Jane McGonigal’s Mind is Broken

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, landing with a Gladwellian thud of wily reductionism and indolent thinking, is the most irresponsible nonfiction book I am likely to read this year. This remarkably callow book, professing to be new in approach but merely retreading exhausted notions, offers the shaky premise that, because reality is difficult, video games exist to pick up the slack. Perhaps a foolish belief in games as magic beans for a hypothetical beanstalk (McGonigal is curiously obsessed with enormity throughout her book) is similar to a foolish belief in alien abduction, Scientology, fundamentalist religion, vaccines triggering autism, or the Loch Ness Monster. That’s really the only conclusion I can draw. Because McGonigal cannot make the case that a weekend of Halo 3 is any more purposeful than a weekend in Cabo San Lucas drinking margaritas and banging the brainless.

In the McGonigalian view, failure has to be “fun” and embarrassment needs to be “happy.” Fiero, an Italian adjective for being proud that was used as an epithet by Petrarch, is “the most primal rush we can experience” and, paragraphs later, “one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.” And if we can get our loved ones playing a virtual game called Chore Wars (instead of simply being adult and doing our housework), “our friends and family will define fiero moments for us every day.” Hang on a minute. Is it altogether healthy to forge relationships around inherent smugness? Isn’t this a bit Ayn Randian? Or, dare I say it, Riefenstahlian? “Through my optimism,” once said Leni Riefenstahl, “I naturally prefer and capture the beauty of life.”

In McGonigal’s world, one cannot simply go for a run. One needs to have an obnoxious Nike+ mini avatar (Nike’s answer to Clippy?) accompanying the exercise — a cuddly animated little bastard who smiles and trash talks for “vicarious reinforcement.” Except that vicarious reinforcement, popularized by a Canadian shrink named Albert Bandura, involves learning about behavioral consequences by observing other people (that would be those flesh-and-blood, carbon-based life forms called humans: your friends, family, enticing strangers, and so forth, all decidedly not computer-animated and all decidedly not a narcissistic reproduction of you). McGonigal’s elastic application fails to explain why a virtual creature sponsored by a multibillion dollar corporation interested in getting people running (and thus buying more shoes) is better at conveying behavioral consequences than flesh-and-blood friends (who like to run, generally out of an interest that has little to do with money). And I can guarantee McGonigal that a childish avatar isn’t going to make me run anytime soon. I do walk (ideally) five miles a day, three times a week. And it’s because I enjoy being attuned with the very reality that McGonigal claims is broken. The people you stop and talk with, the sights you observe, the friends you walk with. And so forth.

Different people have different approaches. One would think that McGonigal, having a PhD, would understand this basic truism. But then McGonigal, a New Geek type who wishes to cram her unlived perspective down our throats, really doesn’t grasp psychology very well. She quotes Maslow without comprehension and then writes, “Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.” But what McGonigal missed in Motivation was Maslow’s assurance that those who are self-actualized have “an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and, in general, to judge people correctly and efficiency” and that this efficiency in relation to reality “extended to many other areas in life.” Presumably, that would include video games. In other words, Maslow urged us not to put the cart before the horse, whereas McGonigal sees the video game as a crass cure-all.

These are only just a few indications that Reality is Broken is nothing less than the product of a consummate quack. Consider the book’s numerous “Fix” insets, offering “helpful” summaries of how we can fix the “broken” reality around us. These seem more designed for a self-help audience than anything even half-approaching scholarship:

FIX #6: EPIC SCALE — Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.

I’m not sure what kind of drug experience McGonigal has had, but swap “games” for “mescaline” and you start to see the problem.

McGonigal uses the word “addictive” as a positive modifier. “What makes Tetris so addictive,” McGonigal writes, “is the intensity of the feedback it provides.” Wait a minute. Isn’t intensity a problem if we’re trying to contend with a mad influx of feedback? Later in the book: “By providing a goal-oriented, feedback-rich, obstacle-intensive environment for dancing, [Top Secret Dance Off, McGonigal’s project] makes dancing more motivating, fun, and addictive.” There’s a variation of “intense” and “feedback” again. Still, no clear answers on the “addictive” question. And isn’t it a bit self-serving and highly disingenuous to write in general marketing terms about your own game project? “Of course, we’ve also developed many external shortcuts to triggering our hardwired happiness systems: addictive drugs and alcohol….But none of these methods are sustainable or effective in the long term.” Wait a minute! If you’re applying “addictive” to something that isn’t sustainable, then is it safe to say that video games might prove just as unsustainable or ineffectual in the long term?

McGonigal can complain about the “moral debates over the addictive quality of games” all she wants (and, as a gamer who severely limits his gaming time precisely because of these addictive qualities, I’m likely to be on her side on this point), but if she doesn’t possess the smarts or the courage to be transparent about the medium’s more harmful aspects, then her mind is clearly broken and her book contributes nothing to a meaningful debate on whether or not video games are art, whether or not video games have real-world applications, and so forth.

Just how roseate is McGonigal? Rather tellingly, you won’t find “addiction,” “psychological disorder,” “failure,” “violence,” “aggression,” or “binge gaming” listed in the index. (You won’t find “emotion” either, but you will find “emotional activation.” Such is the programmer’s disease.) McGonigal is too much of a terrified doe to confront the very reality she wishes to condemn. That reality, for those who haven’t been paying attention (presumably McGonigal included) involves a Korean couple who proved so irresponsible that they let their child die while they played World of Warcraft. Or how about the South Korean teen who died from exhaustion after a twelve hour gaming binge? What about the mother who shook her three-month-old son to death because he had the temerity to interrupt a game of Farmville? Video games didn’t kill these children, but they certainly contributed. Given such stories, it is intellectually irresponsible for McGonigal to stick with the California sunshine that video games are a foolproof cure for the mind. I like raisins, but I wouldn’t be arrogant or foolish enough to suggest that everybody can find peace and harmony and “fiero” (“Boo yah, motherfucker, how you like me now! I ate me some raisins!”) by eating raisins. McGonigal’s myopic view is particularly troubling, since her book comes not long after Tom Bissell showed us the other side of the token in Game Over, writing bravely about his deadly cocaine-fueled descent into Grand Theft Auto IV.

“What the world needs now are more epic wins,” writes McGonigal in typical Pollyanna mode, “opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary things — like change or save someone’s life — every day.” By nearly every philosophical standard, this statement is laughable. A Grand Theft Auto IV player may very well find pride in biking up the highest virtual mountain from the city (as McGonigal cites). While this alleviates boredom and occupies time, is this really comparable with saving a person’s life? McGonigal brings up Joe Edelman’s Groundcrew, which McGonigal describes as “a wish panel for real people.” But in an interview with McGonigal, Edelman reveals that this represents little more than entitlement and narcissistic wish fulfillment:

A woman was at a dance rehearsal in a basement somewhere in Boston. She was completely exhausted, she couldn’t leave rehearsal, and she was dying for a latte so she could keep dancing. That’s the wish she posted on Groundcrew: “Help, I need a latte.”

Note the laughably hyperbolic language Edelman uses here. “Completely exhausted” instead of “tired.” “Dying” instead of “wanting.” “A latte so she could keep dancing.” Ever hear of water? Any real thinker would cut through this redolent nonsense, or at least question it. Then there’s the preposterous petit-bourgeoisie “help” — a word that I usually associate with someone in the process of being mugged or in need of spare change — that springs from these desires. And, Edelman continues, when some guy in Boston orders the latte, he walks into the basement and declares, “I have a latte!” “as if it were the most important thing in the world.”

McGonigal concedes, “Okay, so getting someone a latte isn’t exactly the most world-changing effort you could make,” before offering the one-sentence paragraph: “Or is it?” One rapidly understands that McGonigal, like a common newspaper hack about to be cut loose by the last editor willing to understand her, is trying to cram quotes into her thesis, rather than letting a thesis emerge naturally from her results.

“The normal way of getting a latte is a cold, economic exchange,” continues Edelman. “But this latte was different. This latte was love. This is about inventing a different way, a better way, of getting what we need, every day.”

The beer I had last night was lust. And the morning coffee is redemption. Please. Instead of challenging this statement (which reads more like marketing copy), or getting Edelman to expand upon what he means, McGonigal closes this section of the chapter. The latte, in McGonigal’s words, “perfectly represents the new kind of epic win.”

“Epic” is another modifier that McGonigal likes a great deal. She’s fond of bringing up meaningless achievements, such as the fact that, on April 2009, Halo 3 players scored 10 billion kills against the Covenant. “Ten billion kills wasn’t an incidental achievement, stumbled onto blindly by the gaming masses,” writes McGonigal. “Halo players made a concerted effort to get there.” You may as well jump up and down over the 30,000 Americans who killed themselves last year. Weren’t their suicides also “a concerted effort to get there?” Should we celebrate the fact that several trillion cigarette butts litter the streets worldwide every year? Simply the pollution is worthwhile because of its “epic” results. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. And on the subject of Halo, McGonigal also praises the Halo Museum of Humanity — a startlingly convincing shrine that provides “epic context for heroic action.” What McGonigal calls “epic context,” I call “slick marketing.” And I’ll even go further. Soviet propaganda posters certainly carry an allure, but we also know that the distinctive style was calculated to get citizens to believe in bad things.

McGonigal’s stunning lack of vision stretches into a soul-sucking need for constant self-affirmation:

Giving talks is exhausting, even when I enjoy it, I explained. It would be energizing to see some +1s pop up right on top of my Powerpoint slides as I worked my way through the deck.

There it is again: the word “exhausting” used in relation to a privileged life. You know what’s exhausting? Digging ditches for eight hours. Delivering UPS packages in a blizzard without a break. But let’s cut Calamity Jane a little slack. Positive reinforcement is certainly a good thing. But what McGonigal seems to be asking for here is nothing but positive reinforcement. After telling a SXSW crowd about desiring a “plus-one intellect for every smart thing I said during this talk,” she is flooded with emails. Some guy named Clay Johnson creates plusoneme.com. But of course, there’s no way to cap the praise or even offer a self-correcting -1. And what we end up having is a delusional McGonigal: “So far, I’m up to +25 innovation, because I asked my colleagues to plusoneme when I do something innovative at work.” Which leads one to ask why McGonigal requires all this cheerleading, or whether the +1s might actually be interfering with innovation. After all, doesn’t innovation sometimes come from presenting unpopular ideas? Doesn’t innovation sometimes come from challenging the status quo? Indeed, might not some personal discovery emerge by confronting reality and using it to enrich one’s life? The timorous McGonigal resorts to her precious little toys to find a “better” life.

“In the end, what makes a Foursquare social life better than your regular social life is the simple fact that to do well in Foursquare, you have to enjoy yourself more.” Note the assumption that living through Foursquare is better before the fact! The user just has to enjoy herself! McGonigal hasn’t considered privacy, much less how one’s appreciation and approach might change if one is angling to become the mayor of some dive bar. And her overbearing suppositions — which are the apotheosis of geek douchery — stand in sharp contrast to the dérive‘s possibilities:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there….the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.

That “calculation of their possibilities” doesn’t involve technology at all. It’s the noggin taking in details and finding a magical way to take in the seemingly commonplace. But now Guy Debord’s “abundant data” is tabulated through Foursquare. The metrics Foursquare tabulates is “just data, a way to quantify what you’re already doing. What really makes Foursquare engaging is the challenge and reward system built around the data.” In other words, McGonigal leaves nothing to non-objective, non-metric possibility. The machine takes care of everything and it computes data around a highly limited social construct.

In order to turn a group of strangers into a community, you have to follow two basic steps: first, cultivate a shared interest among strangers and, second, give them the opportunity and means to interact with each other around that interest.

Aside from the fact that one doesn’t need a video game to create this type of needlessly limited community (why should people “interact”around a singular interest?), this is a troubling Kinsey-like approach to socialization. As anyone who has ever attended a science fiction convention knows, a common interest doesn’t necessarily ensure a lasting social bond. But don’t tell that to McGonigal, who confuses this grouping with communitas, “a powerful sense of togetherness, solidarity, and social connection. And it protects against loneliness and alienation.” Let’s see how well communitas worked out during the Blessed Sacrament procession, courtesy of Michael J. Sallnow’s Contesting the Sacred:

During the Blessing Sacrament procession, therefore, space becomes highly contested, as Hospitallers and pilgrims jockey for position. Since the brancardiers are heavily outnumbered, they rely on persuasion and their official status to defend the space which has been marked out by their senior officials. As the ceremony approaches its climax, the boundary between sick and healthy pilgrims becomes ever more difficult to maintain, as the faithful press forward to catch sight of the Host and of the clergy following the priest conferring the blessing. Such moments of intense religious fervour dramatically illustrate the uneasy co-existence of communitas and status, of solidarity and self-interest, which is so characteristic of the cult as a whole.

There’s a tremendous difference between buying a homeless man a meal (a tangible and immediate reward) and playing Free Rice — a game whereby the user answers questions (a virtual and unseen reward), with the promise of rice being delivered to a starving nation. I bring this up because, with Free Rice, McGonigal is willing to concede that “the grains are rice aren’t coming from the players — they’re coming from a small number of advertisers who agree to pay the cost of ten grains of bulk rice for every correct-answer page view.” Had McGonigal applied this rightfully skeptical eye towards games that are created with similar free market goals, then her book might have become an invaluable investigation on how games can extend beyond their present capitalistic concerns.

Jane McGonigal’s mind is broken. She is no more concerned with an honest approach to social change than a sleazy salesman who hopes you will buy his Ford Lariat. The Lariat will only get you ten miles to the gallon, but the salesman assures you that the experience is epic and will leave you with a feeling of fiero — unlike the Pontiac model.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted a link to this essay to Twitter, Jane McGonigal responded (in a now deleted tweet) as follows.

I reiterate my tweet. I will happily challenge Ms. McGonigal to a public debate about her book. And because I’m so sad, I also welcome Ms. McGonigal’s lengthy refutation of my points — that is, if she has the guts or the chops.

UPDATE 2: To provide yet another example on how McGonigal’s idealism gets in the way of comprehending the available data, one can look no further than a recent “debate” in the Wall Street Journal. On January 25, 2011, McGonigal cited a recent Pediatrics study, claiming:

The study, conducted by the National Institute of Education in Singapore, found that gamers who played on average 30 hours a week or more were more likely to experience negative real-life impacts from their gaming, such as increased social anxiety or decreased school performance. But for gamers playing 20 or fewer hours a week, no such problems occurred. Once again, these results suggest that there is a fairly clear distinction between gaming enough to fuel our real lives and gaming so much that it interferes with real life.

But if one reads the PDF, one finds something altogether different:

Most researchers have assumed that would be similar to pathological gambling. The parallel seems justifiable, because both are assumed to be behavioral addictions that begin as entertainment that can stimulate emotional responses and dopamine release. People gamble or play video games for many reasons, including relaxation, competence, autonomy, and escape from daily concerns. Playing can produce “flow” states, in which the player is focused, has a sense of control, may lose a sense of time and place, and finds playing intrinsically rewarding. Playing is not pathologically initially but becomes pathological for some individuals when the activity becomes dysfunctional, harming the individual’s social, occupational, family, school, occupational, family, school, and psychological functioning.(Emphasis added.)

The study rightfully points out that its purpose is not to answer this debate, but “to provide new data that may be useful.” And the purpose of this essay is to point out that, if McGonigal were a responsible or a flexible thinker, she would take greater care with a word like “addiction” and address the scientific fact that pathological behavior emerges from video games (about 9% of gamers are pathological, according to the Pediatrics study), while simultaneously pointing to the benefits. A nuanced and adult approach offers a fairly clear distinction between a self-help huckster and a genuine thinker.


  1. Agreed. When I heard about this book, I thought the whole premise was so stupid I didn’t even consider reading it. Seems that was a wise decision. The sad thing is, I know people who will think it’s great.

  2. I had to read parts of this post twice, because something was nagging at me and I couldn’t tell what. I think I found the essence of what was bothering me here:

    “…than a weekend in Cabo San Lucas drinking margaritas and banging the brainless.”

    Seems a shallow thing to say, and it’s something that immediately prejudices me against the author. I’ve never done the stereotypical “spring break” thing — I’m a nerd with nerdy friends, and while I would have gone if I could, we were all poor and couldn’t afford it. Nevertheless I think that a fair number of people who go to southern ports of call for a hedonistic week of excess are indeed smarter than your average author. It is a stereotypically sour grapes, holier-than-thou point of view so common among the upper middle class nerd (of which I humbly claim membership).

    So it is with this prejudice that I read through the post, trying to understand what, exactly, was the problem that the author had, exactly. Dr. McGonigal (I’ll ask her if I can call her Jane when I meet her in a few weeks) is at the vanguard of academians who understand that our world has been forever changed by computing and what it means to our lives as a whole. The author and I are approximately the same age, and I’m sure we both remember getting online with a modem and the limited (yet entertaining) ways we could interact with each other. Dr. McGonigal and others like her have recognized that we’ve come a long way from those days and it’s now possible to utilize technology to further transform our daily lives.

    I don’t see any problem with the idea of injecting fun and entertainment into our lives in hitherto unfathomable ways. The early attempts of augmented reality given to us by mobile applications like Google Sky and Layar are amazing (and amazingly limited) ways to merge computing and reality. The future is MORE of this, not less, and Dr. McGonigal is not only on the forefront of this research, but is trying to communicate what is ahead.

    Yes, the middle class IS shallow. I don’t see that going away, not with the fourth season of Jersey Shore having been announced. But that’s been the lament of the nerdy and unpopular for as long as we’ve had pop culture (oh, those kids with their WALTZ, can you believe they’re actually TOUCHING each other?). But accepting that fact, and that the lower, middle, and upper classes have embraced technology (and gaming in particular), and trying to build on it, well I think that’s admirable.

    Gaming IS ADDICTIVE, I can vouch for that as well. But so is exercise. Yes, exercise benefits us physically and mentally in ways that gaming does not, yet if we blend the two…at this point in the 21st century, that seems the most natural thing. But using the ways that gaming modifies us to improve our condition, instead of just keeping us on the couch? Brilliant. Injecting modes of cooperation and success into our everyday lives? Brilliant.

    And community building — “…don’t tell that to McGonigal, who confuses this grouping with communitas….” This has obviously been written by someone who doesn’t have the experience of being a part of a community online. I’ve got the military background, I’ve got some pretty intense volunteer experience, but I’m also a part of a few online communities as well. The bonds we build are different, but just as intense. In ALL of the major communities I’ve been with, loves have been found, children brought into the world, and enmities formed. The experience is the same, and I can’t fathom how the author can fail to recognize this unless the author simply doesn’t have the experience.

    The author compares Dr. McGonigal with the epic 20th century huckster — the used car salesman (another knee-jerk usage of stereotype). Yet in his explanation of how sleazy the salesman is (the car just FEELS good), he has the salesman bring up a valid point — sometimes things are worth for reasons that aren’t dollars and cents related. Sometimes MPG isn’t as powerful of a motivator as RPM. There’s nothing wrong with this! And in fact Dr. McGonigal is right to be upset at the pejoratives in this article, as they’re unfair. If we are to stick with a car metaphor (damn they’re useful sometimes) she’s not a car salesman, she’s the neighbor nextdoor with the amazing internal conversions to her cars, making them run on biodiesel or batteries. She wants us to know that we aren’t stuck with the car that we have; we can modify it in ways that are unthinkable just 50 years ago.

    We can choose to augment our lives with technology — this is self-evident, and we’re thousands of years into that process. Society is BEING CHANGED, right now. To accuse Dr. McGonigal of being unconcerned with this fact is to willfully turn a blind eye to the reality of everyday existence. To take it a step further, we now have the opportunity to augment our lives with the virtual on top of the technological, in ways that can benefit us and society as a whole. Don’t be a hater.

  3. Nathaniel: Thanks so much for reading the article and responding. You are right to conclude that the “weekend in Cabo San Lucas” line was shallow, for it reflects the inherent shallowness within McGonigal’s book. It is indeed a shallow viewpoint to raise the poms-poms up for a bourgeois airport experience ameliorated through video games while denying the obvious fact that a starving Third World citizen would rather have a meal than a game. To be clear, I don’t see a problem with injecting fun and entertainment in life. My problem is when someone declares reality broken and offers nothing BUT fun and entertainment. The idea that I should forego shoveling my snow because reality is broken and video games have the answer is preposterous. That “difficult” task doesn’t just mean clearing a much needed snow bank, but I get some exercise, talk with the neighbors, and breathe in the wintry air, while feeling the fine flecks of snow settle upon my coat. My “broken” reality is therefore mastered by not being lazy and by approaching the task and transforming it. I’ll give McGonigal this: a video game might also be used to also transform a task. But to merely declare reality “broken” is the ideological position of a child.

    Let me be clear that I’m not against games. I’ve logged in close to 200 hours playing Team Fortress 2 and have earned about 60% of the achievements. I’m on Twitter (more than 10,000 tweets and counting). This is not the position of a man who is uninformed or who isn’t clued in. (However, I decide the level of technology that works best for me. And I wouldn’t dare suggest that people be forced to use any medium.) But I am against people using games, or any medium, in a blindly ideological way that doesn’t consider the bigger picture. It’s not enough for an experience to feel good, as you point out. You need to be aware that the car can kill somebody. That’s basic responsible thinking.

    Let me ask you, Nathaniel, because I’m genuinely curious. Why can’t you look directly at the things in the universe that are bad? And how can video games solve Egypt? I’m not against positive thinking, but at what point does your roseate view of the universe stop? (And again I appreciate you writing in.)

  4. Perhaps video games are not yet able to answer the truly large existentialist questions that humans are able to pose. I haven’t the slightest idea how video games can directly solve the Egypt equation (or Israeli equation, or Chinese equation, etc.). I do know that they can be engaging and can transform slacktivist into someone whose entertainment activities can truly cause change. I’m a member of Reddit (wouldn’t be surprised if you were, too), and I contribute to Child’s Play. Reddit has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for teachers and students throughout the country, all in a (successful) attempt to bribe Stephen Colbert to do an interview. The Child’s Play charity has donated millions of dollars of toys and games to rehabilitating and sick children in hospitals throughout the western world. Without a. the internet and b. games, neither of those two charities would be successful. Gamers have the ability and motivation to be engaged in the virtual world, so harnessing this engagement and directing it, in whatever fashion possible, towards the real world should be able to bring benefits.

    But again, it’s not very hard to click on a Paypal link and donate some money. Let’s talk about shoveling snow. I live about 35 miles from you in Fairfield County, CT. I’ve done my share of shoveling this year as well. As you clearly showed, one can derive fulfillment out of the activity by being in the moment, and ultimately present during the work. As two mature men we are free to take a mature look at the activity and derive pleasure where others may not. Yet it’s possible to fully engage children through games and positive reinforcement to allow them to derive pleasure from this type of activity as well. By giving a “+1” for every square foot of sidewalk they clear, by creating virtual goals and rewards, we can augment their reality using patterns familiar to gamers. In addition, the future may bring us ways of engaging in just this kind of chore in a way currently “unthinkable”, where hopping up and down with one’s Kinect 5.0 motivates a snow clearing Roomba. I don’t know! But I do know Dr. McGonigal is attempting to answer these questions and understand how the activities you and I have grown up on, and my children (don’t know if you’re a dad) have never lived without, can enrich our world.

    But the heart of the matter is your comment on the starving Third World citizen. Indeed many ways of utilizing games and the ideas inside of games have direct application only in the first world. Obviously this is a valid condition, just as trying to eke out more MPG is a valid pursuit with limited third world application (let’s leave secondary considerations like pollution out of the equation for now). I’d even go so far as to assume we’re both in agreement that finding ways to enrich a first world citizen’s life is a noble pursuit in and of itself, as long as we consider broader implications. And indeed, a citizenry whose main goal in life is survival, who cares more about subsistence farming and water purity than one ups, may care very little about how entertaining life us. Their reality isn’t “broken”, they just have a necessarily limited view of what reality offers. But isn’t that a key differentiator?

    Gaming and gaming patterns can be used to solve problems. They can be used to improve a situation that needs improving by injecting education, community, and fun. The best way that gaming can solve starvation (and listen, there have been A LOT OF THINGS TRIED to solve starvation…just because gaming isn’t up to the task doesn’t really take away from it) is by energizing a community to target a charity. It’s a task that the Peace Corps and the Red Cross haven’t been able to solve, so we can only do what we can. But, perhaps there just may be some utility in having an undernourished population playing some games. Building a sense of community and creating a sense of empowerment may enable the problem solvers of the region to actually help to stamp out starvation, finally, because having access to rice certainly didn’t do it. Perhaps having levels of achievement, and creating a sense of success might motivation young men to dig wells or plant crops?

    One doesn’t use a hammer to cut down a tree. Tools have purposes, and gaming isn’t going to be able to solve every problem. Surely “Reality is Broken” is a decent treatise that highlights the virtual world’s strengths, but come on, it’s got a more realistic take than that “Tiger Mom” article did. You declare “[m]y problem is when someone declares reality broken and offers nothing BUT fun and entertainment” and to that I would say that fun, success, and community are incredibly transformative and motivating factors. Injecting them into reality can truly transform our world, and as long as we don’t ignore the “things in the universe that are bad”, we can turn “meh” into “EPIC”.

  5. This may sound rather cynical but her idea is an excellent way to placate the masses. Just look at a religion and booze in the middle ages. Great way to distract people from real problems.

    Machiavellian thinker or an idiot who is taking a fantasy world, a world where death is just an annoyance, too seriously?

  6. Nathaniel: I agree with you that the Internet and video games (especially P2P volunteer computing projects like SETI@Home) can provide help to the world. But why should gaming replace the purity of activism and mobilization? If I want to get in touch with my Congress representative, I’m going to pick up the phone or send a letter. The rep isn’t going to pay attention to what I do in the gaming world, because as far as she’s concerned, she’s trying to pass legislation, broker deals, and get things done. Adding a video game template on top of everything else is no substitute for embracing reality.

    Let me tell you a story. In 1999, when I was in San Francisco, I spent three weeks before the election after work in the subway — spending about an hour or two each day passing out flyers that I had printed myself because I wanted Tom Ammiano to be the mayor. Ammiano was a write-in candidate and it wasn’t the easiest name for some people to spell. You had to make sure that you spelled it correctly if you wanted your vote to count. I handed out perhaps 5,000 flyers (that I had illicitly printed off on the office copy machine) and must have personally talked and listened to several hundred people for more than five minutes. Tom Ammiano squeaked into the runoff race by a few hundred votes. He didn’t win the final election . But I know that my prodigious efforts, my attempts to confront a “broken” reality, had some minor impact. There is simply no way that any of this could have happened with a video game.

    To return to the shoveling snow metaphor, at what point does the +1 become meaningless for the child? The snow needs to be shoveled, but, much as one grows tired of mowing down 1,000 soldiers through a specific weapon to obtain a peculiar achievement, one might just as well grow tired of doing the same with a snow shovel. The fact that you use the phrase “two mature men” suggests that there is a part of you that comprehends that McGonigal’s position is a racket.

    I want to be clear. I’d love to see a further discussion on how video games can be better INTEGRATED into reality. But McGonigal’s thrust is about how they must replace reality. And when she makes a media appearance, using her “What we need is more epic wins” at every interview, one senses that we have either a cult leader or a marketing guru rather than someone who wants to confront the real world. When I gave 50 cents to a guy outside my bodega the other night, I did so not because of any need to get an achievement, but because the guy was shivering in the cold. Maybe he was going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs. I don’t know. But sometimes a simple act of kindness, rooted in connecting with the great expanse of humanity, is really all it takes to understand that McGonigal’s thesis is bunk. That’s where the Peace Corps and the Red Cross is coming from. And that’s something that McGonigal’s book fails to understand.

    Thanks again for the debate!

  7. >> To return to the shoveling snow metaphor, at what point does the +1 become meaningless for the child? The snow needs to be shoveled, but, much as one grows tired of mowing down 1,000 soldiers through a specific weapon to obtain a peculiar achievement, one might just as well grow tired of doing the same with a snow shovel.

    And how many soldiers would you have mown down with said weapon if there was no achievement at the end of it? How many would you have mown down if the game didn’t even track your kill count? When you look back on your “achievement,” do you think, “that wasn’t much fun at all?”

    Which is exactly the point. You performed a boring, mindless, repetititititive task, for no other reason than to unlock an achievement.

    If the psychological tricks that got you to mow down fifty-three thousand zombies can be tweaked to make the chore of shoveling snow less unpleasant, what’s the harm? How is it substantially worse than “I’m shoveling the snow to unlock the ‘Mom Gives Me Five Bucks’ achievement?” Pursuing an arbitrarily-defined goal doesn’t stop the kid from chatting with neighbors or enjoying the quiet of snowfall, nor does it stop him from getting bored or tired. All it does is provide a bit of extra incentive to keep pressing forward in the face of those obstacles.

    >> Except that vicarious reinforcement […] involves learning about behavioral consequences by observing other people (that would be those flesh-and-blood, carbon-based life forms called humans: your friends, family, enticing strangers, and so forth, all decidedly not computer-animated and all decidedly not a narcissistic reproduction of you).

    When setting out to correct someone, first make sure that the person is actually wrong. We can get “vicarious reinforcement” from watching a young wildebeest get nabbed by a crocodile, or by watching a video (or even an animation) of a kid falling off a trampoline. I could learn a task by watching a robot or a guy in a gorilla suit do the task.

    Now, you could argue that some or all of these things aren’t technically “vicarious reinforcement,” and that she’s using the term wrong. But since we can learn in these other ways — and I don’t see any deep difference between them — it’s a far cry from discrediting her thesis.

    >> McGonigal’s elastic application fails to explain why a virtual creature sponsored by a multibillion dollar corporation interested in getting people running (and thus buying more shoes) is better at conveying behavioral consequences than flesh-and-blood friends (who like to run, generally out of an interest that has little to do with money).

    Perhaps because that flesh and blood friend who gets me up to go running every morning… doesn’t exist. Nor can I think of a single person in my social network who would be willing or able to provide that service to me. Since I can’t seem to motivate myself to get back into running, maybe the obnoxious orange mascot can.

    Last point, do you honestly believe that, as video game principles are applied to the real life realm, people are going to have their lives shattered because they got addicted to the “run every day” game, or the “set real life goals and accomplish them” game, or the “go out and have conversations with strangers” game? That’s what you seem to imply, but it strikes me as ludicrous.

  8. Bryce: Thanks for your comment. I see by your Twitter feed that you live in Salt Lake City, UT. Here is a list of running clubs in your area:


    Why not join a running group? Why view people in terms of how they “provide that service to you?” People are flesh and blood, not machines. And those who like to run are very encouraging of neophytes, even geeky ones. Maybe you might make a few friends in the process.

    I really don’t mean this as a diss, but if you’re so convinced that you can learn a task by watching a video, why couldn’t you spend the 1.2 seconds I did in Googling “Salt Lake City running clubs?”

    All best,


  9. Two reasons why I haven’t joined a running club. First, I had no idea that such a thing existed. You kinda have to know a bit about something before you google it.

    Second, why the hell would I want to join a running club? Think about who joins running clubs. People who want to run, yes. But they want to do more than that. They want to talk about running. They want to spend twenty minutes explaining to you why they bought this pair of shoes, and what specific issues they had with their last pair. They wear pedometers. They argue over which pedometers are more accurate or more waterproofed. They want to advise you on your training regimen, your diet, your sleep schedule. They’ll use phrases like “carb loading.”

    Running is like eating broccoli. It’s something that (if I took it up again) I would be doing because it’s good for me, not because I’m passionate about it. If I ever get passionate about broccoli, someone shoot me.

    You ask, “Why view people in terms of how they ‘provide that service to you?’ People are flesh and blood, not machines.”

    I can see myself both as “flesh and blood” and as “a machine.” For proof of your mechanical nature, just try denying the machine the constant stream of chemicals it needs. Air, water, food, whatever. Heart attacks are no more than clogs in critical pipes, and cancer is just the breakdown of the mechanisms that control cell reproduction. We’re machines, and pretending that your life can only have meaning if we deny that conclusion is the worst sort of wishful thinking.

    By the same token, I can see the people around me both in terms of friendship and loyalty, and in terms of the services we provide to each other. Our greatest evolutionary advantage isn’t our big brains, but the ability to participate in a complex and beneficial network of reciprocity. I enjoy other people, and a bit of awareness of what’s going on behind the scenes doesn’t dampen that enjoyment in the least.

    If anything, it helps. It makes it easier for me to recognize when I’m subconsciously expecting a favor to be returned. Then I decide whether to explicitly state that expectation, or just let it fall away and make it a truly free gift, no strings attached.

    Last but not least, are you honestly questioning my assertion that I’m capable of learning skills from videos? Would you also say that I cannot learn from books? How about spicy Indian recipes? Do I need someone to come over to my house and show me how to make aloo gobi?

    People can learn lots of ways, not just from other human beings. People can receive motivations from lots of sources, not just from other human beings. If your original point was that “vicarious reinforcement” can only come from other humans, then you’re simply wrong. If not, then perhaps you could explain what you actually intended when you brought it up.

  10. Bryce: I appreciate your comment, but please don’t be afraid. The world, despite all of its flaws, is a great place. And there are people out there — yes, even in running clubs — who are kind, supportive, and capable of showing you things or introducing you to experiences that no virtual realm or video, however helpful, can match.

  11. While listening to Jane McGonigal on the Colbert Report, I was quite skeptical of her assertions that games can do as much good as she professed. Having done a little more research into the types of games that she has designed, I am starting to see her points (though still a tad skeptical). But I found your rebuttal of her ideas completely unconvincing, overly verbose and unnecessarily mean spirited.

  12. I can see how McGonigal’s relentless rose-colored look at gaming can inspire vituperative responses. But the part of her message/mission that I find truly harmful is the implication that gaming offers the skills needed for a new world. The issue is simple: games are highly constrained, while complex real-life problems (which the new world is and will be full of) are usually not constrained at all.

    Take FoldIt or EteRNA, two games of molecule folding that are wonderful examples of applying human brain power to real problems via a gaming interface. While I’m more than happy to see people playing these games instead of WoW, I find any attempt to find equivalence between these participants and scientists entirely sinister. Why? Because we are not short of people who can play FoldIt or EteRNA well, but we are short of people who can advance the science of DNA and RNA. The latter requires an ability to find satisfaction in hundreds and thousands of hours of raw learning before you can even really start to play “the game” in earnest — quite the opposite of the reward system that game designers use.

    If gaming is really teaching kids goal achievement and problem solving and group coordination, then we should be seeing right now an explosion in math and science achievements from American students. (All you have to do to get into college with nice scholarship is get a 4.0 GPA and ace the P/SAT — something that succumbs fairly directly to a large number of hours of goal achievement and problem solving.) But we’re not. Gaming (even lovely scientific efforts like FolkIt and EteRNA) teaches only a thin, artificial, constrained version of these skills. Real life problems are not available in “levels” so that you can get lots of feel-good points even when you’re a rank beginner. I’m reminded of the time I bought a copy of Civilization (a lengthy strategy game) and the checkout boy (a gamer) said “Yeah, I tried to play that once but gave up — I don’t want to spend a whole hour just learning how to play the game.”

    Most of the big problems the human race faces require a kind of patience, an ability to find your own rewards in learning, that is nearly the antithesis of gaming. Any balanced view of gaming must acknowledge the “opportunity cost” of spending so many hours on an activity with little tangible benefits (compared to, say, the long-term income benefits of getting a 4.0 GPA and acing the P/SAT). Of course, once you’ve sunk so many hours into such an activity, you will be highly motivated to find and overvalue any kind of benefit you can, just as alcoholics are delighted to find any evidence whatsoever for health benefits associated with drinking.

  13. She’s got a good idea. My complaint would be that she’s taking it way too far in one direction (games as cure-all solutions) and not far enough in another (acknowledging and solving deep social problems). Games are good at teaching people how to solve problems, but not a social panacea. She gave a TED talk in which her source was a myth (with about as much credibility to it as anecdotes of religious miracles) about an 18-years-long famine “solved” by playing dice games. That’s just a silly feel-good anecdote. I don’t buy it for a tenth of a second.

    Games have some benefits in teaching, if they’re good games written by designers with good ideas. For example, I learned a lot about geography, when I was in 4th grade, playing exploration/navigation games like New Horizons. That’s how I learned what the Mediterranean Sea is and why it has been so important. This knowledge was shallow compared to what a real geographer or historian cares about, but no less shallow than what is being tested in the sort of blank-map/name-the-countries exam you see in the school system. I think that games can spark curiosity, but if you want in-depth knowledge of a subject, you need to learn through more traditional means (reading the books, writing code, proving the theorems, playing the instruments). Still, if games are what it takes to get people initially excited about intellectually hard subjects, that’s a win. Good video games are certainly superior, as a use of one’s time and emotional energy, to celebrity culture and whatever horrid reality show the Kardashians are doing these days.

    As a much less optimistic game designer, I think that she takes her ludophilia a bit far. Games are fun, but no substitute for solving real problems. She has a big hammer so everything looks like a nail. In truth, for +1’s to pop up while writing PowerPoint presentations would quickly become a massive annoyance, like the infamous paperclip (“office assistant”) from old Word versions. Also, the fundamental reason why people can get into flow and creatively solve problems during games (and not in school or at work) is that the expectations and stakes are self-defined, and people have the option of opting out or taking breaks, which they don’t have at work. At most workplaces, only the top few percent (“executives”) get to set direction and make strategic decisions, and the rest do as they’re told, how and when they are told to do it. It has always been this way, just with different names (serfs and lords, slaves and masters, employees and executives) and the only difference is that, in the 21st century, the labor that is most important to our survival (mostly in science and technology) is at such a high level of skill that society actually needs the servant class to be somewhat motivated and happy. The old, more brutal and coercive model, doesn’t work anymore.

    Reality being broken, to use her words, is a deep social problem, and dressing work or school up in the trappings of a game, but keeping these institutions the same as they always were, isn’t going to fool anyone. That’s “Hawaiian Shirt Day”.

    By “reality is broken”, I take it to mean that people are more engaged and productive in video games, purely a diversion, than they are at school or work, where being productive actually has value; but the solution isn’t to replace office performance reviews with character sheets, or something small and superficial like that. It’s to radically restructure society. I’ve written quite a bit on this: we’re rich enough as a society that a lot of work that is done is done out of a deep-seated psychological need to work, rather than economic necessity, and that this “from the heart” work is of superior quality. The problem is that we still live like peasants: in general, we (middle-class Americans) accept that people (for unstated and unclear reasons; note that the corporate elite is about as penetrable and “meritocratic” as the 18th-century French aristocracy; let’s hope for a similar fate) can tell us what to do, and even how and when to do it down to insulting detail, and can turn off our income because they don’t like us, we work endlessly without asking to what ends the work will be used, and make a lot of sacrifices for show that don’t make any sense.

    If she can solve those problems, she deserves a medal. The only solution I see is rationalistic libertarian socialism, which I’ve no problem with, but I wouldn’t hold my breath to see it implemented in the U.S., and I don’t see how playing video games all day will get us there.

    I admire this woman for her desire to transform the world. That’s great. I wish more people had such vision, but we can’t solve the world’s problems by pushing buttons on a controller. We’ve got 30 years of arguing, voting, tearing down old institutions and creating new ones, ahead of us. The U.S. Republican Party isn’t some boss monster you can beat down to 0 HP in order to unlock Universal Healthcare; it (and, more broadly, conservative politics in general) is a symptom of something seriously defective in the human mindset. The real human world is, to put it simply and state the obvious, a lot harder than a game world.

  14. Wow. I hope my perspective can at least be considered ‘lived’, as I kinda think it is. Never tried mescaline but read a little Casteneda. And no one ever publicized the back story in Wall-E.

  15. I suppose one woman’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. Gaming futurists like McGonigal scare the shit out of me. The widespread application of the positive-reinforcement mechanisms of gaming to real world experiences has the potential to threaten the future of independent thought in modern civilization.

    McGonigal dreams of a future in which Nike software goads us to run farther and we’re awared with +1 intellect whenever we say something intelligent. Unfortunately, games are, as one of your readers has already pointed out, constrained by their very nature. In other words, these positive-reinforcement mechanisms will be doled out for specific behaviors that have been selected for reward. But who decides which behaviors will be rewarded?

    McGonigal has already answered this question. Nike will. More generally, the vast industrial and corporate powers that provide us with the technologies that enable these new gaming reward mechanisms will decide what behaviors will be rewarded and reinforced. McGonigal and her peers have identified a psychological mechanism that the centers of global power can exploit to gain what may be an unprecedented level of control over our behaviors, goals, and mental lives. Incredibly, she insists that we should greet this new innovation as a harbinger of utopia.

    Nike software isn’t going to reward you for running because it is making you healthier; Nike is going to reward you for running in order to sell you running shoes. McGonigal admits this, but what she doesn’t mention is that corporations selling you unhealthy products will have access to the same technology. Will you get a +1 Energy every time you drink a Coca-Cola? Will you become a Level 85 Consumer of Big Macs at McDonalds?

    Perhaps my concerns would be easy to dismiss as overdramatic. In response, I’d assert that there are only two possibilities:

    1. Gaming reinforcement mechanisms don’t have any great psychological influence over us. If this is true, then McGonigal’s work is worthless.

    2. Gaming reinforcement mechanisms do have great psychological influence over us, and we’d be completely insane to welcome this new power into our lives, knowing that it will be controlled by people concerned more about profit margins than about our well-being.

    This goes deeper than reinforcement of marketing concepts, of course. If human beings eventually grow reliant on +1 Intellects to know that they’ve said something smart, then this new system will effectively control our perceptions of what constitutes a good or a bad idea. All of our goals and notions for what is right will be under the influence of the omnipresent gamer constructs that will inform our behavior.

    I understand why McGonigal has achieved the level of success that she has. She’s passionate, she’s enthusiastic, and she lends a veneer legitimacy to a sub-culture that is often derided by outsiders. Her vision, however, is horrifying, and I wonder if she even allows herself to explore the negative consequences of living in the future she describes.

  16. Any hopes you had of winning me over were lost in your examples of child abuse related to video game addiction. Right, because child abuse never existed before video games. Sheesh. The couple who neglects their kid while playing World of Warcraft were ALWAYS neglectful parents – WoW just happened to be the object they focused on instead of caring for their kid. If the lady didn’t shake her baby to death because of Farmville, she would have done so because of some other petty frustration. And some writer who got addicted to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV – and then “bravely” wrote about it? You are aware that people become addicted to cocaine while working hard to make it through college too, right? Should we take a serious look at the addictive nature of academia? Whenever we write about the benefits of a college education, are we remiss if we fail to mention the dangers of the pressure to succeed, and the possible harmful effects?

    A kid died from exhaustion after too much gaming. Yes, and lots of young people have died from anorexia. If you like, you can say that diet and exercise killed them, and we can pretend that things which are supposed to be positive are actually fatal. Or you can more accurately say that mental illness killed them. But such accuracy would imply fairness instead of a desire to defame and vilify, and that’s not what the goal is in this article, is it?

  17. Thanks for this article. So good to see someone incisively pointing out the lack of coherence & biased, misleading rhetoric and pseudo-science that this book delivers. As a longtime and well-respected game designer, I’m deeply embarrassed by the way that McGonigal represents our profession.

  18. While you have some very valid points with regard to McGonigal’s book and theories, you come off sounding like an angry guy with a chip on his shoulder.

    You’ve gone beyond fostering healthy debate about McGonigal’s ideas and theories and stepped clearly in the “defame, vilify and personally attack” camp. Your tone discredits many of your valid points and leaves me as a reader wondering why you’d go there.

  19. Is it just me or self called professionals tend be fucking immature.

    To blame a medium of entertainment for drug addiction is lunacy. Its like saying music made my cousin a murderer. It just doesn’t make sense. We are human. I am pretty sure the drug addict made the conscious decision(no matter how idiotic) to start using chemicals. Yes I will admit I am addicted to video games, but I am also addicted to: movies, music. books, fun, piano, tv, friendship and love. Human’s naturally release hormones that cause the sense of happiness and pleasure it is perfectly normal for us to play more.

    When you like something you become “addicted to things”. Even though they are not true dependencies when I get tired I stop playing. My addiction also brought to attention my potential careers. It also brought people I can befriend. You know, In the 16 years of my life I only had legitimate friends since I am 13yrs old. Because I met people with my interest and who understands my disorders.

    It greatly upsets me when people insult the very thing that helped me. I think if I didn’t start playing video games when I did. I would have probably committed suicide by now. So before you start bashing on things please think about the people you may potentially hurt.

  20. This debate is extremely fascinating. Both sides make very valid points, but I feel like some things are still missing.

    First of all I would like to point out that whether we know it or not, we are already living in a reality that is based on gaming mechanics. Why is it that we go to school to get high GPAs and not to explore subjects and questions that are truly interesting and inspiring? Why do so many people come out of top universities to fight over Wall Street jobs instead of devoting their time contributing in more meaningful ways? It’s because there is a points and badges system already in place. Points are money, and badges are what you will find on your own resume. For thousands of years, this simple system has been guiding people towards decisions that they otherwise would not have chosen .

    What is odd is that many people don’t realize that they’ve been playing this game since birth. Our parents played it, their parents played it, and we are now playing it. Study hard, get good grades, and volunteer so you can get into a good college. Study hard, get good grades, and get a great internship so you can get a good job with a high salary. Life for many people consists entirely of getting more points and earning more badges. That reality, is broken.

    What Jane McGonigal is proposing is not to substitute reality with video games. She is proposing that we replace the broken system we are currently playing in with a richer system that takes into account all types of human activity. Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation recently published the idea of a open badge system that tracks your progress in all areas of life. Check it out here. http://dmlcentral.net/resources/4440. Imagine getting a badge for being a top contributor to an online community, or for learning a computer language on your own, or for learning how to cook 20 Indian dishes. There are thousands of accomplishments and challenges our current game system does not care for or reward. Wouldn’t a new system that rewards people for what truly motivates them be better? Wouldn’t that reduce the relative rewards of money and resume fillers so that people can pursue other more meaningful interests?

    Jane McGonigal is not proposing that we all become passive gamers. What she is really proposing is that we all become GAME DESIGNERS. She is demonstrating how creating social games can create social change. A game about reducing carbon footprints can engage far more people than just a media campaign about the same topic. The game fosters communication and collaboration amongst the members of the community, and the experience of having played the game will have far lasting effects on the participant than if they had watched a movie or read a book.

    What the real future of gaming is that we will all become game designers who can design experiences for other people and create the social change that we believe in. That can be accomplished by having a thorough understanding of how games function and the effects they have on human psychology. I have experimented with many game settings within my own math classes and I have seen the increase in engagement and knowledge retention in my own students first hand. I realized that the reality of the school system I was working in was broken, and I found gaming to be a great way to start fixing that reality.

    Wouldn’t this be a better world if we all saw reality as being broken in some way and did our best to fix it? I hope we can all find something in this world to fix and spend less time tearing down other people’s ideas.

  21. Nathaniel Engelsen and Gamer/educator (Gamer/educator especially) truly understand what mcgonigal is trying to do. The rest of you (especially you, edward) are getting far too hung up on the surface of this idea. A (well-designed) game has the power to change lives for the better, regardless of whether it is a video game or not. Reread mcgonigal’s passage on playing poker with tombstones. This simple, silly game does a world of good for the players. That’s what mcgonigal is all about.

  22. “Wouldn’t this be a better world if we all saw reality as being broken in some way and did our best to fix it? I hope we can all find something in this world to fix and spend less time tearing down other people’s ideas.”

    Tearing down other people’s ideas only makes those ideas stronger. That is, if the person cares to defend and elaborate their ideas.

    Some defenders of her, (even here in the comments) have seemingly made better arguments than she proposes, but only because they seem ironically more rooted in reality and not filled with pie in the sky notions of world peace.

    I think that perhaps Champion’s essay was a bit too venomous, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t my knee-jerk reaction to Mcgonigal’s thesis: All signs pointed to someone who sneezed on a keyboard while WoW was on the screen, made it to level 12, got a PhD in something even more worthless than Philosophy, and some how never managed to pick up a psychology book. Because if she did any of those things, it would contradict her thesis… (yeah ad hominem, so what)

    It may be a bit of jealousy and obviously we can’t expect everyone to be experts, but her leaps here (again) seem great, full of optimism but of little substance.

    I agree in part that game theory and game design can help to alleviate some our personal problems and perhaps some of the world’s problems but a lot of it seems like a reach. And in actuality most of what she appears to say breaks down to simple psychological intrinsic and external motivation and therefore one can substitute video games for any other flavor of the month.

    I’m going to write how if we all become Italian and eat gnocchi, then we can get rid of the pirates of the Somali coast. Kidding… I’d change it to becoming British and eating Fish and Chips.

    I wanted to pick up Tom Bissell’s book, but Borders didn’t have it. /sadface

    In the end, on it’s face, Mcgonigal’s thesis seems like deep green food coloring breaking up pale in water. Though I think there is really a lot of potential with this and these sorts of arguments, it just sounds like this one is poorly executed.

  23. I slogged through your entire post and have come to the conclusion that you are ametur hour because rather than post a thoughtful dissent to spur discussion you have numerous personal attacks on McGonagle.

    In persuasion and bs theory, this is a giant red flag with a big “this guy has no credibility” emblem.

    While you take your narcissistic ball and go home with your ego, the rest of us will continue to discuss and debate ways to appropriately, if at all, bring game
    mechanics to non-traditional game tasks in everyday life.

    +1 for being a dick.

  24. I think you are missing the point of the book here, and at points seems like a personal atack. I think the idea of using the mechanics that make a game entertaining and addictive to fuel motivation for solving real life issues or improving one self is a brilliant idea. Obviously there might be arguments in the book that are not completely accurate or exagerated, like with any theorist trying to convince an audience, but I think you are just focusing on these points to shot down the whole idea. I also dont see why you are on a crusade against marketing. Without marketing, most people wouldnt know about certain benefits in products or services. check out http://www.thefuntheory.com/ so you can see a little example of how games or in this case “fun” can change peoples behavour.

  25. i think Jane McGonagle is a great marketing person, with a interesting vision, but i find her “research” kind of suspect.
    In today’s world it is a great sales pitch to say you can solve real world problems by playing games, its very similar to a lot of weight loss products that promise results by doing very little or nothing at all. People love to believe that they can solve difficult problems by doing nothing, and Jane McGonagle has tapped into that type of thinking.
    Good article, nice to see people take a hard look at her work.

  26. I considered your viewpoint for a small while, until the barrage of personal insults started hurling. You compared a political movement with a video game-themed museum that will not cause massive wars and the like and will most likely not exist in ten years, let alone be comparable to communism. Whatever faults lie in the book(and they’re there, trust me), your response contributes zero academic validity from the massive amount of personal attacks, and also pulling “sources” from your ass. You didn’t convince me how to feel, you told me how to feel… with piss-poor lazy references at that(something you criticized the book for, congrats!), and comparing a team/group of friends playing a game(Halo) to basically an episode of the Jersey Shore, getting drunk, and performing shallow acts. I’m in agreement with the fellow nerd earlier in the comments. You’ve basically assumed anyone who touches a game is a shallow idiot. I wouldn’t even want this kind of assumption tossed on me for when I partake in alcohol occasionally. I would hope you’re underage from that kind of comment you made there. Not everyone who drinks is a pedantic underage moron(yes, and did you know some of those college students on Spring Break weren’t to your stereotype as well? I’m one of them.)

    Let me tell you a little something about gamers: we’re not all alike. That would be something, but do people profile the other entertainment mediums in this fashion? “Those damn TV watchers!!!” “Pfft. Movie-goers. Bunch of addicts… I see them here with their family every Saturday!” The truth is, there’s more gamers everyday with the advent of the Wii and Facebook gaming especially. And no, not every single gamer plays Halo, or games for 12 hours a day while beating their children to a pulp. Have you noticed why a lot of gaming deaths have happened in Korea? There’s a reason for that. The atmosphere of “YOU MUST SUCCEED” and cram school environments drives certain people to, instead of outright committing suicide outright to escape to another world they can be successful at. It is a dangerous mentality; however, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

    While discussing that Farmville incident: Did you know there was severe alcoholism involved and a past of addiction for that mother? She had been addicted to any form of vice that she could get her hands on, so of course she got addicted to games. She committed a terrible crime, sure- but to blame Farmville alone is absolutely ludicrous. Especially in light of so many other child abuse deaths caused by alcohol and drugs, combined with the mental makeup for addiction. It devalues the lives of other children lost to such cases, with quite a number occurring in a city near my hometown everyday(or did those need to involve Facebook game addiction to be valid)?

    There may be addicted/compelled members in any medium(not just games), but even those cases don’t happen in a vacuum. There’s serious underlying problems, and that is a considerable enough variable to be looked into, instead of simply blasting about whatever anti-author crusade like you’ve done here instead of an substantial critical review. Do you know a gamer? Do you understand how to not talk down to people to make a point, and attempt to shove whatever idea that pops into your mind as a truth?

    I’ll end with what illustrated to me the type of person you are. The absolutely flooring and demeaning comment you made to a man here, about how “The big bad world weally isn’t so scawwy” about him simply not desiring to join a running club. You’ve basically proven all validity in your comments and article is to be taken with a HUGE grain of salt, and that basically, you’re a presumptuous ass.

    Have a good one.

  27. I can’t disagree more with your review. Her basic point, in the first chapter, is that reality sucks in a lot of ways and it would be great if we could use games to make reality BETTER so maybe people would WANT to spend their time there. The entire book was about projects like Evoke and FoldIt (which, by the way, recently made some groundbreaking medical discoveries in the real world) where we take the computer gamers and leverage them in ways that benefit society AND make them feel good (and before you bring up that we’re ‘using them’, keep in mind that the games are VERY upfront about what they are, how they want to use you, and what they hope to accomplish). FreeRice is literally gamers feeding people in third world countries by playing a game.

    You say you’re a gamer because you’ve logged “200 hours”? Most gamers, the group she’s talking about, log AT LEAST quadruple that every year.

    10 Billion kills in Halo have no real value – she admits that, multiple times, in her book. What you seem to not want to acknowledge is that the entire point of that passage is showing that when enough people band together and are motivated to do something, they can accomplish a major goal together – and that goal WAS a lot of work (regardless of whether it was “important work” or not).

    Yes, a lot of gamers are socially dysfunctional. But you’re arguing a position that shows you don’t spend a lot of time around gamers or gamer culture – MOST of those socially dysfunctional gamers were actually socially dysfunctional before, and turned to games because it was an outlet that helped modify it somewhat. The other factor that you seem to be missing is that most gamers are adults, with careers, families, etc, that leverage it well.

    As a culture, we’re raised to think things like playing monopoly around the kitchen table with our family is a Good Thing. But when a gamer who lives alone plays an online game with friends, that’s somehow strange? It’s the same damn thing.

    I play a lot of online games. Many of my friends are people I only know online. A lot of people would say I need to “get out and get a life” – but here’s the thing: The hours I have free when I’m not working or sleeping (and I have some health issues that necessitate a different sleep schedule than normal) are frequently after most of my in-person friends are either winding down at home or are asleep. So should I sit downstairs alone and watch TV until bedtime, or get online and play games with friends? I, like many, don’t play games to escape from the world and interaction – I play games to enjoy the world and interact with others.

    Not everyone is wired the same. As a teacher, I’ve learned that most high school students are competitive and that’s a big part of the reason they play games – they don’t play to unlock achievements, they play to unlock those achievements faster than their friends, and unlock more of them than their friends. Wouldn’t it be great if we could leverage that competitive drive somehow to get them to be better with their schoolwork?

    It’s a widely known phenomenon (much of europe’s workforce is based around the concept, and increasingly US companies are looking at it too) that a happy population is a productive population. Right now, games make us happy. It’s not just McGongigal’s assertion that a little bit of gaming during a break can improve productivity – it’s a researched and documented fact.

    Does she quote out her research as well as she could? No. The book was (or at least it appears to have been) meant as an inspiring read, but not a particularly heavy one. She wasn’t bogging down in details of things for sake of brevity, but I spent a good amount of time researching a lot of her bibliography for a related project that I’m working on and most of her thought patterns hold up.

    Can gaming solve all of the world’s problems? Probably not. Are there other ways to solve things than gaming? Usually. But if it’s working, how about we don’t shoot it down until we have a better plan? If a few people using Nike+ are more inspired to lead healthier, more active lives as a result of the game, is that really so bad? Isn’t that a win for public health? And since healthier people have less medical bills, if everyone was on Nike+ we’d probably have lower insurance costs because people would be healthier. There’s a lot of probably’s in that, but it seems pretty logical to me.

    But simply put, you can’t argue the facts:
    1) People like playing games. As a culture, we’ve been doing it for centuries. She was actually kind of wrong on this one – she said we were playing since several hundred BC, my research indicates we’ve been playing since more like 3500 BC. So actually she underestimated it.

    2) People are more productive when they are happy. There’s been a number of studies on this from about the mid-80s onwards, and if a conflicting study does exist, I have yet to see it (and in education we look into this a lot, so I’ve seen a lot of happiness studies).

    3) Game Designers are utilizing games in more creative ways (which is actually her point) to help solve world problems. Problems that weren’t being solved in other ways (see: foldit)

    Obviously she’s gonna make her ideas sound awesome, she’s trying to sell a book. Every other nonfiction writer does pretty much the same thing, those that don’t make their ideas sound exciting don’t sell books. But even if she’s a little overzealous (and I don’t actually think she is, but I’m willing to concede some ground on that) and maybe if she makes a couple leaps of logic that aren’t 100% supported (although most of what she says agrees with research I’ve done as well), she’s also not wrong on much of it.

  28. I must say, after reading her 400 or so paged book I came out of it think about so many different points she made, both valid and troublesome. After reading this, I feel like you have wasted my time to the point I actually wrote this. I’m sure this made you feel better about yourself, but get a life.

  29. Firstly I am a creator of educational games and therefore I’m sure to harbour a certain amount of overly optimistic sentiment towards this.

    I am still though deeply confused by reading your article. I’ve read Jane’s book, and I found the beginning and end were an interesting collation of a lot of other works that I’ve read into a more coherent picture, with interesting insight and perspectives. I found the middle section where she talked about her own projects more difficult to swallow as she seemed a little bit too pleased with herself for making games that didn’t seem particularly far from what we’ve seen before, and with a fairly limited audience at that. Not to mention some of them being solutions to entirely first world “problems”, like the latte. But though that was used as an example of the solution to a deeply insipid problem it is food for thought on how similar systems could be used for more meaningful tasks and I’m always looking for inspiration from people who do things in a different way.

    I took the hint that this was going to be a negative review from the first couple of lines with a torrent of abuse that just doesn’t end. I expected you to highlight some of the same problems I had with the book but I started to lose interest when you descended mentioning alien abduction and the loch ness monster, always a bad sign, But then followed by the picture of the gentleman administering a syringe to his forearm removed any delusion I might have had that this was serious and valid criticism and assigned you full membership of the tin foil hat brigade. After that it was just a kind of morbid curiosity that drove me to continue reading and that was after just the first few paragraphs. I’m completely confused as to how you can read a book which has glaring issues amongst some good material, completely ignore those Issues and go on some anti Jane/game rant which was difficult to take seriously.

    I just don’t see where you’re coming from, the point of the book seemed to me at least to be saying that we have a huge number of people migrating their time to playing games rather than other kinds of media or activities,it’s not a trend that’s going anywhere soon, so how can we use that time for good and how can we motivate them to do more with their lives based on the emotions that are already being cultivated by games. Why not take things that people are doing anyway and modify them so that they can make positive social and real world impacts. I agree that suggesting that we should devote more time to game play to solve the worlds problems may be taking it a bit far, but then trying to extrapolate things into the future is pretty much her job so it makes sense.

    Even in your comments afterwards “The idea that I should forego shoveling my snow because reality is broken and video games have the answer is preposterous. That “difficult” task doesn’t just mean clearing a much needed snow bank, but I get some exercise, talk with the neighbors, and breathe in the wintry air, while feeling the fine flecks of snow settle upon my coat. ”

    If you’re going to clear your snow bank anyway, then good for you, but if you don’t have the motivation too, or perhaps elderly neighbours near by that are unknown to you can’t do their own or their mobility is limited by yours, Surely a game designed to bring the community together to keep the local area free of snow would be a positive thing. I don’t think she’s suggesting that everyone should just plug into call of duty or world of warcraft and spend 90% of their time in these worlds. If she was I’d be the first to share your position, But if people are already choosing to migrate their time to these online worlds then how can we use that to do real world things, and to give people the same feeling of control and agency that motivates them in the game world into other areas of life. I don’t think descriptions of fine flecks of snow is going to motivate someone into doing hard physical work who doesn’t want to do it, but perhaps a community spirited game might encourage people to join those who already get excited about flecks of snow on their coat. Even if the game is as simple as “which neighbourhood can clear their streets fastest” Worth a try at least and infinitely more likely to change things than inaction.

    I’m not entirely sure what your motives behind this are But what I took as a light read that’s a hint at what might be possible and where the future of this might go, fair enough she thinks a little too highly of herself and her work, but most of your criticism seems mean spirited if not down right childish. I truly hope that I’ve missed your point in your criticism by a degree as wide as I perceive you to have missed the point of the book. I look forward to having my mind changed.

  30. Wow.

    Reading your article I can’t tell if you didn’t read the book or just couldn’t understand it at all.

    Even in the first paragraph you say the EXACT OPPOSITE of the whole premise of the book:

    ” offers the shaky premise that, because reality is difficult, video games exist to pick up the slack.”

    She says just the opposite. She says that it’s the fact that because reality is so BORING that videogames exist to pick up the slack. Based on the rest of your article, I can only assume that if you did read the book at all, that you came in with so much of your own opinion that you couldn’t even understand it if written on an 5th grade level. You’re apparently intelligent, but your arrogance seems to get in the way.

    As an award winning teacher with 16 years experience and a highly successful curriculum (used in 12 of the top 15 schools in the world getting High School students certified in Adobe Software), I can tell you that McGonigal is spot on.

    If you can read it again without your assumptions and preconceived notions, you might be able to actually see that half of what you argue in your rebuttal is in fact the same arguments made in the book.

  31. This book is the ultimate evidence of a sad fact: any person loaded with money and time, sitting in a College chair long enough, can get a PhD today, no matter how STUPID, MORONIC and SINGLE-MINDED. For a minute, I thought she was cynical, but even that requires an amount of intelligence absent in her text. And even I, being a non-native English speaker, might dare to say her English is horrible, beyond comparison.

  32. “After all, doesn’t innovation sometimes come from presenting unpopular ideas? Doesn’t innovation sometimes come from challenging the status quo?” Sometimes, or maybe always. See Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner.

    Thank you Edward for an intelligent critique. I’m reading Reality is Broken right now. Feeling a little suffocated by its breathless style of a campaign. Your blog helps me read the book more critically.

  33. I have to say, I enjoy the little ‘Great Job! Plus One!’ in certain online learning systems, but I feel that’s because I lack the ability to enjoy the work and I actively seek to change my ethic.

    No pain, no gain. Anything worth doing takes effort. I agree with the author of the critique that McGonigal’s thinking could be potentially hazardous by abstracting reality where reality needs to be dealt with literally.

    I think there is mass trama associated with success and self worth and this is why people fail to see the virtue of hard work, and thus seek to offset it with perks, a certain image or profile. Some may choose avoidance, etc, etc.

    If I had realized this sooner I would be a much richer man. I couldn’t bring myself to slave at that 9 – 5. I thought it would kill my spirit and creativity. I thought I was better.

    To an extent it led me to more creative and higher paying lines of work, but perhaps to a larger extent, it meant struggling financially and cycle of stress and lack of direction.

    A boring job could have reinforced my creative direction. Actually, though web development is usually considered creative, shifting my focus to gainful employment there has reinforced my creative direction.

    A ‘boring’ (boring because you can’t ‘gamify’ things yourself?) job could have provided much-need seed capital for an innovative startup.

    I honestly can’t stand the corporate version of ‘points’ any more than I could in school.

    Struggling as an independent or creative will always leave you at the mercy of the big budget. Leverage comes from equity of some kind, whether sweat or otherwise. We can leave out cumulative advantage right now, because ostensibly it’s the upper classes who contend with this concept and not the other way around.

    I read about Oakland implementing measures to help teachers deal with Ebonics as ‘the language you speak at home’ versus the language of formal writing, essentially assessing those children as bi-lingual rather than ‘not knowing English nohow.’ Compare the use of double negatives to French. Je ne parle pas Angles.

    I think this sort of empathy and introspection is at least as important as McGonigal’s idealistic suggestion. Noting that these inner city children were already capable would be essential before implementing any sort of English learning gaming model. Abstracting the harsh inter-cultural issues may make the subject lighter and easier to digest, but without any pith, what are you digesting?

    The approach could potentially reinforce bad learning styles and behavior.

    Forgive the hasty analogy but I think you see what I mean.

  34. Jeez….talk about Mr Buzzkill. I’d rather hang out with a digital hippy dippy raisin eating gamer than a cabo blackout banger of airhead chicks ranter smelling of underestimated self importance

  35. “with a Gladwellian thud”…I was hooked with those words. Indeed, this hepped up middle brow visionary high brow ballyhoo for the low browed is enough to turn you into a luddite. Far as I can see the gap between what’s is “really” going on beyond this solipsistic herd’s worldview (for lack of a better term) and what they think is going on is already stretched to the breaking point. The fact that anyone would have the audacity to coin something is dimwitted as “reality is broken” needs to be taken aside and given a brief history on the evolution and communicative uses of language. Much like the term “outliers” it’s just another slogan without any meaning whatsoever. The title of her book says about all there needs to be said about this visionary’s “insights”. I suppose they are in sited in terms of the completely disconnected source from which they have arisen. Gladwellian…love it, I’m going to start using it at work anytime one of my co-workers throws out a slogan masquerading as a thought.

  36. Stunning. I cannot believe you spent so much time formulating such a piece of drivel. I don’t need to repeat the comments above, but, seriously? Some of McGonicals arguments are seriously questionable, but yours are a joke. For someone who considers themselves a (clearly superior) writer and thinker, your rant is embarrassing.

  37. Great read. I watched her TED talk (the fact they invited her is in itself a shocking inditement on TED but anyway…) and was struck by how facile and ridiculous her basic proposition was. Afterwards I went looking for critiques of this book and found this article, which perfectly encapsulated what I was feeling after listening to her nonsense. Well done.

  38. I love the way Jane explains her ideas, her enthusiasm, some of her game ideas and overall positive energy.

    I read the book, and I wanted to love it. However it seems to be very pseudo-scientific. Some ‘ideas’ CAN ACTUALLY be very helpful in the future, but the games she has developed don’t clearly prove the potential. It’s a great first step, but it’s definitely not a concrete example. The book could give the same amount of good ideas in half the number of pages. it can definitely use some editing!

    Also her website says ” her #1 goal in life is to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize.” Instead if I read her life goal was to bring peace to the world, regardless of an award, it would be more validating for her mission portrayed in the book.

    As a senior game designer I definitely support Jane’s mission of improving lives with games and the amazing potential this technology has for the future. However I don’t think these game efforts can ever be compared with the doctors, managers and social workers who provide face to face support in crisis areas. I would love to see those people winning Nobels.

    To summarize, I see the future of games improving lives at a significant level, but not to the epic extent this book promises.

  39. Just finished reading this book on my flight. As a former game addict, I had a lot of issues with what McGonigal presented. Everything in her gaming world is rose-tinted. She views the fact that there are 2 million WoW players spending 30 hours a week as a good thing. She thinks Halo 3 players reaching 10 billion kills is an epic win. On what planet? For her, as a video game designer/consultant, who wants to see nothing more than the gamification of the entire world? Yea, we can agree that’s a good thing for her.

    Certain games do offer unique and interesting solutions to problems. However, she conflates casual games like Free Rice and highly addicting, toxic games like World of Warcraft, and the players who play such games. They are on polar ends of the spectrum. In a paragraph early on, McGonigal even mentions herself that she spent an entire 24 hours over a weekend playing WoW, after only intending for a couple. She had to pry herself away from it. I imagine that had she not, and allowed it to take over her life much in the way it has for the 2-million odd players currently playing, and as it did for me once, her stance would be entirely different, and the book Reality is Broken would not even exist.

  40. Working with dis-ease daily, I assure you vaccines are very toxic for the undeveloped immune system. Furthermore, all toxins that are given during pregnancy create an array of disconnect disorders, from the brain, central nervous system and spirit, soul, these include the shifting of the ancestral DNA. Thank you for your article, I agree with you, but, please reconsider what you think you know, about vaccines and the growing number of Autism, Asperger and all other disconnect disorders.

  41. Hmmm, it’s funny that the author of this article accuses Jane of hyoerboluc language but users hyperlanguage in return to tear her down.

    I don’t think she said that TED talks are as exhausting as digging ditches or other manual labor jobs. I don’t think she said that you have to play every game imaginable in the book (you know, she’s researching so she’s doing all these things, no where does she suggest anyone goes as deep as she does).

    If you want to talk about flawed thinking, how about this: someone disagrees with the use of words like “exhausting” and “epic” then decides to disregard an entire book if ideas and research which also includes the authors recovery from a severe concussion.

    I think the book is interesting, even if i don’t play any of the games she mentions (I’ve played classic games like Tetris). The ideas about engagement, challenges, flow, staying at the edge of your abilities are all important things for people to think about.

    You can’t accuse her of being a salesmen and than have such a low and insulting article title with inflammatory language. She didn’t debate you because you aren’t on her level. I only clicked on this link because of your “hyperbolic” title,not because you’re a bestselling author.

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