Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reality is Broken - or not

Reality is broken is an interesting book.  From the taglines and reviews it is the sort of thing I would expect to really like but as is so often the case the devil is in the details.  The basic idea behind it is that the real world is very bad at entertaining and engaging people and that games and lessons from games can be used to make the world a better place because games are so good at entertaining and engaging people.

The trick is that the basic premise of looking at popular games to understand what motivates people and trying to use those motivational techniques for good works is a fine one.  Wikipedia is a good example of this; there are rankings and levels and fights and bad guys to fight and an endless world to explore... and because of this some 100 million hours have been poured into the project entirely by volunteers.  The problem is when the author gets overexcited and begins to overgeneralize and wildly exaggerate the facts, possibilities and potential benefits of 'gamifying' the real world.

The best example of this is when McGonigal makes use of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours benchmark for being good at things.  She suggests that since high schoolers these days are graduating with 10,000 hours of video gaming under their belts they are all prodigies at collaborating.  According to her hours spent playing video games can all be considered extensive training at collaboration with others.  I will admit that I learned a lot from leading WOW raiding guilds, recruiting and maintaining online relationships... but I also spent a hell of a lot of time murdering demonic cows in Diablo 2 and crushing enemy civilizations in CiV and those hours were not remotely useful for collaboration.  I would also suggest that I am by far not the norm in this; after seeing how fragile and disastrous most online groups are in nearly any game you can name I would say that collaboration is, if anything, greater outside of games than in.  In most games you can utterly ignore everyone around you if you want to and are rarely forced to compromise and negotiate, which are things that the real world has in abundance.  Not to say there aren't games that do encourage collaboration, because there are, but I would be shocked if you found that hardcore gamers are actually better at collaborating than nongamers.  When I think about the greatest lessons in collaboration that I have received they are all from situations where I was forced to work with a particular person on a challenging project where we did not agree on how the project was to be tackled and all come from real life.

There is also a heavy reliance on silly or meaningless statements like "Reality is stuck in the present, but games let us see the future."  What does that even mean?  This sort of thing makes me dismiss the argument entirely because it is based on generating good feelings with ill defined, ambiguous terms.  I could just as well argue that "Love is the greatest force in the universe" and aim for high emotional impact with no useful content.  The book isn't useless by any means - outlining the things that make people happy and elaborating on how to tap into people's unused energy in ways that benefit us all is a good goal and worth pursuing.  I find McGonigal's analysis of ways in which we can use games to hack our lives to make both ourselves and everyone around us happier to be intriguing and insightful.  In the end the book has many good points but they are drowned out by the overuse of repetitive examples and pretty but meaningless sound bites.

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