to shift more copies of the game and keep the existing player base engaged. First we are told that:

“Ten billion kills wasn’t an incidental achievement, stumbled on blindly by the gaming masses.”

Actually, that’s EXACTLY what is was. Good grief. All this “milestone” illustrates is that Bungie were able to track contextually meaningless metrics which sound good in press releases. (See also every Xbox Live press release touting such impressive-sounding numbers as “total number of minutes played”.) Nobody playing single player or co-op Halo 3 is under any illusion that they’re taking part in a massively multiplayer “Great War”. Like every other shooter, Halo 3’s online community is primarily interested in competitive multiplayer (a simple, obvious point that McGonigal goes to extraordinary lengths to obfuscate).

McGonigal goes on to coo over the (tacky and pompous) Museum of Humanity commercial, as if a lightweight piece of external marketing is relevant to the game’s artistic message (in so far as the term applies to a rudderless pot-boiler like the Halo franchise), and how we’re supposed to be amazed by the scale of Halo’s spectacle. (Apparently the maps – the entirely conventional, enclosed shooter maps – are spread over 74 quadzillion light years of – absolutely nonexistent – space! Amazing, huh?)

The irony is that the phenomena McGonigal has had to resort to fantastical nonsense to ‘observe’ in Halo 3 (that gamers are motivated to self-organise to complete massive projects) are genuinely happening in Minecraft, EVE Online, Garry’s Mod, Dwarf Fortress and even (so I’m told) Second Life. These are hardly obscure games – she could have easily asked her WoW guildmates about them.

This chapter gives the impression that for McGonigal, a beguiling marketing fiction is as valid a source of evidence as the truth. (Perhaps “Reality is Broken” refers to its stubborn refusal to neatly fit around her arguments?) From this point on, I was never sure if McGonigal’s descriptions of games and projects were her own observations or press release copy, and whether any bold statements made without sources would stand up to serious scrutiny. And I found I was right to be wary.

II. Remember ARGs?

Having set the scene, the second part of the book is given over to examining and categorising a broad sweep of Alternate Reality Games, from small stuff like Nike+ and Chore Wars to long form games designed to make museums more engaging and bridge the generation gap.

Compared to the excesses of the first section, most of this is inoffensive, with some of the case studies actually being quite interesting. We’re introduced to two external projects by spectacular idiots seemingly trying to out-McGonigal Jane herself (the hyperbolic wish fulfilment of Groundcrew and the sycophantic burbling of PlusOneMe), before inevitably returning to several of the author’s own games.

If anything really mars this section it’s McGonigal’s tendency to blur the line between marketing campaigns and academic exercises, often only mentioning as an aside that a project was undertaken by herself and/or her colleagues for a corporate client. In some cases this is benign (it’s pretty much irrelevant that Tombstone Hold ‘Em was created as a PR stunt for the game Gun, as it stands up as a novel game in its own right), but later in the book it veers into the absurd (witness McGonigal’s hilariously earnest declaration of belief in the “Olympic Mission” while discussing an ad campaign for McDonald’s) and even the mildly sinister (the World Bank propaganda project, EVOKE).

III. Suddenly: Bono!

The final section of the book attempts to extrapolate the methods we’ve so far seen used by games to bestow beneficial effects to individuals and groups to solving real-world problems. It’s pretty much entirely given over to self-promotion, giving three slightly-distinguishable case studies of The Thing McGonigal Makes Now: altruistic-sounding collaborative problem solving online multimedia workshop things. Specifically: World Without Oil, Superstruct and EVOKE. All of these are effectively an atom-thin veneer of game-like activity painted over attempts by think tanks and other non-elected, heavily-funded interests to crowdsource free ideas and promote their values.

The frequent neologisms waft off into the realm of self parody (“emergensight”, “collaboratory”), and there’s a peculiar undercurrent of colonialism, with “innovators” (or – seriously – “Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals”) from the developed world being elevated to literal superbeings, amid corny romanticised musings about “African ingenuity” and sending inspiring SMS messages to third world students plucked straight out of a multinational bank advert.

Summing up

As I said at the beginning, Reality is Broken is a strange book. There are few people working in games that view them in the off-kilter way McGonigal does, and very few if any who believe the destiny of game designers is to chart the course of the planet. (Even in the notoriously ego-driven movie business, there have only been maybe one or two figures that megalomaniacal per generation.) While this is initially as intriguing as it is infuriating, the book is ultimately quite a slog. Long stretches feel like loosely stitched together collections of essays.

As far as I am aware, McGonigal isn’t a psychologist (according to her website her PhD was in “Performance Studies”, and her sole academic role was a course teaching “game design and game theory(sic)” – presumably meaning “game studies” rather than economic modelling – at Berkeley), and most of the book’s scientific material is from the brand new, hotly contested and hyper-fluffy field of Positive Psychology*, along with such eclectic sources as the Whole Earth Catalogue and Eat Pray Love. What McGonigal ‘does’ seems to be more of a mix of public speaking (backed with the calibre of representation that can secure a TED talk, a Colbert Report segment and an endorsement from Oprah) and consulting on advertising campaigns.

The book’s prose is plagued with several annoying habits. A small set of adjectives (“epic”, “urgent”, “awesome”, “secret”, “famous” – even the obscurest of quotes is presented as “as so and so famously said…”) are used incessantly, presumably intending to have a reinforcing effect. Several “McGonigalisms” (“fiero”, “naches”, “gameful”, and the previously discussed invented definition of “epic win“) are casually pretended to have caught on among game creators beyond the author’s immediate circle.

McGonigal grabs and arranges bits of observable data to fit her narrative like a Victorian palaeontologist with a job lot of fossils, sticking a claw here and a horn there until they have a suitably “epic” terrible lizard for the uneducated masses to gawp at.

Along with the aforementioned “ten billion kills” silliness, we’re dazzled with the apparently momentous fact that the WoW Wiki is the second largest in the world after Wikipedia (never mind that all the data is being collected from one source, for whom creating reams of mildly obscured data is part of their business model). We’re enthusiastically told about how Foursquare is supposed to be (rather than the disappointing reality).

We’re told that the tens of thousand hours the younger generation are spending in games is an “exodus from reality”, as opposed to the more mundane migration from similar yet older and less gratifying escapist pastimes such as TV, books and music (consider the huge percentage of disposable income the average baby boomer spent on vinyl records). We’re told (with nods to Malcolm Gladwell) that every one of those thousands of hours of gaming is focused towards “being a better gamer”, which is obviously not true for most people (and certainly isn’t the case for WoW players!), pro-gamers aside.

In the lulls where the book isn’t trying to beat the reader over the head with “epicness” and imagined potential, there are some intriguing little asides – a great story about a musician getting obsessed with Breakout, a look inside a ‘gamified’ school in New York, and some fleeting references to the New Games movement of the 1970s.

As for the book’s stated aims – well, we get a bit about how contrived reward systems can influence behaviour, but there’s no real resolution on the issue of how gaming can “change the world” or “fix reality”, beyond the most abstract and general hints. Rather like WoW, the constant piling up of resources and the dangling carrot of important, empowering revelations never leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Reality is Broken does pose some interesting questions and would probably give someone with zero exposure to McGonigal’s work some food for thought. But the fact that it has such a scant amount of concrete evidence to present, and its seeming willingness to misrepresent and overstate the importance of its (sometimes entirely irrelevant) observations make it impossible to recommend. Games are already shaping the way that a generation thinks about the world in ways of which McGonigal, in her single-minded pursuit of XP and ego-puff points, seems entirely oblivious.

* Positive Psychology identifies six virtues which amusingly and probably unintentionally map to six of the eight virtues of the Ultima games – excluding Humility and Sacrifice. Pride isn’t a virtue, even if you call it “Fiero”.

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