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  • Writer's pictureWalter Fettich

A summary of "Reality is broken" by Jane McGonigal

In this book, Jane argues that the future will be gamified. This claim might sound eccentric or exaggerated but she really makes a great argument. She says that games have the power to bring us together and do great work that has impact and gives us meaning and fun. She also comes with a few examples of how this has happened before and how to make it work.

Many people, including me, think of games as these things they spend too much time on while not studying or working. However, it goes a bit deeper than that. The same techniques used to get you hooked on that level-up are being used by digital product companies to make their products more engaging and fun to use. The next step would be to go back into the offline reality and use gamification to create better experiences in the real world.

It starts by going a bit into the history of games and a game that supposedly was invented to help the ancient Lydians survive a crisis.

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy , with relentless optimism , at something we’re good at ( or getting better at ) and enjoy. “
“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.“

All games share four traits:

  • a goal - the final objective and achievement of the players

  • rules - a set of limitations of how the goal can be achieved

  • a feedback system - a clear way to tell players if they are closer or not to the goal

  • voluntary participation - players must have the option to play or leave when they wish and do so in a safe environment.

“All good gameplay is hard work . It’s hard work that we enjoy and choose for ourselves.”

It’s true actually, playing a game makes you tired, but just like doing great work, playing a great game makes you forget about the energy you put into it. It moves you in that sweet spot where flow emerges. Where it’s not too difficult and not too easy. And it makes failing fun. You can always just try again. Good games give you that perfect balance that keeps you always on the edge.

“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

It turns out that the best thing that can give you lasting happiness is meaningful work. Humans need to be engaged in something to feel happy. When we don’t find this something to engage in real life, we seek it out in the game world. This is probably why I spent countless hours playing when I was younger. The options I had in real life seemed either out of reach or too boring.

What can games provide ?

“the fastest way to improve someone’s everyday quality of life is to “ bestow on a person a specific goal, something to do and to look forward to. ”

1. More satisfying work

They can provide “hard fun” which means difficult activities about which we are optimistic as opposed to passive entertainment that, in excess, can result in boredom or depression.

This can be conducive to the primal emotion of “fiero”, which is the emotional high after a triumph over adversity.

2. Fun failure and better odds of success

They can provide the hope - but not necessarily the achievement - of success. A well designed game helps players develop exceptional mental toughness because it turns failing into learning. You can always try again, knowing that every failure will teach you something about how to beat that level.

“Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. . . . With games, learning (not winning) is the drug.”

3. Stronger social connectivity

Playing together can bring prosocial emotions:

  • happy embarrassment: - by teasing during games we let ourselves be a little embarrassed in front of others. This is testing a relationship. We show a bit of vulnerability and see that we can trust others to not abuse it. We enjoy being teased by people we trust, and we can see who we can trust by teasing. My own experience in improv shows me that doing something silly together can be a great way to build a relationship.

  • vicarious pride: "naches" - the yiddish word for the pride we feel when someone succeeds that we’ve mentored or taught. “Mentoring our friends and family in gameplay makes us happy and brings us together. The feeling of naches for someone we have taught can be more powerful that our own feeling of fiero, or pride of achievement. “

  • ambient sociability: the feeling of not being alone. This is why some people like to go to crowded places like bars or clubs even if they only interact with people they know. The feeling of having others around satisfies their desire for social connection even if it’s not very strong. Ambient sociability can also foster the desire to explore new relationships in people with shyness.

4. Finding meaning (becoming a part of something bigger )

We get the feeling of doing something meaningful when we are part of something bigger than ourselves, when we do something for a common good that matters to us.

“To experience real meaning, we don’t have to contribute something of real value. We just have to be given the opportunity to contribute at all.”

This is why playing games like MMOs where we can be part of a team or join an imaginary grand cause can give us a real sense of meaning even in an imaginary setting.

I especially like that she did her research. These are not just opinions, Jane backs most of her claims with actual study results.

Alternate reality games

“alternate realities are the anti-escapist game . ARGs are designed to make it easier to generate the four intrinsic rewards we crave — more satisfying work , better hope of success , stronger social connectivity , and more meaning — whenever we can’t or don’t want to be in a virtual environment.”

This is where Jane starts to show us some really impressive ways reality can be gamified. This can range from some basic but annoying tasks like in Chorewars ( a game that makes it more fun to deal with your household chores ) or Jetset (a game that makes flying fun for those who hate it) to self-development or recovering from mental stress like SuperBetter.

She goes through several categories where alternate games can help but I would broadly categorize them in these:

self improvement and happiness hacking:

  • Chorewars, SuperBetter

  • Top Secret Dance

creating communities and fostering social connections:

  • Bounce - a telephone conversation game designed to support cross-generational social interaction.

  • Cruel 2 B Kind - a team game where you get to “assassinate” your opponents with compliments

breathing new life in old places:

  • Tombstone Hold’Em - playing poker with tombstones in a cemetery

  • Ghosts of Chance - a fantasy exhibit in a museum

solving daunting challenges:

  • Investigate Your MP’s Expenses - was the world’s first massively multiplayer investigative journalism project that used the power of the crowds to examine over 400.000 public records.

  • Wikipedia - the world’s largest encyclopedia works similar to a massive multiplayer online game

  • Free Rice - a quiz where all the points you score get converted to food donated to the UN Food Programme.

  • Folding@Home - teams can compete in using their Playstations computing power to contribute to biology research.


“The great challenge for us today , and for the remainder of the century , is to integrate games more closely into our everyday lives , and to embrace them as a platform for collaborating on our most important planetary efforts .”

I was struck by the idea and examples of alternate reality games. As an improviser and former gamer, I have seen how simple games played together with other people can make us kinder and happier, but I never imagined how these game mechanics can be put to use to achieve a real-world greater good. As far as “gamification” goes, so far I've seen more exploitative techniques used by social media giants or other companies to try to make you spend more money. Rarely have I seen examples of gamification as an actual force for good but this book changed that.

This has totally inspired me to seek out some of my game ideas and see how “work” can be turned into “fun”. Imagine if we could use these techniques to reward people to participate in fixing problems like: pollution, corruption, inequality, transparency. These are all things we decry but feel like we are just too small to make a difference. But then again look at the leagues coming together in WoW, Halo or other MMORPGs. We are capable of doing great things together, but we want to be rewarded. Not necessarily with money, but with badges, thumbs up, likes, laughs, high scores and the encouragement that we're not alone on the right path. So why not make games that battle real-world problems too ?

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