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‘Reality Is Broken’: Can Gaming Fix Us? And Fix Society?

I’m still making my pokey way through Portal, but in an effort to further education myself about the theories behind games, over the long weekend, I read Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken. As someone who never particularly thought the genre of self-help had much to offer me, I can safely say it’s the best self-help book for workaholics, particularly those who work in creative fields, I’ve ever read. But while I’d like to believe the book’s larger message, that the mechanics of gaming can help us solve widespread societal problems, I finished it with a lot of questions.

First, the self-help bit. Much of the first section of the book is based on two concepts: fiero, “the Italian word for “pride,”…adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English.Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity,” and flow, a term coined by a happiness researcher to describe “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.” For me, these two concepts and an observation McGonigal quotes from psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith that “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression,” are the best explanation I’ve ever seen of why blogging is so addictive and so satisfying, and why if we’re actually in a Freelance Revolution, it makes sense. Writing blog posts, when I’m in the zone, is a form of flow, creative accomplishment in bite-sized chunks, each of which presents its own opportunity for fiero (not that they’re always actualized, but the potential is there). It makes sense to me that folks would want to seek out this kind of work environment, where they get to try different kinds of things and pursue different kinds of highs from each task.What I’m curious about is the extent to which we can make those kinds of rewards and processes broadly accessible, and how much we can actually mobilize gamers to switch their focus from in-game accomplishments to real-world ones. Take Quest to Learn, a charter school in New York that’s the focus of one of the sections of the book. Opened two years ago, and backed by MacArthur and Gates Foundations funding, it’s an attempt to realign the learning experience towards gaming. From McGonigal’s description, it sounds like a fun place to go to school, but it would be a real uphill struggle to turn it into a model. First, given that the school’s only two years old, it’s going to be a long time before there’s reliable evidence that these new methods boost performance. And then even if they do, implementing them on a broad scale would be terrifically expensive. Getting small numbers of people the tools to make their lives better is not insignificant, but if we really want to change the world, change has to penetrate beyond groups of people who are always going to be early adopters anyway.

Second, I’m curious about the example of the ten billion-kill landmark in Halo. Of course McGonigal is right that “ There’s no actual danger being averted. There are no real lives being saved. But on the other hand, just because the kills don’t have value doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning.” But the question, I think, is whether that kind of energy is transferrable. Two of the real-world impact games she cites with mass participation, Free Rice and Folding@home absolutely make a contribution to real-world problems, but in comparison to playing Halo, they’re low commitment, and perhaps more important, low-mythology. By contrast, the higher-involvement public service games she describes in the book have much lower participation. So is there a way to get large numbers of people to spend as much time as they spend playing Halo playing games with a real-world impact? I’d like to believe there is, but I don’t know if I see the bridge from where we are know to where McGonigal thinks games could take us. If someone’s got a suggestion, let me know, and I’ll give it a shot.

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