I’ve submitted another ticket to Blizzard. Things just haven’t been right for me in World of Warcraft (WoW) since I downloaded the 5.0.4 patch to prepare for the launch of Mists of Pandaria. Rather than burden you with my WoW woes, I’ve decided to spend this down-time writing and raving about a book I just finished: Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin, 2011). The book presents 14 ways in which reality is broken and 14 gameful fixes. It’s the best book I’ve read in ages, very accessible and highly engaging.
WoW is her main model for Fix #3: More Satisfying Work. McGonigal says, “Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work.” Plus they provide “actionable next steps toward achieving” a specific goal (55). For instance, WoW uses quest chains in which the completion of one quest leads to another that may be a tad more difficult, a chain which frequently leads to the job of killing a mob boss (the bad guys’ shaker and mover). As such, the payoff for one quest is the opportunity to do more work, perhaps harder, yet fun, work. And it’s satisfying work because we believe that we can succeed – even when our toon dies a few times trying. She calls this “blissful productivity” (53). As an aside, McGonigal tells us that before she began playing WoW, a friend warned her that WoW is “the single most powerful IV drip of productivity ever created.” Noting that over her first WoW weekend she played 23 hours more than the one hour she’d intended, she says, “He wasn’t kidding” (60).
Fix #4: Better Hope of Success addresses an idea that is, thankfully, gaining traction among educators: that failure is a partner in deep learning, a necessary component, the grist of challenge, and feedback to take seriously. Failure jerks us awake and gets us moving toward a target more strategically. McGonigal says, “Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.” Along with hard fun, there’s “fun failure” that “keeps the game going” and leads to mastery (68). We remain optimistic that we can do it and keep trying until we do – flow and fiero! She doesn’t explicitly refer to WoW for this “fix,” but it clearly applies.
Introducing Fix #5: Stronger Social Connectivity, McGonigal says, “Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks” (82). Guilds are the best vehicle for social connectivity in WoW; there’s frequent mentoring and “vicarious pride” in guildies’ achievements. Although in one study WoW players averaged 70 percent of their time pursuing individual missions, the players interviewed expressed enjoyment in “sharing the virtual environment,” what McGonigal calls “ambient sociability” or “playing alone together” (89). And, I suspect, that while these players were solo questing, a goodly number were chatting with their guildies or lurking as other members chatted – I’ve certainly learned a lot about the game while lurking :^).
With Fix #7: Wholehearted Participation, McGonigal begins focusing on alternate reality games like Chore Wars and says, “Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing” (124)– even cleaning the toilet, if, that is, we’re competing with family members or roommates to rack up more experience points (XP). She calls Chore Wars “a simplified version of World of Warcraft,” a game with practical results and played with those close to us (120). She also offers an intriguing case study of the New York City public school Quest to Learn, which uses WoW techniques like quests, leveling, achievements, and boss levels to engage students in a college-prep curriculum (127-32). I focused on Quest to Learn in a previous post.
Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), many of which use WoW-like strategies, make up the majority of examples McGonigal uses in the last two-thirds of her book. Her mission, after all, is to show us how game techniques are powerful motivators for doing work that makes a difference in our lives, in the world, in the reality that gamers share with non-gamers everyday. It’s about learning how to “level up in life.” “What the world needs now,” she says, “are more epic wins: opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary thing – like change or save someone’s life – every day” (247). I applaud her epic ambitions!
Games like Chore Wars and World Without Oil – and so very many more – are “alternate” in the sense that features of games (e.g., questing, leveling up, fun failure, immediate feedback, and fictional storylines) are applied to real life goals to make the work more enjoyable, whether it’s raking leaves in the backyard or collaborating with 1000 other people to tackle a social problem.
McGonigal’s last chapter, the longest, is a call for all of us to become involved in “Saving the Real World Together” (the chapter’s title). Here she offers Fix #14: Massively Multiplayer Foresight, about which she says, “Reality is stuck in the present. Games help us to imagine and invent the future together” (302). This chapter is filled with examples of games that have led or can lead people to invent the future together. Two of these games McGonigal developed: Superstruct, for crowdsourcing solutions to future “superthreats” like the “collapse of the global food system” (317-33); and EVOKE, for empowering “young people all over the world, especially in Africa, to start actively tackling the world’s most urgent problems,” from poverty to human rights (333-40). The book ends with an epilogue called “Reality Is Better” and has two useful appendices: an annotated list of games mentioned in the book and “Practical Advice for Gamers.”
I’ve provided only a glimpse of the riches you’ll find in Reality Is Broken. If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so. It will make you think. It will introduce you to games you may want to try – for instance, I recently enrolled in and played Sparked (formerly called The Extraordinaries), a microvolunteering game in which you can quickly and digitally help organizations, mostly nonprofits, complete large tasks. And, most importantly, it may indeed help to make us better people who can make a positive difference in the world, who are contributing to something larger than ourselves. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “We must be the change we want to see.”