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Games or Death: A Response to Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken"

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Making the World a Better Place

With Games

Jane McGonigal believes that the world would be a much better place if everyone was playing games. This is an idea that is very similar to Clay Shirky’s desire for greater technologically-mediated social interaction. The big difference between the two authors is that Shirky writes that small amounts of interaction can combine to form great civic works, whereas McGonigal thinks that the key is in creating unnecessary opportunities for interaction that benefit society. In Reality is Broken, McGonigal writes about perceived flaws in objective reality’s design, and how creating new terms for reality in the form of “alternate reality games” (ARGs) allows people to enjoy and improve their surroundings without worrying about failure.

Freedom From Failure

Everything is Pretend (In a Game)

A freedom from failure is the result of re-framing tasks in the real world as unnecessary obstacles for voluntary participation. And voluntary participation is one of McGonigal’s defining traits of games, along with goals, rules, and a feedback system. Each of these traits of games are also traits of reality, with laws as rules and sensory perception as a feedback system. But the big difference between reality and games is the inconsequential nature of a game, the perception that there are no great negative repercussions from being bad at it. In addition, activities that are inconsequential but still create instances of stress, as games do, transform the perception of that stress from something undesirable to something useful. McGonigal calls this type of stress eustress, or positive stress that creates a sense of well-being from a challenge.

Eustress is a useful tool for conquering adversity. McGonigal gives the example of CEOs who play casual computer games during work hours to bring about a sense of motivation for their real work. The resulting motivational drive, then, is the result of a trick one plays on one’s own mind. The stress itself does not change, but a person’s perception of stress and its usefulness does. All stress is potentially eustress, but framing it within the construct of a game more easily transforms it into a thing without the potential for harm. When a challenge is optional and unnecessary, there is simply no need to get worked up about failing to surmount it.

However, if stress can be transformed into eustress, the opposite transformation is also possible. McGonigal points out “the distinctly rewarding feeling we get...when we soundly beat, or are beaten, by people we like,” but there are also many poor sports in the world who believe the old cliche that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. That is an extreme stance, but McGonigal’s assumption that the audience shares her desire to lose at games represents an incomplete understanding of why some people play games in the first place.

Life and Loss

The Fear of Death

People generally do not like to lose, and the most important thing people do not want to lose is their (actual) life. Every perceived loss in a person’s life is tied to an ultimate fear of death. On the other hand, people like to win, because winning represents a continuance of life. Therefore, all human tasks are abstractions of trying to continue life and prevent death. And in the same way that stress is transformed into eustress, people change their perceptions and learned behaviors to see winning games as winning life. In certain cases where extrinsic rewards such as money are offered for winning a game, earning these resources is a very literal continuance of life. But people are capable of even greater abstractions when playing games. And the greater the abstraction of a game from an event that could actually cause death is, the more appealing an even minuscule reward becomes.

Asynchronous play and ambient sociability are two concepts of games that illustrate this concept of low-reward-but-even-lower-risk. Asynchronous games are those such as Words with Friends, which do not require players to be present at the same time when playing a game, as they take their turns whenever they want. Ambient sociability does not even require that players participate in a game together at all, only that other players share the same virtual space in an online game world, completing similar tasks within that space. Both of these concepts give players in a game almost complete social control over how, when, and where to play a game, minimizing any potential stress or fear of failure.

Despite its increasingly abstracted presence, the need for social interaction is still prevalent in both asynchronous play and ambient sociability. With this in mind, McGonigal spends a good portion of Reality is Broken describing a series of ARGs that both fulfill this social need and minimize any potential for failure or negative consequences through participation. She also stresses the importance of the voluntary participation of these games, which prevents feelings of inauthenticity that people have when forced to do something. Adhering to the formal structure of a game’s rules allows for more sharply defined instances of spontaneous play, and doing so voluntarily prevents any criticism of the tasks as mechanical and inauthentic.

Manipulating Crowds

The Problem, As Always, is Choice

Unfortunately, many of McGonigal’s attempts to define essentially mechanical tasks as games makes voluntary participation sound suspiciously like crowd manipulation. This is especially true in her description of crowdsourcing, which she writes should offer “competitive engagement for projects rather than competitive compensation.” Competitive compensation likely means extrinsic motivators such as money, which is already a reality for almost all types of games. There are professionals who earn money for playing football, Halo, Street Fighter, chess, et al. (All these and other games/sports can be seen as connective tissue for society) It is a noble idea to inspire people to do good works with ARGs like Groundcrew, but suggesting that virtual currency like PosX is somehow superior or more intrinsically motivating than being paid is disingenuous at best.

This is McGonigal’s primary misunderstanding about how games work. They are not only created and played to have fun and create cooperation between groups. They are also played to create hierarchies and strata for defining what players are the best at those games, and rewarding them appropriately. McGonigal defines an epic win as “an unexpected new precedent for greatness,” but any player in any game who has achieved a truly epic win will be compensated for it. A personal desire for greatness is a strong intrinsic motivator, but greatness itself must be recognized socially. This is what informs a person’s need for social interaction: the understanding that such social interaction will continue life and prevent death through the reallocation of resources.

Lydian Lion, One of the World's Oldest Coins

Lydians, Famine, and You

Gamers For Life

The ancient Lydians played games as a mental distraction during a famine, and McGonigal writes that this therefore teaches us that games are a way to consume less resources. However, their game also eventually determined a group of winners who gained the resources that would definitely prevent death, and a group who lost and had to face the very real stressful situation of leaving to find new resources. As long as we live in a world of limited resources, and not Ray Kurzweil’s post-scarcity singularity, games are merely one more way to divvy up what is available.



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  1. Jane McGonigal Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin, 2011.

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