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Saving the world

Book week

RealityIsBroken  Newsgamescover  FunInc

It's book week at Brainy Gamer! In my next fews posts, I'll look at three new books by Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken), Ian Bogost (Newsgames, with collaborators Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweitzer), and Tom Chatfield (Fun, Inc.). All three propose that games have the power to do important, transformative work, but they differ wildly in their goals and rhetorical strategies. 

Today I'll mainly set the table, taking a brief look at Reality is Broken. In my next post, I'll offer a closer look, and, taking my cue from McGonigal, I'll offer a few design ideas of my own. 

Game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal has been making the rounds recently - delivering a TED talk, appearing on NPR and The Colbert Report, and touring the country to promote her new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. It's a fascinating read. While I'm not convinced by all her arguments, and I believe single-player games deserve more attention than she gives them, McGonigal's central premise breaks important ground, and her ideas deserve careful consideration by all of us who care about games and their impact on society.

McGonigal believes games offer a structural model for incentivizing and rewarding positive thoughts and actions. Games, McGonigal says, are "happiness engines," and we can develop more fulfilling, productive, and close-knit groups (families, communities, businesses, etc.) by making them more "gameful."

It's easy to be skeptical about McGonigal's claims. Browse your local bookstore, and you'll find dozens of agents for change - social entrepreneurs, positive thinkers, vegans, ecologists, evangelists, philosophers - all claiming the power to change the world. Game design can be seen as just another paradigm for encouraging people to re-examine their assumptions and adopt new mental tools. In this light, McGonigal is a new-age Norman Vincent Peale, peddling the power of positive thinking to Millennials...GAMIFIED!

But such a view of McGonigal's work ignores the levelheaded approach and clear-sighted vision conveyed by Reality is Broken. This book is not an instructional manual for building a games-centric utopia or a pop-sociology study of "game culture." McGonigal does not issue a clarion call for "games as art," nor does she plead a case for games as culturally respectable or worthy of study. 

Instead, she begins with the premise that games possess the power to fulfill "genuine human needs," and she devotes fourteen chapters to examining why and how we might leverage that game-player interaction to benefit ourselves and others. Many of McGonigal's claims - such as her contention that games encourage behavior that is "urgently optimistic in the face of failure" - help us see the potential of game design principles outside the game space. 

McGonigal also explains why "synchronized engagement" and "collective commitment" create intangible but powerfully satisfying rewards for players. She's especially adept at explaining why "Games don't just happen. Gamers work to make them happen." This prosocial behavior, even in competitive games, has powerful implications. If working for the mutual benefit of all players makes a better game, what else can we do with that system?

McGonigal believes people need more "epic wins": opportunities to do extraordinary things. She describes a phenomenon that rings true with me - one that's grown more prevalent in my classroom over the last decade. "There's an undeniable tendency toward irony, cynicism, and detachment in popular culture today," she notes. Games motivate players to care deeply about their actions and drive them to achieve big, momentous outcomes. It's worth asking why this disconnect exists. Why do players engage so deeply and willingly in a fictional world, but perceive positive, selfless behavior in the real one so dubiously?

Serious talk about games is trending. Thoughtful consideration of the medium now extends beyond geek culture into mainstream popular media and academia. Thought-leaders like McGonigal and Ian Bogost (whose latest book Newsgames proposes "a new way of doing good journalism") are tapping into the zeitgeist as commentators while also working to define and advance it as creators.

Newsgames deserves more time than I can devote to it now. I'll return later this week with a more thorough examination. Fun, Inc. will come last. There's a reason for that. I'll explain. Hope you'll stick around.