Jane McGonigal: Reality Is Broken

Jane McGonigal
According to Palo Alto-based researcher Jane McGonigal, reality is not nearly as compelling as the games we play, and her statistics -- internationally, we spend three billion hours a week gaming -- support her claims. In her new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future says that reality doesn't engage, motivate or inspire us the way the best games do, and this is a problem.

The book builds on McGonigal's doctoral research at UC Berkeley, where she combined performance studies with research in psychology, cognitive development and gaming, as well as her practical experience as a game designer specializing in some of the best known Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), including World Without Oil and Superstruct, both of which invited participants to grapple with real world problems in fictional story worlds. Through this work, McGonigal has come to realize that games are uniquely suited to challenge, thrill and engage us, and to promote powerful social bonding, unlike our more mundane activities at work or school. "Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy," she said last week in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and her book is designed to show how and why games are so compelling, and to inspire us to leverage the power of games to help reality.

Structured in three parts, the book opens with an investigation of games and happiness, and moves on to explore the world of ARGs, and the key attributes for creating a successful alternate reality; the final section looks at the logistics of massive game play, and its potential to impact reality. The book generously outlines the thinking that contributed to the design of specific games, from the unfortunate concussion that sparked a game devoted to making yourself healthy again called Super Better, to intriguing projects such as Tombstone Hold Em, a poker game played in cemeteries that makes players happy by getting them to spend time thinking about death. She describes the New York-based charter school Quest to Learn, which adopts an ARG structure to motivate learning among 6th and 7th graders, and she explains how she managed to get young people to chat with senior citizens and discover points of connection through an innovative telephone-based game.

The book may initially seem like a guide for game designers, or even players, but it's actually a pertinent snapshot of contemporary culture written by someone who is genuinely concerned about our ability to be happy, connect with others, and make the world a better place. Indeed, the book's power - beyond the surprisingly fascinating details of game design - resides in McGonigal's almost Mary Poppins-esq optimism and contagious belief in the power of games to change the world.

McGonigal will speak at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wednesday, February 9 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Zócalo Public Square project.

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