Reality Is Broken

Why Games Make Us Better & How They Can Change the World

Review - Reality is Broken

My name is Jason Hawreliak. I’m the Essays editor on First Person Scholar.  I’m in the midst of finishing up my Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research examines the cultural and psychological functions of gaming and gamer culture.

“Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community?… The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments.” (Jane McGonigal p. 3)

Reality is Broken has become a bit of a big deal in gaming, both in the academic and popular presses. Ian Bogost wrote that it “is destined to be one of the most influential works about videogames ever published,”  and it has become a New York Times Bestseller. McGonigal is writing to a very broad audience – designers, theorists, academics, the public – and so it is a very readable, lucid text. It is divided into fourteen chapters under three main sections – “Why Games Make Us Happy,” Reinventing Reality,” and “How Very Big Games Can Change the World,” which I’ll summarize below. Each chapter is essentially centered around a ludic “fix” for reality, such as the one for Chapter 2: “Emotional Activation: Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy” (p. 38).

The book rests on this dichotomy between games and “reality.” Generally speaking, games are described as “happiness engines,” which provide us with a sense of heroic purpose, fun, and fulfillment we don’t usually find in “reality.” For McGonigal, “reality” essentially refers to the “everyday,” the mundane, or the perpetual grind of living one’s life. In short, reality is essentially boring and not stimulating, but games are both. Thus, instead of trying to limit play, or view it as “pointless,” we should encourage it, and moreover, harness humanity’s fundamental, ludic drive to solve “real world” problems, such as conflict, hunger, and climate change.

McGonigal’s dichotomy between “reality” and games is at once the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, it allows McGonigal to highlight some of the ways that games are unique, and how they can provide important social and psychological benefits. On the other hand, an academic audience will likely quibble with her occasionally rigid dichotomies: after all, what does it mean that games are somehow separate from “reality?” Playing a game is as “real” of an experience as jogging, playing basketball with friends, and yes, working at a mundane job. So I found myself at once agreeing with her central thrust that games are a form of escapism, that they can make us happy, and that they can be used for addressing “real world” problems; however, I do not subscribe to the belief that gaming en masse somehow constitutes “an exodus from reality,” (p. 7). Moreover, there is a tendency here to make broad, generalized statements about gamers and gaming culture at large, which doesn’t accurately reflect the many types of games and the many types of gamers. An example of this can be seen in the “Emotional Activation” fix listed above.

All that being said, I think this does bring an important voice to Game Studies. Games can serve important social and psychological functions, and McGonigal’s book is teeming with important insights, particularly from social psychology.

Introduction: “Reality is Broken”

The book begins by describing the cultural and commercial significance of gaming. Game Studies people will probably be familiar with the material in the first sections: Gaming is a multi-billon dollar industry; the demographics are shifting; games are not trivial, and so on. The idea that gaming is an escape mechanism for the “nine-to-fivers” forms a central part of her thesis, and for McGonigal, escapism is not a bad thing. Indeed, instead of denouncing escapism, we should harness it and view games as a form of “purposeful escape” (p. 6). We can appropriate the powerful drive to play games and use it to solve problems in “reality.” Educators, employers, and politicians should thus be fostering play instead of suppressing it. That’s the central point of the text, and you can be forgiven for thinking of a word that rhymes with “bamification.”

Section One: “Why Games Make Us Happy

The first section begins with a discussion of the common, pejorative uses of the terms “games” and “play,” (i.e. as distractions, trivial, etc.) and then provides a fairly standard discussion of play as a concept and culturally significant form. She takes her starting point from (former U Waterloo professor) Bernard Suits, who wrote that “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” and this feature of enjoyable unnecessariness will inform much of the rest of the book.

McGonigal then provides an overview of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” and positive psychology, or the “science of happiness” (p. 35), and then applies these concepts to gaming. Positive psychology looks at how human beings experience happiness, and to me, this application of social psychology to game design and analysis is one of the book’s chief contributions to Game Studies. This is an area we should be exploring in further detail. McGonigal does generalize a bit here, as gaming can make us feel a bunch of stuff apart from happiness, but I actually don’t think it hurts her overall argument.

McGonigal then describes the astounding amount of time and energy players invest into games like World of Warcraft (over 5 million total years played) and Halo 3 (over 10 Billion kills). Instead of chastising these players for wasting their time, however, McGonigal sees these activities as positive and as community builders: Unlike “reality,” players gain a heroic sense of purpose from playing these games, they’re provided with tangible success criteria, and most importantly, they feel as if they are contributing to something greater than themselves; these are all important psychological needs. McGonigal ultimately argues that we can harness gamers’ attention and problem solving skills to address the problems we face in the real world.

Section Two: “Reinventing Reality”

This section basically begins to apply the ideas presented thus far to Alternate Reality Games, and argues that we can apply principles of game design to reality. It opens with a discussion of Chore Wars, an ARG which gives “players” experience points for completing real life chores. McGonigal “plays” Chore Wars at home with her husband, and it has been very successful (for example, both compete to clean the toilet, since it’s worth the most XP). I’m not sure that Chore Wars is a game I’d play, but it does serve as a good example of how we can make boring old reality more engaging.

Although she never uses the term, this section is essentially about gamification in work, education, and rehabilitation. For example, in Chapter Nine, “Leveling Up In Life,” McGonigal argues that we can use RPG levelling systems to increase happiness and productivity. When playing an RPG, players are continually bombarded with notifications of success: +1 Abilities, +1,000 XP, and so on. This makes us happy and helps us learn, so why not try to implement these feedback mechanisms in reality? It can sound a bit cheesy, but I actually like this idea. Why not provide more tangible instances of positive (and negative) reinforcement? True, not everything can be quantified, but people do like to watch their “stats” go up, and I think we can tap into that.

I did find this section to be a but repetitive at times. For example, she rehashes the ideas that games can build communities, games can make us happy, and game design can be used in the real world. A lot of this was covered in the first section, though admittedly with far less detail.

Section Three: “How Very Big Games Can Change the World”

The final section of the book is more application, and concludes with an explicit call to harness the power of gamers for “good.” It begins with a discussion of “crowd-sourcing” – recruiting the public to solve problems – and its implications. McGonigal draws on several examples, including The Telegraph’s use of crowd-sourcing in a recent MP expense scandal, wherein players essentially uncovered fraudulent uses of taxpayer money.

I must say, if the last section felt a bit repetitive, this section felt very repetitive. Chapter 12, “Missions Impossible,” is essentially a more detailed version of an earlier chapter’s discussion of “epic wins,” and Chapter 13, “Collaboration Superpowers” rehashes the idea that games can build community, and that these communities have something to offer society.

The final chapter, “Saving the Real World Together,” is an explicit call to apply game design principles to real life. How can we use game concepts to tackle real world problems such as food security, climate change, and warfare? However, not only can games address current problems, but future ones as well. In McGonigal’s words, we can “use games to raise global quality of life, to prepare ourselves for the future, and to sustain our earth for the next millennium to come” (p. 344).


As mentioned, I initially had a few problems with some of McGonigal’s premises. I do not subscribe to her view that videogames are somehow separate from “reality,” or that playing them en masse constitutes an “exodus from reality” (p. 7). Games and virtual environments are “real:” they excite our nervous systems and produce quantifiable effects, just like anything else. After going through the book, however, I ultimately found that this is essentially a semantic quibble. Games are a part of reality, but they nevertheless occupy their own section (however permeable), and they do offer their own particular coping mechanisms. It is important to look at how games are unique, and what they have to offer us apart from everything else.

Furthermore, she does tend to over generalize. For example, the introduction begins with the provocative statement: “Gamers have had enough of reality,” (p. 2) and she later writes that “Compared with games, reality is too easy” (p.22). Even if we accept the reality/games dichotomy, I don’t find reality to be “too easy” at all, and I’ve certainly not had enough of it. And this is coming from a rather privileged position; what about gamers who might not be so privileged, both in and outside of the West?

But again, this is ultimately a rhetorical disagreement. For a popular press book, she can’t really equivocate and write something like “Some gamers have had enough of some reality some of the time;” it has far less pizzazz. In short, any major problems I had with the book were more stylistic/rhetorical than substantive. This is an odd comparison, but I found myself reading McGonigal like I read McLuhan: I accept that the author sometimes makes absolute, provocative statements for the sake of the conversation, and I roll with it. This is not to suggest that Reality isn’t a nuanced work – because I think it is – but it’s just that there are occasional rhetorical flourishes which can be off-putting, at least initially.

The most common critique of the book is probably its optimism, but I won’t fault her for that. “Aim for the stars, and you might hit the moon” is my favourite expression, so I have no problem with her admittedly ambitious hope that videogames can help us “save the world.” I do think that we can use games to encourage socially conscious things like critical thinking, compassion, and understanding, as hokey as that sounds. I also think it is very important that we continue to look to social psychology for better understanding game play and game design. For these reasons alone, this is worth picking up, and as a juggernaut, we should all at least be familiar with its ideas, agree with them or not.