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Reality is Broken

I recently read Jane McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

From a game design perspective, the first half of the book really resounded with me. Reality is pretty lame. The progression is unclear, the rewards are disconnected from the actions, and there’s no confirmation that we’ve mastered skills or learned anything. Modern reality sucks, and 20-somethings like myself are discovering that the logical, rewarding, immediate world of games we grew up with has nothing to do with the world of business. However, we’re also the generation that’s poised to make a change and do something about it.

However, after that, McGonigal began to lose me. I don’t think she makes a good argument for how to make reality more like games. She acknowledges that in the modern age, we’re inundated with different requests and demands to belong. Join my Facebook game. Like my band. Sign up for my community. Simply sorting through the static and finding what we want to belong to is a chore.

But when she gets to all her best examples of games that make reality better, they’re all standalone experiences, games that you have to go out of your way to sign up for, understand the rules, get involved in the community, and make an effort to participate. The way to make reality better is not to offer people even more choices and 100+ hour commitments that demand their time. Her games seem to make an impact on the people who get involved with them, but her numbers indicate that she’s getting a few thousand players for each game – pretty impressive, but far from the widespread social change that I think her early ideas are arguing for.

I know from her talks at GDC that she doesn’t like the gamification movement, but I think they present one critical difference from her suggestions: they’re all about making games out of things you were doing anyway. We’re only in the infancy of gamification, but I think they’re taking McGonigal’s advice better than she is: take reality, learn from games, and make reality better.

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