Monday, February 17, 2014

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken is a fascinating exploration of how we could make reality better by adapting various lessons that designers of today's best alternate reality games (ARGs) have learned and applied to make their games more fun. In order to do so, McGonigal has to spend a good amount of time explaining what makes games fun, sticky, and great arenas for training us to be better at collaboration. I found it very informative, since I'm currently helping develop Ingress, a MMO, real-world, ARG. If you're interested in games, or would like your life to be filled with more fun and more purposive action, I recommend the book.

McGonigal starts out by describing several ways in which games are well designed to draw us in and keep us entertained. One of the more important ways in which games keep us in a state of flow is by arranging challenges so we can always be working just at the comfortable edge of our abilities and constantly trying to get better at whatever we're doing. The psychology literature (follow the previous link) has shown that these are crucial to the kind of happiness that is satisfying over the long-term rather than merely momentarily entertaining.

McGonigal describes ARGs as antiescapist games; games you play to get more out of your real life, as opposed to games you play to escape it.

She describes quite a few games she has designed, some for entertaining other people, some to entertain herself or help herself through a tough period in her life, and some to get people to work together on a collective goal. There are games in each of these categories that are worth learning about, and if you're interested, you should read the book. My favorite is probably SuperBetter, which is an approach to self-help disguised as a game.

While in the midst of writing this book, McGonigal had a serious concussion, and struggled to recover. After a month or two of enforced rest that didn't lead to the hoped-for recovery, she took her game design skills and made a game out of doing a little bit of the right kind of retraining every day. Game design taught her that she should set herself a series of goals that were reachable, but not trivial; that she should enlist friends to provide reinforcement, and that she should find ways to reward herself for sticking to the plan, and for every little bit of progress. The right reward structure keeps you coming back for more. She's shared that approach and the rules framework she devised so others with analogous challenges can follow the same path.

Reality is Broken offers 14 relatively concrete Fixes for Reality. These are lessons from the way modern games are designed that can be applied to the real world to make life more fun and business more productive, to help us achieve important goals collectively, and to help us apply the things we learn while playing to our daily lives and relationships. I don't think she hit all 14 out of the park, but probably 80% are worth paying attention to, which is a pretty high achievement level.

Along the way, McGonigal introduced me to new terms for emotions that I recognized immediately, but didn't have words for before. Fiero (from an Italian word for pride) is a term for the feeling you get from triumph over adversity. It's the feeling that first led to end-zone celebrations, though nowadays those are often more about taunting than celebrating. Another useful term is naches, which is a Yiddish word for pride in the accomplishments of those we've coached or mentored. There's a substantial portion of the Ingress player base that gets their rewards by helping other people get better at the game.

Reality is Broken is a very entertaining presentation of the idea that while modern ARGs are packaged and enjoyed as games, they serve a serious purpose in helping us enjoy our real lives, and some of the ways they do so could be usefully applied outside of the world of games.

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