on 26 July 2013
There are three reasons not to like this book, three objections created by my brain prior to proper reading.
"Reality isn't broken, reality is reality, deal with it, don't escape from it!"
This is NOT McGonigal's thesis (sorry for shouting). Reality is Broken is NOT about world-flight or whining. Instead of "reality" maybe read "the way we do some things at the moment"? Not as snappy, true, but it more accurately describes her point. Of course, there are multiple ways to define reality, if you want to get philosophical about it: the on-line world is just as 'real' as the off-line world, as is the corporate world or the intellectual world. That's why we have laws regulating all of them.
The RIB thesis is based on an observable phenomenon. People are leaving the off-line world for the online world in massive, increasing and demographically representative numbers. McGonical makes two contentions about these people. This 'mass exodus' is occurring because they are finding things on-line that are not as easily available in the off-line world, perhaps not there at all, things that are basic to human well-being. And instead of trying to convince them to return or chiding them for childish/irresponsible behaviour, we should learn from what games are going right and use this perspective to right wrongs in the off-line world.
"A four hundred page book about game design for non-experts? This is going to fry my brain!"
First off, this is not a book about game design, although it includes that. McGonigal starts off, not in the land of scripting languages and codebase, but by quoting a philosopher - Bernard Suits. In Part One, she defines what a game is (chapter 1), how they make us happy (chapter 2 - fun, flow and fiero), and then expands on four positive benefits (chapters 3-6). For example, chapter 5 outlines three pro-social emotions caused by games (happy embarrassment, vicarious pride, and ambient sociability). And chapter 6 lists three ways games create a sense of the meaningful and 'epic' (stories, environment and missions).
RIB employs this three-part chapter breakdown regularly, making many of the chapters like a three-point sermon. I found it a helpful way to divide and manage the material. Here are some examples from Part Two, 'Reinventing Reality', which also give you a sense of the book's wide-ranging contents and target applications:
* Chapter 7 - three types of ARG (alternate reality game)
* Chapter 8 - three ARGs used to solve real-world problems
* Chapter 9 - three community games
* Chapter 10 - thee 'Positive Psychology' games to bolster mental well-being
"This book is a naive, hyper-optimistic harangue, preaching the gospel of games to us poor troglodytes."
If I have to allow a criticism of this book, it's the evangelical tone the spills through at times. Parts of it feel like a cross between a revival meeting and sales pitch by a true believer (which she is). That's probably just the naturally reserved, mildly skeptical, British part of me, which smirks in the face of public displays of fervor, and pokes a finger in the eye of optimism.
However, I forgive McGonigal all her emotive transgressions for three reasons. One, she is damn smart. The scientific content of the book is serious, pervasive and bang up-to-date. Two, she is persuasive. Her arguments, ideas and applications are all compelling, more like a call-to-arms than a textbook. And three, she has experienced the power of games personally. After an accident damaged her brain, she felt suicidal. A game saved her, and game she created, and is now using to help others. You can't argue with that.
In particular, and among many others, I would like to submit three reasons why I love this book and why you might too.
Firstly, I've never read a book on games that is so influenced by and saturated with Positive Psychology (PP). I DON'T mean positive thinking, but the science of Positive Psychology as pioneered by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi among others. Many books on games like to mention Csikszentmihalyi in particular with his concept of 'flow' or optimal experience. None integrates the larger body of PP thinkers and theories into their grammar the way that McGonigal does. Not only that, but her interplay with the wider body of high-level psychologists elevates her and her work way beyond the techy (e.g. Paul Ekman and Abraham Maslow). As a non-programmer myself, but someone with knowledge of psychology and game studies, it felt good not to feel excluded from game design.
Second, as the book progresses, McGonigal moves in stages out past the games console to the big, bad, but could-be-better world that non-gamers inhabit. I've already mentioned her exploration of ARGs in Part Two of RIB. In Part Three - 'How Very Big Games Can Change The World' - she takes it larger.
* Chapter 11 - three crowdsourcing games that solve off-line issues
* Chapter 12 - three social participation games that make us feel heroic
* Chapter 14 - how to save the world with godgames, forecasting games and SEHIs ('Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals', the Übermensch fashioned within and emboldened by our digital age to perform wonders)
Perhaps this is where McGonigal shines the most.
Finally, RIB is written well, signposted well, with lots of juicy footnotes, yum, yum. Some other reviewers described the book as dry and verbose. Well, I suppose it is, compared to a Dilbert strip. There are other writers on game design out there whose writing is more trendy and terse, but whose content, in the mid-to-long-term, is shallow and (negatively) idiosyncratic. There is content to RIB, but there is humour, there is personality, there is passion, be of no doubt. McGonigal is a scholar as much as an evangelist. She's read every book on and around the subject, conducted original research, consulted for the biggest, and designed games from scratch. U can't touch this.
For a twenty-minute summary of this book's main thesis, and a chance to see its author in action, please check out "Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world" (TED2010).
If you'd like to see a more recent Jane talking about her accident and the game is spawned, look up "Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life" (TEDGlobal2012).