Angus MacMullen’s Book Review


by Angus MacMullen

Think of someone you know whom you might call a “gamer”:  a friend, coworker, a child.  Would you consider the hobby anything but unproductive entertainment during, or possibly exceeding, one’s free mcgonigaltime?  Even “gamers” or those who see at least some merit in a certain selection of games most likely have a limited extent to how much they can praise gaming as a constructive activity, to themselves or to others less receptive.  Gaming is instead often seen as a looming issue.  Virtual economist Edward Castranova, in an excerpt of a book of his included in the introduction to Reality is Broken, predicts a “social cataclysm” caused by an “exodus…from the real world.”  In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal refutes this negative view of games by discussing the broad relevance of games in real life, from the possibly most obvious argument of emotional and mental benefit to the powerful effect that game theory can have on social, economic, and environmental problems worldwide.

Reality is Broken is divided into three main sections.  First, McGonigal tries to clarify what defines a game and what key elements cause them often to be more appealing than real-life challenges, and more emotionally and mentally engaging.  Next, she presents concepts for changing routines to make for a generally more enjoyable and productive everyday life, through “alternate reality games,” translating ideas from games into reality.  The third part of the book discusses the significant potential of games on a huge scale to actually influence global patterns and issues.  Through these three sections, chapters are framed by fourteen “fixes” for reality, concise theses set apart from the text, collectively summarizing McGonigal’s argument on the possibilities that games introduce to real life.  The sections and fixes develop progressively broader in perspective through the book, initially focusing on positive emotions innately triggered by games, like “naches,” “flow,” or “fiero,” and concluding with a proposition for a global game spanning a thousand years to contribute to widespread long-term awareness that could help the real world.

This book will certainly capture the interest of current gamers; McGonigal brings up many familiar titles, from Tetris to World of Warcraft, and she can effectively connect to gamers by examples of experiences from them.  Yet no reference is without sufficient context and explanation for non-gamers to understand her points.  However, much of the book focuses on other examples lesser-known to any readers, both bringing broad support and encouraging further research, or at least a few curious Google searches for hers and others’ work in the area of alternate reality games and massively multiplayer real-life collaborations.

Upon first consideration, the subject matter of Reality is Broken can seem absurd or ludicrous, but McGonigal takes this preconception into account.  The writing in this book is often accompanied with statistics or other citations, thoroughly evidencing and rationalizing McGonigal’s argument.  Complementarily, though, McGonigal also includes many more anecdotal passages, which, combined with the more methodical support, give a thought-provoking validity to the prospect of adapting reality by the theories of games. And that is exactly what McGonigal intends; addressing the reader, she states that her book was designed to “build up your ability to enjoy life more, to solve tougher problems, and to lead others in world-changing efforts.”  In Reality is Broken, both the accounts of McGonigal’s own endeavors and the theories and plans she proposes provide strong inspiration for new approaches and tactics to solve real-life problems with game-like strategies; we just have to Press Start to Begin.

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