CBRIII Maneuver #10 – Reality is Broken

Target: Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken

Profile: Non-fiction, Popular Sociology, Games

Summary: From the cover flap, “More than 174 million Americans are gamers, and the average young person in the United States will spend ten thousand hours gaming by the age of twenty-one.  According to world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, the reason for this mass exodus to virtual worlds is that video games are increasingly fulfilling genuine human needs.  In this groundbreaking exploration of the power and future of gaming, McGonigal reveals how we can use the lesions of game design to fix what is wrong with the real world.”

After Action Report:

It’s almost painfully clear that Jane McGonigal has never written anything for a wide audience before.  It isn’t that her book is poorly written or that it doesn’t make its point well, but somewhere in her blissful vision of a future where gaming is the new paradigm, McGonigal forgot that if you’re trying to make a convincing point, you need to focus on that point.  Reality is Broken is the worst kind of populist non-fiction because it is trying so hard to be universally relevant.

That being said, the book has a great point to make.  Games are great tools for productivity.  If we could channel the effort and skill that gamers bring to their favorite pastime, we could accomplish some truly mind-blowing things.  It really is unfortunate that the book does such a poor job of focusing on this central conceit because when it gets down to business, it’s a really convincing piece of literature.

Jane McGonigal is a bit of a superstar in the field of game design, but her forte isn’t the games that make sales headlines like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.  She specializes the blending of the real world with digital games, sometimes called Augmented Reality gaming.   In particular, she’s good at blending gaming sensibility with everyday challenges.  So when she says that reality is broken, she is implying that we could be a lot more productive and engaged by our lives if they were handled more like games.

The combination of stimulating feedback, challenge and the sense of competition is a great recipe for increased productivity.  Managers have been using pieces of this formula for years, but the complete implementation of game design in the workplace has been illusive.  McGonigal has a truckload of research supporting her claims, but much of it is glossed over in the text in favor of optimistic rhetoric.  The book does have an extensive footnote section, but it doesn’t really excuse the lack of useful research in the main text.  There is a critical point where the conclusions you draw from research need to be supported with numbers immediately, or the average reader will just dismiss the citation.

McGonigal also wanders off on some strange tangents.  In one chapter she praises the Halo 3 community for uniting to get 10 billion NPC kills.  She claims that while these accomplishments don’t have any real value, the people who contributed to them do get meaning out of being a part something bigger than themselves.  A nice sentiment perhaps, but the chapter is ultimately meaningless to her argument that we should be deriving real value from game design, rather than false meaning from real games.

It’s frustrating that the really good central idea is compromised by bad organization and writing.  Listening to McGonigal talk in any of the venues she’s visited in the past few months reveals a much clearer picture of her goals than her book does.  She could have cut it in half and still had too much fluff.  Still, gamers should take a close look at Reality is Broken, if only because it affirms what we’ve known all along: Gaming is good for the soul.

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Posted on March 4, 2011, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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