I’ve been noticing some backlash against Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken. Interestingly, many of the jeremiads launched against it, and the idea of “gamifying” reality that it proffers, have come from game designers, game theories, and avid game players. Outsiders seem to be able to take McGonigal’s claims with the requisite grain/dash/heaping tablespoon of salt, and see the value in them (this Los Angeles Times review is representative). But some people more closely tied in with gaming, either as an industry or artform, have ridiculed the book.
As my example for the kinds of arguments I’ve been hearing, I’d like to use Andrew Klavan’s Wall Street Journal review of the book, since it attacks McGonigal (yes, McGonigal; the review is a pretty unapologetic ad hominem) and the book in the two ways I’ve heard them attacked:
- The idea of gamification is shallow;
- Reality will always be more wooly and complex than any mere game could hope to fix.
To the former assertion, allow me to pull a typically patronizing and utterly wrong-minded paragraph from the review:
While [McGonigal] acknowledges that “Halo” is “only a game,” she goes on to write, rather remarkably: “Just because the kills don’t have value doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning. Meaning is the feeling that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives.” But no, actually, that’s not what meaning is at all. Meaning is when those feelings and beliefs refer to something that is true. This error consistently undermines Ms. McGonigal’s thinking.
I’m surprised this thoughtless idea of “meaning” ever made it past an editor (or even Klavan’s self-editor). So now there’s an ontological and unsubjective truth from which we are to derive purpose and understanding? More simply, since art depends of fantasy and artifice, are they meaningless? Perhaps if you’re Oscar Wilde, but given Klaven’s defense of art as “a formative practice for life—like meditation, only more fun,” I doubt he would say art is meaningless. Further, if we think about how art means–how it evokes emotion, consolidates myriad thinking from many disciplines, creates an alternate vision of the universe–we see that there can be a great many truths to which games can be anchored. In short: 1) games can be “true” in the ways in which any artform can; 2) the idea of “truth” as an immutable monolith on which we base meaning is, at best, laughably problematic.
Fine, but then, besides just attacking Klaven, is there anything productive to say about the positive benefits that come from “gamification”? The more valid critique of Reality is Broken is that it comes across at times as a little peppy and Pollyanna-ish, positing late in the book a vision of the world that likely will never be: one in which just about everybody feels meaningfully engaged in the world. Klaven, clearly out to insult McGonigal, says of her:
She writes like someone who has never seen a Shakespeare play or volunteered at a soup kitchen or fallen in love or raised a child or said a prayer.
First, I would like to say that Klaven betrays here his own prejudices: of course your soul is incompletely formed unless you’ve sat through an unexpurgated performance of Titus Andronicus. More importantly, though, his claim is demonstrably false. Reading Reality is Broken with even the slightest care will reveal the McGonigal-persona created in the book to be happily married, to have a rich family life, and to be thoughtfully engaged in doing good for others. The book itself is a greater act of magnanimity than volunteering in a soup kitchen by orders of magnitude, when we see that, through it, she is working on creating the conditions for greater human well-being on a global scale. And let’s not forget that McGonigal the person, through projects like Urgent Evoke, has been game theory’s number one money-where-her-mouth-is practitioner when it comes to making the world a better place through gamification. I dare anyone to look at the projects that have come out of Urgent Evoke and then say that her gamed-up altruism doesn’t yield real-world good.
Klaven’s error is that he misunderstands McGonigal’s methods. Science doesn’t try to solve the question of how nature works through one, grandiose experiment–that would be impossible–but small, meticulous science can yield large insights. Likewise, just because reality may be broken does not mean that McGonigal thinks games can cure all of reality’s ills in a deus ex machina of leveling up and bonus rounds: but it does mean that it can start to address some small ills and find solutions where none existed before. The game McGonigal created to help fight despair and remain productive while she suffered from a severe concussion to me is the centerpiece of the book. It shows how the powerful way our minds are preprogrammed to respond to small rewards and social interaction can be leveraged to fight our way through real and frightening difficulties. And that, Mr. Klaven, is profound.
If there is a valid criticism of gamification to be found, its best representative can be found in Bogost’s critique of it at Gamasutra. But Bogost’s critique isn’t merely that “gaming-up” reality is facile and that reality is too massive and serious to be corralled by something so frivolous as a game. Bogost’s point is that “gamification” is being reduced, by folks like marketers, to simply mean tracking and reward systems. Those two elements are parts of games, but without thoughtful, artful gameplay on which to hang them, they fail to yield the beauty and complexity of games. Game mechanics are what make games worthwhile, and “gamification” is starting to bowdlerize games in a way that folks like Bogost consider nothing less than exploitation.
But McGonigal in no way advocates for bowdlerized gamification. She wants mechanics that are so intrinsically compelling that they uplift the spirit. And maybe that sounds Pollyanna-ish to you, but then I would ask you this: are millions of people uplifted by sporting events? Do many people find meaning, succor, relief, and community through reading fiction? Are they not uplifted? Games can uplift the spirit, too, a fact to which millions can attest: myself vociferously included. They do so by creating gameplay and sensual stimuli that transport us not only to new world, but new ways of thinking; they are quickly becoming the artform of choice for younger generations to exercise their imaginations. Given all these facts–or “truths” if you rather, Andrew Klaven–it’s impossible to imagine that we wouldn’t try to leverage sound game construction toward social good.
Reality is Broken may not be perfect, but it’s much better than some critics have given it credit for. My hope is that naysayers haven’t stymied the meaningful conversation we as a society can now have about the book’s many ideas and methods for using the principles of well-made games in other aspects of our lives. Panacea? Probably not. But useful? Worth a long, hard look.