A Commentary on Jane McGonigal’s New Book, “Reality is Broken”

In 2008, Jane McGonigal delivered a rant at the Game Developer’s Conference entitled “Reality is Broken” that galvanized developers into tackling real-life problems. McGonigal has since refined her thesis through presentations delivered at venues ranging from South by Southwest to TED. She has also put her theories to practical use with alternate reality games and interactive experiences including The Lost Ring, Top Secret Dance Off, Cryptozoo, and Evoke. Jane has taught audiences how to do the Soulja Boy dance, snuck on stage for a Flynn Lives event, and used game mechanics to help recover from a concussion.

McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, hits bookstores on January 20th, and expands upon the central point of her presentations: reality is broken, because games do a better job of making us happy. Rather than attacking games as an escapist outlet for avoiding real-world troubles, why don’t we subvert those game mechanics to make the world a better place? The book draws upon a healthy mix of psychological research isolating specific tactics for induce happiness (“happiness hacks”) alongside practical examples of those tactics utilized in both traditional and “serious” game design. The net result? A list of fourteen “fixes” that can help readers improve their lives through play. The book did a superb job of outlining concrete examples of why we like games in the first place, and how we can transform that interest into something that will make our lives and the lives of others better. While reading through the book, I often found myself cheering along with the “epic wins” documented in the book, ready to proudly declare, “We can do this! We can make the world better, if only a little bit!” Reading this book about happiness feels good: don’t be surprised if you catch yourself grinning from ear to ear a few times each chapter.

The book is structured in three sections: the first delves into what makes us happy, the second embraces the notion of entering alternate realities, and the third addresses the challenges and potential embodied in massive collaborative projects. Each section could easily be a book in its own right, with the first section providing a game developer’s how-to guide that should be on every development team’s required reading list, explaining key concepts like flow and failure in easily digestible language. Another section addresses how massively collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Folding@Home use gaming elements to achieve “epic wins.”

The section that is most likely relevant to ARGNet readers addresses alternate reality games, offering a bold new definition for the term that embraces everything from online work-management systems like Chore Wars to new educational models like the one implemented at New York City charter school Quest to Learn. McGonigal defines this new breed of alternate reality game as antiescapist games: games played out in a real-world context that improve our lives. As video game theorist Ian Bogost noted in his review, this is a bold redefinition that might help the genre break out into the mainstream. The definition captures the imagination and summarizes much of what I personally find to be compelling in alternate reality games. As an operative definition, however, it leaves much to be desired, as it potentially rebrands everything from the game of tag to chess as an alternate reality game. A much more practical definition can be found later in the book, where McGonigal defines narrative ARGs as games that “use multimedia storytelling — video, text, photographs, audio, and even graphic novels — to weave real-world game missions into a compelling fiction that plays out over weeks, months, or even years.”

Serious games that attempt to do more than activate positive emotions and serve as “happiness hacks” still have a long way to go, as they try to find the balance between fun and function. And I remain skeptical towards applying gamification tactics to complex problems that are resistant to game designer attempts to reduce goals to concrete action steps. However, Reality is Broken provides a much-needed lexicon for continuing the development process, and McGonigal’s continued explorations into the field will hopefully unveil new tactics to successfully engage the ever-increasing gamer population in world-changing endeavors. After all, failure is part of the discovery process, and on the aggregate level, even modest improvements in everyday life can go a long way towards making the world a better place.

Moving forward, McGonigal has announced the return of a number of her past projects, offering additional opportunities to hone engagement models: starting next week, groups can apply to experience season one of the World Bank’s Evoke, with veterans of the first round serving as mentors for the next. Top Secret Dance-Off will also be returning under the umbrella of McGonigal’s new company, Social Chocolate. Super Better, her attempt to gameify her recovery process, is also under development for a formal release. Finally, McGonigal is working with the New York Public Library to put on Find the Future: The Game on May 20th, from 8pm – 6am.

Even McGonigal’s promotional tour is peppered with gaming elements: on the book’s website, Gameful.org is touted as an online hub for gamers and game developers interested in making the world a better place. The website allows users to level up by interacting with the website and creating games (level 100 can only be reached by winning a Gameful Award at the site’s annual awards) administered by the adorably exuberant Mayor. Each level allows you to level up your own Gameful monster from unhatched egg to one of six different pets. Speaking engagements will also incorporate game elements, as McGonigal plans on using Groundcrew, one of the games heavily featured in the Reality is Broken book, to spice up her presentations. The book tour includes stops at The Colbert Report (Feb. 3rd) and South by Southwest Interactive (March 11th-15th), with locations spanning across the country in both the United States and Canada.


  1. Jane McG

    Thanks for this super-thought provoking review ^_^ especially coming from someone (and a community!) who really know(s) a lot about games — I really appreciate both the skepticism and the epic win enthusiasm ^_^ I too think that there will be many many failures before someone figures it out, but if it takes 10 years for someone to come up with the FaceBook or the Google or the Zappos or the World of Warcraft of this space, of trying to harness the power of games to improve real life and solve real problems, I’m all for trying and learning and trying and learning and trying and learning along the way… if you believe that what you’re doing could add some net positive to the world, AND create fun adventures for some folks, it’s a really worthwhile way to spend a life! ^_^

  2. modelmotion

    Adding some net positive to the World is a worth while goal. However we should not loose sight of the fact that the same tools being used by game developers have already had massive real World impact on their own: Iran, the G20, Wikileaks and Tunisia just to name a few.

    If you look at CFG it had some real World impact. BUT the “game” exposed a much more significant dynamic. The “accidental collision” of the left wing anarchists and the “game play” provided a valuable insight into the mentality of these “real World players” They are extremely well read, passionate and equally as dedicated as their in game counter parts.

    The World is changing. It is going to change faster and faster over the next two decades for sure. The “games” we play today often provide the training ground for real World behavior in the future. This is no less true in human society than it is in the rest of the animal kingdom. Only, in the real World the “drones” kill real people in Pakistan.

    The noble goals of the book are admirable. However in a World that values lip service and celeb magazines over real and tangible change it may be that little can be done to change the tide of the future. “Yes we can?”

    However I applaud the approach and at an individual level perhaps by touching one we can touch many. Time will tell.

  3. Distilled

    “but if it takes 10 years for someone to come up with the FaceBook or the Google or the Zappos or the World of Warcraft of this space, of trying to harness the power of games to improve real life and solve real problems”

    This is the rub, I believe. We need to find a powerful driving force for alternate reality games, and not one which is primarily supported by those already involved in the world of ARGs. One which will bring new people into the genre and advertise it’s worth as a medium for change. As modelmotion says, the internet has already been shown to be a powerful tool for change in the politic sphere.

    There is far more capacity today for such games today than there was say 10, maybe even 5 or even 2 years ago. I believe the potential exists in the genre for providing a source for real change in a manner which will be accessible to a wide range of people.

    I will certainly be interested in getting the book once it hits the shelves.

  4. modelmotion

    I agree Distilled. Watching a live Ustream feed from an iphone from within the G20 protest in Toronto was a sign of the future. Being able to communicate back via Twitter to the person with the iphone made it even more epic.

    We are seeing technology develop at a remarkable rate and the social change it propels will be part of it. How will “game play” fit into these rapidly evolving changes. Should it? Can it? And more importantly can it in a relevant context.

    The left wing anarchists were deeply disturbed when they discovered that CFG was a facade for a “different type of good” being played out on “their turf”. The social context of such games needs to be carefully designed within the real World dynamics that are driving social change or else they may in the end do more harm then good to the ARG and Transmedia Worlds.

  5. Margaret Wallace

    Playmatics is also a major collaborator for the NYPL “Find the Future Project.” Just want to set the record straight that we have been involved in this project since the beginning, working on-site out of NYC. It promises to be an amazingly fun event.

  6. Michael Andersen

    Thanks for the update, Margaret: I’m really looking forward to the event, and will be heading up to NYC for the fun.