Book Review: Reality is Broken

Posted: 10 March 2011 in Reviews

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun – and snap! The job’s a game!" – Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman, A Spoonful of Sugar

I didn’t intend to do any more book reviews, but since this one is about gaming, I’ll make an exception.

Jane McGonigal, PhD, is a psychologist who has worked in and around the videogames industry for some time. This book (Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World) is an extension of her 2008 speech at the annual Game Developers’ Conference.


Human beings have key psychological needs, which are better met by games than by real life. These needs are: Activities which are satisfying, a feeling of control, appreciation from others, a feeling of improvement over time, social connections, and feeling part of something larger than ourselves.

Real life can be made more satisfying by adopting some of the things learned from videogame design. This makes people happier and more confident overall.

Gamers work hard, but they expect it to be fun, and they expect the above social needs to be met – paradoxically, they are demotivated by being paid to do what they would do for free if it were fun. Given a choice, gamers would rather do something that makes a positive difference in the real world. This approach can be harnessed to provide social benefits and find new ways of tackling real-world problems.


The gaming industry has a large number of psychologists and sociologists studying exactly what makes people happy, and how to achieve it in games. The industry wants to create lifelong gamers; they deliberately design games which you can play over the long term, but not for more than about 20 hours per week – the research suggests most people who regularly play more than that drop out of gaming, as they feel real life is passing them by. If that happens, their future gaming dollars are lost.

The evidence cited by McGonigal suggests that the good feelings from a successful game elevate one’s mood and confidence in general, for hours or days afterwards; and that people who help each other in games are more likely to do so in real life. (This challenges my long-held belief that violent videogames don’t foster violence, which I developed by observing that the 1980s hysteria about D&D players being suicidal Satanists was untrue. However, if being nice in games makes one nicer in real life, I suppose by extension being nasty should make you nastier.)

From the turn of the 21st century, a number of games called Alternate Reality Games have been developed, which aim to make real life more satisfying by making it more like a game; those with experience of software such as media players could think of this as "reskinning". A subset of these games are designed to generate real-world benefits, by making it fun to do socially responsible things. ARGs are traditionally provided free of charge by the developers. Examples of these games are:

  • Chore Wars – makes housework a competitive game.
  • SuperBetter – makes coping with serious illness a game.
  • Quest for Learning – makes schoolwork a series of quests. (One NYC school is using this in anger now as its curriculum.)
  • Cruel 2B Kind – fosters random acts of kindness.
  • FoldIt – uses gamers to solve medical protein folding problems.
  • The Extraordinaries, aka Sparked – makes helping charities a series of quests.
  • Groundcrew – encourages random acts of help between players.
  • Lost Joules – turns energy conservation into a game.

There are many other examples explained in the book. Although the book starts off in videogames, ARGs in particular move back into the real world, with mobile devices like cellphones being used to assign tasks and keep score.

McGonigal cites research indicating that the top few performers in any field are those who put in 10,000 hours of practice before the age of 21. Add that to the prediction that the average child in the UK or USA will spend about 10,000 hours playing videogames by 21, and she deduces that whatever videogames make us good at, we are raising a whole generation who will be outstanding at it. She proposes that what games make us good at is long-term collaboration, offering supporting evidence and a number of suggestions on how we can use this to tackle real-world problems such as reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Her argument here is that we can use games like World Without Oil or Superstruct to energise ordinary people to work together on large-scale, long-term problems, identifying and testing possible solutions in shared gedanken experiments. These need to involve at least a thousand people, and run for several weeks, to generate radical and creative approaches; the platforms for doing that are currently available in the form of MMORPGs and social networks. Even in the developing world, mobile phones are commonplace enough to serve as a platform – and where they are not, graphic novels (aka comic books) are being used.

McGonigal closes by recapitulating the 14 specific lessons we can learn from games to improve our quality of life, which have been detailed throughout the book individually.


The psychological needs McGonigal mentions are things I have historically met by playing wargames and pen-and-pencil RPGs, and perhaps latterly by blogging about them as well.

Considering these needs is a credible explanation for the inexorable drift towards multiplayer online games, the dominance among pen-and-paper RPGs of those with class-and-level systems driven by experience points, and the focus among wargamers on tournament play.

RPGs and wargames as I knew them have been largely supplanted by videogames over the last 20 years, I suspect because the rewards are both more immediate and more obvious to the players. Surviving RPGs and wargames are becoming more like videogames (D&D 4th edition, I’m lookin’ at you), and having read this book I now see that as adopting ideas which are proven to make games more fun, rather than as a doomed attempt to wean players off World of Warcraft.

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