I’ve been a gamer a long time – basically, since video games were first invented. I date myself but, as a kid, I played the first arcade games – landmark games such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede, Frogger, and Galaga. Ahh, such fond memories! I had an Atari 2600, then a ColecoVision (remember that one?), and many other game systems since then. I currently own a Wii (hey, I have young kids!), and also play some games on my computer and iPhone. I can’t honestly say that I’m a “hardcore” gamer these days. I’d like to be, but family, career, exercise, and sleep take precedence. There are simply too few hours in the day, so something has to give.
I did my dissertation research on the effects of violent video games on kids. I wasn’t out to bash video games – I wanted to give a more balanced view of them because I felt like they were being villified within the research and media by psychologists and politicians who obviously were not gamers. In my research, I discussed some of the many benefits of gaming as well. So, it was with great interest that I listened to the audiobook Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. She has a PhD from UC Berkeley, is an award winning game designer, and has a laundry list of impressive accomplishments and accolades.
For the parents out there who think that video games are a colossal waste of time for their kids, this book can be comforting, inspiring, and even draw-dropping. Also, if you are a gamer, a technologist, or just plain curious, this book is an inspiration. McGonigal examines the appeal of games and why they can get so many of us to devout countless hours to accomplish hard-sought goals. In many ways, games bring out the best in us. Gamers work extremely diligently to achieve incredibly difficult goals, and McGonigal explores why and how in this book. As McGonigal explains (and supports by evidence), by understanding why games can be so compelling, we can learn to leverage this information to make us more productive, effective, efficient, creative, and even healthy and compassionate in our daily lives.
For instance, one of McGonigal’s interests is in “alternate reality games,” which Wikipedia defines as “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.” As McGonigal explains, gaming concepts can be used to create games that inspire people to solve real-world problems. For example, in World Without Oil, an alternate reality game was created that allowed players to collective envision and create possible solutions to a world oil shortage. The ideas and solutions generated by the players of the game could potentially be used in real life in the event of a world oil shortage.
And here’s an example of how playing a game can actually save lives – please try it yourself and pass on to others! It’s called Freerice and is a non-profit website run by the United Nations World Food Programme. Basically, it’s an online trivia game that is paid for by sponsors who advertise on the site. These sponsors generate rice to fee the hungry for every trivia question you answer. You can see how much rice you donate because the amount accumulates with each correctly answered question.
McGonigal makes a strong case that gaming teaches gamers many of the skills that are critical to succeed in our technological age. One of the most important skills of which is acquired through online gaming: cooperative problem-solving. Now, there are obviously many dangers about gaming – addiction, diminished attention, exposure to graphic violence, “trolls” and cyberbullies, opportunity costs (i.e., what gets pushed out of the way by gaming), etc. McGonigal steers clear of most of these in Reality is Broken. It’s not the case that she doesn’t realize some of the problems of gaming, it’s just not the focus of this book. There are plenty of other books out there that warn of the dangers of technology (two of which I reviewed previous: You Are Not a Gadget and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains).
In sum, Reality Is Broken is a fantastic and fascinating book. Gaming is here to stay and, if we learn to capitalize on how games motivate and inspire us, perhaps, like McGonigal posits, we can learn to make ourselves and the world a better place.