Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

So I started off the summer with a new MP3 player finally on the way so I could resume listening to audiobooks in earnest.  I finished Feed and then moved on to a book I will not be reviewing at the beginning of summer.  By the end of the first full week in June I was listening to Reality is Broken.  Jane McGonigal is a game programmer and creator who argues that games can be used to fix the real-world.  I'm torn by this book, because at the beginning I was really enthused and excited by it and I found myself overwhelmed by the statistics and data and power that games have and could continue to have.  But then in the final part of the book, she began to lay out how games can be used to fix societies problems, the application section of the book, and I'm just not convinced that this is the only, nor the best, way to go about this.  I worry about the gamified or data-driven life and an over-dependence on technology, but mostly I think consumer buy-in will be lacking.  Anyway, I kind of jumped to the end, so let me back up and give it a fair review.

Unbeknownst to me Jane McGonical has given two TEDTalks about this topic and she mentions in the intro that this book was inspired by one of those talks.  The first day I listened to it, I was at a summer workshop for teachers and I was listening to it while eating lunch alone and after just an hour, I sat down and typed an e-mail to a friend and co-worker that they had to read this book.  I was really excited by its prospects.  The first part mostly lays out a history of games and quickly moves into digital games and how they have solved some real-world problems.  I think I'm drawn to this because of my passion for citizen science and a couple of the projects out there, FoldIt in particular, are game based solutions to real-world problems.  It also helped that she had a really awesome quote froAntoine de Saint-Exupéry, "Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it."  

In the second part of the book, she lays out the argument that games are good motivators.  For example, we will give up when we come to a challenging task in real-life, but will persevere and even enjoy a challenge in a game.  We get frustrated with games that are too easy, but instead prefer games that keep us right on the edge of our skills, and the games should grow with us.  She then pointed to a wealth of data from the gaming community, with a large focus on the Halo series and Worlds of Warcraft, to show that there is a lot of time and money invested in games, and what if we could use this entertainment time to get something back.  As a side note the following is a graphic Bungie made regarding Halo data when the sold the franchise and is accurate as of that date (click on image for full-size).

In the final, and probably longest section, of the book she laid out 14 fixes for reality (real-life) that games can bring.  Some of them bring it by encouraging collaboration, or causing intentional distraction, or creating a forum for competition, and so on.  I don't really have a problem with any of these on their own, but there are some issues, that I have already alluded to above.  One is community engagement, the classic "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," adage, because I've shown plenty of students awesome and even gamified citizen science projects, but none of them are giving up their games, whether they be free apps and Facebook games or console and computer games for these kinds of games.  We also could quickly end up with a system where there are too many games or projects all competing for people's attention.  I already see this with my favorite citizen science site, Zooniverse, because they have so many projects and I can't feasibly participate in them all effectively.

Also, when it comes to books, I've found that my wife has spoiled some of my experience, because she can dissect movies and books with ease because she's a language arts person.  So when I approach books I find myself asking, "What would my wife think about this?"   In this case, I had recommended the book to her early on, and then un-recommended it to her and summarized it for her and asked her opinion.  Her big focus was that games are a good motivator for some if not many, but that she would be chief among those who do not find extrinsic motivation useful or compelling.  Furthermore, although there are some benefits to be had by gamifying life, most games wear out and don't have a forever-replayable quality about them.  Lastly, I'm all for games that encourage collaboration, but I hesitate to turn everything into a competition.  She thinks this last point is a largely Japanese mindset that came from them seeking to be like us after World War II and now the are out doing us and so we're trying to model ourselves after their model of us.  And yet, we ignore other countries that are successful that use different models, possibly because of our focus on capitalism.  Anyway, the book was a very good read and certainly left me thinking a lot the whole time I read it and even afterwards, I think I'm just waiting for the sequel or the actual results where I can see real-world application laid out in a more consistent and realistic manner, overcoming some of these challenges, that the author openly admitted needed hammered out still.

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