Reality Is Broken: Yup, Sure Is
Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 15, 2012
About a year late, I just finished reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken and have some thoughts on the subject. First off, it’s a well-written and well-sourced book that I can safely recommend to anyone who’s read this far. There are important ideas worth discussing and passing along, and I wish there were more books like it. It’s basically divided into 2 halves: A well argued first half discussing the ways that well designed video games are superior to reality, and a series of conclusions about how to best apply this knowledge. This is a case where I completely agree with the premise of the book, but take issue with many of the conclusions. I’ll save that for a second post, but for now it’s worth discussing some of the ways in which reality Kind of Sucks.
Work is Broken
I’ve talked a bit about motivational psychology before, and the evidence (much of which is referenced from within the book) is overwhelming that most people’s jobs compare very miserably to playing a well designed game. The job of a well designed game is to provide a set of unnecessary obstacles for a player to optimistically attempt to complete, while most jobs alternate between work that is too easy, and situations that are incredibly tense. The ideal is to get into the psychological state of “flow“, where the difficulty of tasks are just right such that you can focus all of your mental energy on a problem and achieve meaningful and creative results. Games are great at this, jobs suck.
The feedback loop is the key to achieving flow. I’m lucky enough to be in a job where I get clear feedback about the success of my creative work (I just made that guy jump!), and there are other types of “satisfying” jobs, ranging from playing music, to crafting physical objects, to harvesting a crop. But, how do you provide the feedback our brains crave for participating in meetings? Or filling out paperwork that never seems to end? There aren’t easy answers here, so many of us turn to games to fill a legitimate, real need that cannot be satisfied by the rest of our lives. This isn’t an “addiction”, any more than water is an addiction: it’s a base human need that is being met less and less by what we spend most of our day doing. On a sidenote, I appreciated the reminder by Jane that introducing extrinsic rewards (ie much of the current “gamification” craze) has the real chance to suck all the intrinsic motivation out of a task. You need to be careful with rewards.
Reality is Unforgiving
One of the most confusing aspects of the psychology of gaming is that most gamers derive enjoyment out of failing. This is very confusing to both outsiders and inexperienced game designers, because it’s contrary to what happens in the “real” world. Jane McGonigal does a great job of explaining why this, and the first key is “optimistic failure”. Nearly every game is created with the expectation that a player will eventually solve it, and experienced players realize this. So, when that player fails horribly and explodes in to a pile of guts the reaction isn’t “life sucks”, it’s “next time I’ll get it!”. There are tons of ways for badly-designed games to subvert this (too easy and there’ s no satisfaction from losing, too random and the player has no way to actually improve), but there’s always the reassuring thought that, if you try hard enough, you can win.
Reality isn’t so forgiving, and there are real situations where no matter what you do, you cannot win. But, from my personal experience the lessons I’ve learned from gaming help me navigate reality: there’s always a way to win, if you have the ability to redefine the game. If there’s one thing games have truly taught me, it’s that there may actually be a way through and you should keep trying, at least until you run out of lives and it plays the sad music. And, I think those of us who grew up on games are demanding realities where there truly is the chance to succeed. This is stymied at every step by political realities and entrenched social values, but that optimism has some value to contribute to society.
Games for Social Safety
One of the most important roles for games in today’s society is to provide a place for introverts like myself to safely experiment with social interaction. It’s easy to screw this up (witness Xbox Live chat or the rampant hatred present in theoretically cooperative games), but it’s one of the most important areas that game designers should be focusing on to do legitimate good. Jane wisely identifies the first step as Ambient Sociability, or having the feeling of being around real people during enjoyable activities. This has been identified as core to the MMO experience, and when this is the only form of sociability (like in Demon’s/Dark souls) you can really see the power it has. People feel comfortable around other people, and it helps to associate good feelings of accomplishment and flow with the presence of other people, which is the first critical step to breaking out of social isolation.
On top of that, Jane points out other critical social experiences that gaming enables. Happy Embarrassment is the kind of polite trash talking and teasing that happens during games between friends, and helps to erase social stratification. Game designers need to do a better way to encourage this behavior in contexts where it is appropriate (facebook is great), while actively discouraging it when playing with strangers (due to lack of context, the same words go from playful teasing to hurtful bullying). Vicarious pride is the great feeling you get when you mentor someone and watch them succeed at something new. Cooperative console games are great at this, but lots of other games (most MMOs actively discourage this by restricting grouping) would benefit from more opportunities here. Every single game being built today would benefit from designs that encouraged positive social interactions.
Everything Can’t Be Epic
The last major advantage that Jane identifies for games is an improved ability to feel part of something greater. This is where the thesis starts breaking down for me. One element that does ring true is that in games you feel like you’re part of a larger world that you can truly influence, which is usually lacking in real life. Truly “large” world are easier to build in games, but honestly movie directors and authors do just as good a job here so that doesn’t feel like a real advantage to the medium. It feels like a real failing of the state of video games that “meaning” is equated with “huge”, and it really bothers me that that type of meaning is what 99% of games are striving for. There are still “awesome” movies and books, but those mediums have evolved to look for true meaning in other ways as well, games generally haven’t gotten there yet.
It may be my cynicism from playing entirely too many video games, but if every single game is “Epic”, then none are. The key to feeling involved in a real world is the interactions allowed by that world, not the sheer scale of it. A game like Skyrim takes advantage of scale to make you feel important, but just throwing me into large environments like Halo does tends to wear off after a game or too. The feeling of Awe, in games and in real life, acts like an addiction in that you need more and more of it to get the same feeling of deep connection, when it would be better to experiment with other avenues to build a feeling of deep connection with the world and other people. Also, Jane uses the term “Epic Win” repeatedly, which reacts poorly with my inner cynicism/realism.
We’ve Got Work to Do
At this point, I’ve covered about 1/3 of the page count in Reality is Broken, and the strongest conclusion I’ve reached is that most games are nearly as broken as reality. Sure, games generally do a pretty good job at creating flow, but these days “movie games” are starting to take over that dictate the experience directly from designer to player. Online multiplayer games are just as harsh and unforgiving as the real world, and opportunities for mentoring are sometimes stymied by a game’s design. The primary source of larger meaning that games strive for is giant explosions, which is starting to reach tolerance and lose it’s impact. We can do better, and we need to do better if we want to show the rest of the world how it should be done.