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Reality is Alright

A review of Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken

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Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World is destined to be one of the most influential works about videogames ever published.

The book is filled with bold new ideas and refinements of old ones. It's targeted at a general readership, but game designers, critics, and scholars will learn plenty from the book too, thanks to the new twists it takes on familiar subjects.

The ordinary reader will perhaps be most intrigued by McGonigal's claims that games can save the world (part III in the book), but those of you who would think to read my review are probably already primed for that idea. Instead, I predict you'll be most struck by Jane's bold redefinition of the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which comes in part II of the book (part I is about why games make us happy).

She takes "ARG" to mean any game that integrates itself with the real world, not just one that involves the usual trappings of that genre, like distributed narrative and puzzle-solving. Some will scoff or sneer at such a broad definition, perhaps, but it's a brilliant reframing, turning an obscure genre into a mainstream one. The ARG already owed part of its birth to Jane, and it now owes its coming of age to her too.

That broad definition allows McGonigal to discuss a wide variety of examples in the book, from "traditional" ARGs like I Love Bees to popular social services like Foursquare to deliberate wordly interventions like Chore Wars to social experiments like The Extraordinaries.

She also covers most of the games she's worked on personally, from complex, high-profile ARGs like World Without Oil and Evoke to improvised, personal games like the one she invented to recover from a bad concussion. The book also includes a discussion of Cruel 2 B Kind, the street game Jane and I made together in 2006, as well as a kind mention of my iPhone airport game Jetset.

She argues that playing and making games like Evoke not only make people happier (she calls game designers "happiness engineers"), but also inspire people to collaborate to solve problems. If we can leverage even a fraction of the millions of hours that gamers spend in virtual worlds and engage them in the real world, then they can accomplish "epic wins," ambitious, real successes that would match the ambitious, make-believe ones we accomplish all the time in games.

But don't worry, despite some overzealous simplifications in press coverage, Jane also believes the time we spend playing ordinary games is valuable in its own right. One can only hope that McGonigal's book scores an epic win against the trite, simplistic trends in "gamification" that her smart, sophisticated ideas overshadow.

All that said, Reality is Broken was a challenge for me to read. Not because it's hard, mind you; the book's 400 pages sail by thanks to the energy and earnestness of her writing. No, it challenges me because I can't seem to agree with some of her key principles, despite our friendship and collaborations.

But don't conclude that I think she's wrong; it's not that simple. Jane's an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know. And those of you who know me probably realize that I'm not the biggest optimist you know. See, I don't think reality is broken. It's messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don't get to fix it, ever. It's flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright.

And I don't think games are happiness engines, either. They are complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected. I play games to remind me of this. I make them for that purpose too. Jane and I have both designed games that engage the world's problems, but I tend to see my games as troubling the idea of solutions rather than leading us toward them.

For me, the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery. The systems-thinking games embrace shatters the very ideas of world-changing with which we have become so accustomed. And we don't occupy game worlds because the real world isn't happy or fun enough, but because we need help embracing that real world through the properties of ambiguity and intricacy that make games like the world in the first place.

As it happens, I very much agree with many of the strategies McGonigal draws from games: a long view, systems thinking, and experimentation, for example. We're of one mind on such topics. But here's the key difference: for me, we never save the world. It trudges on, new gears growing like tubers and meshing with old ones, old cogs grinding to dust behind them.

At many points in the book I really see eye to eye with Jane on this matter ("World Without Oil gave players a space for nonwishful thinking"; "The best-case scenario outcomes were posed not as probabilities—and certainly not as inevitabilities—but rater as plausible possibilities worth working toward").

There are ruffly, velvety undertones of reservation in Reality is Broken, and I found myself retreating to these caves of welcome hesitancy from the book's overall lagoon of confidence. I need to remember that reality is always a mess. That's not tragedy to me. It's the unstoppable infinity of being.

It's easy to call Jane a pollyanna, but that's a cynical move that must be rejected. And it's not that I'm a nihilist to Jane's optimist either. It's something more subtle: where she values happiness and epic wins, I value wonder and sublimity. The awesome hugeness of the world and its problems, as well as their solutions, always partial, always tentative, like a giant mountain peering through the fog, impossible.

Reality is Broken helps me see that we need both kinds of people in the world. I'm grateful to Jane for that, for pushing me to see my world through her eyes, which glow blue with daylight and buoyancy, spilling waves of hope toward the horizon.

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