We who care and write about games face a conundrum. We want to make the case for games to a mainstream culture with narrow, often misguided perceptions about what cames can be and do. But if we ring our bell too often, persistently demanding that games be taken seriously, our pleas smack of desperation.
If games should be mentioned in the same breath with other art forms - if they possess aesthetic qualities and communicate meaning - why don't we just shut up and let the games do the talking? Is it possible that our collective effort to culturally elevate games is ultimately self-defeating?
Reality is Broken
In her new book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal walks squarely into the middle of this conundrum, but manages to avoid being ensnared by it. McGonigal isn't interested in delineating the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus or the ideological dimensions of Far Cry II. In fact, she mentions only a handful of popular games (Rock Band, Halo 3, World of Warcraft), and does so mostly in passing.
It turns out that McGonigal isn't much interested in making the case for games at all. She has set her sights on more than cultural respectability for games. McGonigal believes games can make us better people. But that's not all.
The game-enabled experiences McGonigal wants to explore (specialized ARGs, crowdsourced "very big games") occur in custom-designed games intended to produce socially positive goals. Games - or more aptly for McGonigal, the application of game design principles to real-world problems - can save the world. "They are, quite simply, the best hope we have for solving the most complex problems of our time."
Remember that bell I mentioned? McGonigal traded hers for a Chinese Opera gong.
How can McGonigal possibly prove such grandiose claims? Well, she can't - at least not completely - but she's remarkably effective at targeting thorny problems and designing games to address them. The persuasiveness of her arguments relies on her ability to explore an issue (such as injury recovery or "happiness hacking - translating positive-psychology research findings into game mechanics") and applying game design principles that target and address its causes.
McGonigal has an uncanny ability to break down a problem, identify a structure (goals, restrictions, feedback), and assign core mechanics that enable fun/useful interaction with the problem. Her chapters devoted to "Leveling Up in Life," and "Fun with Strangers" are full of terrific examples of games designed by McGonigal and others to incentivize simple, but important activities like convincing young people to stay in touch with their grandparents.
Later in the book, when McGonigal expands her scope to include complex worldwide issues like poverty and climate change, her reach seems to extend beyond her grasp, and it's difficult to see how a "serious game" like World Without Oil could have a truly meaningful impact on geopolitical issues of deep complexity. But here again, McGonigal's focus shifts to a root perspective. Serious games that address serious problems aren't necessarily built to solve those problems.
Instead, they do what James Paul Gee and others have suggested all effective games do: enable us to understand complex systems and develop intelligence and imaginative strategies for harnessing them. McGonigal subscribes to Will Wright's notion that "augmenting our natural capacity for imagination" is vital at this precise moment in history. "It's a matter of survival, pure and simple."
Games provoke our imaginations, big-picture thinking, and problem-solving impulses in ways that we can leverage for the good of the planet. "We have been playing good games for nearly as long as we have been human," says McGonigal. "It is now time to play them on extreme scales."
Reality is Broken is a wildly audacious work, and McGonigal puts herself on the line throughout the book with exalted assertions like: "It seems clear to me that games are the most likely candidate to serve as the next great breakthrough structure for life on earth." That she managed to beat back most of my knee-jerk retorts is a testament to her persuasiveness as a writer and the carefully constructed logic of her ideas. McGonigal is prepared to defend the turf she has staked out, and she makes no apologies for the grandiosity of her project. I'm skeptical about the power of game design to save the world, but McGonigal makes me doubt my doubts.
I am dubious about a few of her claims, however. ARGs like Cruel 2 B Kind - a crowd game designed to increase the social well-being of a place by dispatching teams of players dispensing hospitality and compliments to strangers - certainly looks like fun. But I question the real impact when such actions lack authentic inspiration. An act of kindness to a stranger is diminished when that act is delivered to score points, defeat an opponent, or win a game. I should note that I've never played Cruel 2 B Kind, so I should be careful not to dismiss it out of hand.
I'm also troubled by McGonigal's assumption that people who regularly play games have "opted out of reality." She quotes Edward Castronova's term: a "mass exodus" to game spaces, and asserts that this exodus is "more than a perception. It's a phenomenon." She goes on to cite statistics that show hundreds of millions of active gamers worldwide, and she suggests these numbers prove we have turned to games because they are "teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not."
I'm one of those gamers, and I must say this characterization rings false to me. I accept McGonigal's notion that "video games are fulfilling genuine human needs," but I'm not convinced we've all turned to them because the real world cannot satisfy those needs. In fact, it's quite the opposite with me.
I wish games were more capable of addressing, exploring, or satisfying me as a human in the world. Too often, the disconnect flings me back to the real world, grateful for its complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. I do not play games as an escape from the real world. More often, I play them seeking ways to abstract, virtually explore, or amplify the non-virtual world I find infinitely more interesting.
These objections do nothing to diminish my admiration and gratitude for Reality is Broken. McGonigal's mission couldn't possibly be more ambitious, and she succeeds to an astonishingly impressive degree. This is a thoughtful, generous, and forward-looking work that offers a path to a bright future if we're willing to learn the valuable lessons games can teach us. It's a hopeful vision supported by pragmatic ideas rooted in proven design principles. As McGonigal puts it, "Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They're leading us to its reinvention."