I Wish the Real World Would Just Stop Hassling Me (Gamification Post #3)

In her recent book “Reality is Broken,” Jane McGonigal suggests that games are structured to challenge us, to engage us socially, to help us have fun. Reality, on the other hand, well… isn’t built that way at all, often filled with sadness, isolation, and frustration (I can attest to this last one, as I’ve spent most of this week making necessary, yet annoying phone calls).  While there are certainly moments of fun and engagement, reality simply isn’t structured to try to make people happy.  Games provide an “escape hatch” that help people in difficult situations make their lives bearable.  And so, she suggests, computer games are satisfying real human needs in a way that reality is not.

Rather than condemning reality by escaping it, or the converse, condemning those who choose to escape reality by “wasting time on games,” McGonigal suggests that instead we might use what we know about designing fun games to design how we live our lives in the real world.  Games, she argues, involve unnecessary obstacles and often involve focused hard work and collaboration and learning to get ahead.  And because games are pleasurable, this is “work” that is done voluntarily.  New technologies, such as crowdsourcing (which I’ve written about here), can be harnessed for positive purposes, such as newsgathering, and in yesterday’s post, I noted that games may lead to more positive health outcomes. 

In short, by being mindful about what games can achieve, we can re-invent our reality to be one that is more appealing.  But what to make of the work/leisure dichotomy that McGonigal notes but does not really analyze?  Given my interest in labor and employment law, my next post will tackle “The Gamification of Work.”

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    A mini-midrash to your post:

    — “[R]eality simply isn’t structured to try to make people happy.” – Isn’t this a red herring? Why would anyone reasonably expect reality to be an agent “trying” to make us happy, rather than, say, we being agents within reality, trying to make our happiness (perhaps with, as some believe, some divine help)? Or rather than our being agents trying to be virtuous, to take an Aristotelian view?

    — “Games provide an ‘escape hatch’ that help people in difficult situations make their lives bearable” – So too, for some, alcohol, heroin, crystal meth, UFO cults, etc. Nor are these comparisons far-fetched: game addiction has led to deaths and the sale of children in China and deaths in South Korea — including of a real infant who was starved while her parents were tending to their virtual one. In many cases, the games involved are online multi-player games, the same type lauded for involving “focused hard work and collaboration and learning to get ahead” (Max Weber, meet X-Box).

    — “And so, she suggests, computer games are satisfying real human needs in a way that reality is not.” “And so”: then by the same logic, the same could be said of various addictions, cults, etc. mentioned above. Ought we to validate them all, then, by saying that they all “are satisfying real human needs in a way that reality is not”? Actually, there’s precedent for an affirmative answer. Judging from your paraphrases of this book, it’s striking how — even aside from the matter of points and quantitation — the gaming discourse is based on Benthamite utility (just like the currently fashionable “economics of happiness”). For Bentham, as for the neoclassical economists who followed him, “happiness” and “need” are determined entirely subjectively. As Léon Walras, the founder of general equilibrium theory, put it, a substance may have more utility to a poisoner who wants to use it for killing his family than to a doctor who wants to use it to cure a sick child.

    The use of the word “real” here is a rhetorical mask for the subjective and amoral nature of these “human needs”. Once we acknowledge that amorality, fewer people might find “satisfying real human needs in a way that reality is not” to be an adequate justification for gamification.

    I don’t mean to suggest that games are always evil, can’t be a reasonable way to help some medical patients recover from illness, etc. (Though let me guess, “productivity” is going to come up sooner or later, too.) And obviously a subtitle like “How games can be helpful for real life in some situations” would sell fewer books than “Why games make us better and how they can change the world” — utilitarianism strikes again. Which of those subtitles, though, is closer to your own position?

  2. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    AJ: McGonigal’s book addresses how games are different from alcohol, cults, etc. I don’t think these present intellectual challenges the same way games do. Of course, hat’s not to say that gamer addiction can’t become a problem or that there aren’t some very problematic, ie.. violent, games out there. But if you read her book, I think the vision is one of limited involvement, and involvement that is socially conscious.

    Is her claim overblown to sell books? Not sure. We’ll have to see what games develop and how people use them. But I think her vision of the “epic win” is a great concept.