'Reality is Broken': Jane McGonigal, Games, and the Future

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Jane McGonigal is a game designer and futurist who, in addition to many other things, works for the Institute for the Future. Over the past few years, McGonigal has given popular talks at places like TED, SXSW and Ignite with one basic premise: that games can and will save the world.

According to McGonigal, games are fantastic systems for channeling our excess time while letting us still doing work. And if the millions of man-hours gamers spend on tasks within games (McGonigal estimates for instance that gamers have spent over 5 million hours playing World of Warcraft alone) could be tied into productive real world tasks then the potential to change the world is almost unlimited.

While this premise is intriguing McGonigal has usually presented it publicly only in short form talks that have been understandably a little light on detail. To rectify this, McGonigal has written a new book Reality is Broken, where she goes into depth on different aspects of her premise as well as her game design work. The book is briskly and engagingly written and generally divided into three sections.

The first section of the book simply lays out what video games are and how they serve as good tools motivating players to keep working at tasks. While none of this information will be news to video game players it serves as an interesting primer and helps even veteran gamers look at their hobby in a new way.

The second section is about large scale collaborate games such as alternate reality games (ARGs). These games may be less familiar to readers and the section does a great job of laying out what they are while also showing off some great case studies like the Quest to Learn school that’s designed it’s curriculum off of game design principles. McGonigal’s best revelations are found in this section

The last section concentrates on games that attempt to solve real-world problems like McGonigal’s own World Without Oil. And while this section is interesting, it quickly becomes obvious that this is still a field in its infancy as almost all of the examples were created by McGonigal herself.

All three of these sections have moments of brilliant insight, but the book as a whole still has its flaws. While McGonigal does a good job of arguing that good game design can help make any task more engaging and that a little elbow grease on large scale projects like Wikipedia could help improve the world she’s a little light on connecting those two ideas together. There’s no discussion of how to make engaging games around real world social problems outside of a few case studies of McGonigal’s work and, as others have noted, no real guarantee that these tools couldn’t be used for evil (or whatever you’d classify Farmville as).

Still the book itself is a must-read for the geek-set, if only for McGonigal’s well crafted stories of how games are already changing our lives.

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