BOOK REVIEW: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the WorldReality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The provocative title of this book captures why people are so drawn to games while they are, simultaneously, discontented with their real lives. McGonigal argues that all aspects of human activity could benefit from gamification, and that we should stop thinking of games as trivial endeavors to be engaged in in our spare time. After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of how turning activities into games can increase motivation, productivity, and – if done right – even human interaction. That said, I remain unsettled as to whether her overall thesis is sound.

On one hand, games are unambiguously motivating and captivating. To see it, one needn’t look further than the people playing games for free with at least as much (re: more) enthusiasm and attentiveness as they do those activities for which they are paid a salary. The mechanism by which games spur us is understood. Considering the question from the perspective of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” (as McGonigal does in ch. 2) we can see that constant feedback and an impetus to reach ever beyond our current capacity make games Flow-prone activities. Given that Flow is associated with both high productivity and positive mental states, that’s a sound argument in support of McGonigal’s ideas.

That said, I’m afraid that the need for constant, instantaneous feedback and the inability to remain mentally engaged for long periods when one must focus on something dull could have dire consequences for our species. Homo sapiens once had to follow wounded prey for days with constant vigilance, without instantaneous feedback, and with the possibility that the payoff could be lost at any moment. We developed attentiveness and mental discipline in the face of unstimulating conditions at great cost, and it has helped us to achieve great things. What will happen to our mental machinery when no one can pay attention for two minutes if there isn’t the possibility of an instantaneous virtual reward for it? To be fair, McGonigal does acknowledge — and to some degree discusses — these issues, but fails to take on such questions in much detail or with much objectivity. (It should be noted that she does extensively challenge the belief that gaming leads to lonely people living on their couches and never talking to real people in the real world.) The book is extremely thought-provoking, but shouldn’t be taken as an unbiased examination of the rise of gamification.

The fourteen chapters of the book are divided into three parts. The first part (ch. 1 through 6) both introduces what games are and offers insight into what they do for us. This includes an examination of what positive psychology (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, as mentioned) has to say about games, as well as how games can foster collaboration and give us the ability to take on problems bigger than our individual capacities would allow. Chapter four offers one of McGonigal’s most powerful arguments: that games are a way for people to learn to fail with grace and resilience. Adult humans tend to be severely averse to failure. (There’s a great meme featuring a baby sitting like she just plonked down on her butt, and the caption reads, “What if babies decided after four or five falls, ‘This walking thing just isn’t for me?’”)

The second part (ch. 7 through 10) is entitled “Reinventing Reality,” and it considers how games can be brought into real life to make reality more invigorating. A great example of this can be seen in the discussion of “Chore Wars,” which is a game designed to take household chores out of the realm of mundane drudgery and to make them a competitive activity that excites people. McGonigal uses the story of real games that have been developed for various purposes extensively in both part II and part III. Another example is the “Tombstone Hold ‘Em” game that was designed to address the problem of declining visits to cemeteries. While there are games that address less unusual topics, these two examples are insightful in that they show how virtually any endeavor can be gamified.

The final part (ch. 11 through 14) suggest how games can be used to take on large and difficult problems. Such challenges often remain insufficiently addressed (or unaddressed altogether) because of a lack of immediate motivation to take them on or a structure to organize activities – games can help provide both the motivation and the organization. Readers learn how the wisdom of crowds can be harnessed, as well as how incentives to change behavior can be created. In this section, McGonigal highlights games such as one designed to help humanity move beyond our oil supply.

The book has a few graphics and appendices, and is annotated to support the author’s thesis.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and insightful. As I mentioned, it doesn’t address my fears that humans will become incapable of sitting down and reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” or weeding a garden if we tread the path needing some sort of Pavlovian pat-on-the-back every time we do anything. (Again, to be fair, the author does suggest that one limit time devoted to gaming – e.g. Appendix 2.) The book does do a good job of showing how games can be used to make people more motivated, productive, and happy. I would recommend it for people considering that question, as well as those trying to figure out how they might go about gamifying some activity that they think needs to be more motivating.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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5 Tools to Hulk Your Way Out of Your Comfort Zone


5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge.  However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)

 

First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception.  A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.

 

Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement.  The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.

 

Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.

 

If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.

 

 

4.) Writing  / Visualization:  These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.

In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.

 

 

3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore.  They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest.  However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.

 

 

2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities.  In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.

 

What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.

 

Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.

 

Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:

 

 

1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress.  To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges.  Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had.  Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.

BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

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BOOK REVIEW: Missing Link Discovered by P. Marer, Z. Buzady, and Z. Vecsey

Missing Link Discovered: Planting Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory into Management and Leadership Practice by using FLIGBY, the official Flow-Leadership GameMissing Link Discovered: Planting Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory into Management and Leadership Practice by using FLIGBY, the official Flow-Leadership Game by Paul Marer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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So, you’re a leader and you’ve experienced Flow. Self-criticism vanished. Time fell away. The task was challenging, but the performance felt effortless. Your attention was rapt, and any craving for distractions disappeared. Maybe you even had a spate of creativity. You come away feeling great. Clarity reigns. Maybe you found Flow at work, but maybe it was skiing, golfing, or composing haiku. Either way, after thinking about how to repeat the feat, your next thought is, “What could my business [or organization] achieve if my people were in this state of mind for even a fraction of each day?” Increased productivity? Decreased healthcare costs and / or disruptions from sick days? Maybe, you’d see fewer complaints between stressed co-workers, or coming from customers? Regardless, you know that Flow is elusive and fickle. It may seem that the harder you seek it, the less success you have. You pick up a couple of books on finding Flow—maybe you watch some TedTalks on YouTube–and they provide helpful tips for finding the state for yourself, but most don’t have much to say on facilitating Flow for others.

 

That’s where FLIGBY comes in, and “Missing Link Discovered” is a companion to FLIGBY. [Note- “FLIGBY” is short for “FLow is Good Business for You,” which ties it into the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who both coined the term “Flow” and wrote a book entitled “Good Business” about both achieving Flow in the workplace and how some businesses succeed in the simultaneous pursuit of profit and virtue. Csikszentmihalyi was actively involved in the development of the FLIGBY game. The “missing link” referenced in the title is between leadership and Flow.] FLIGBY is an educational video game in which the player assumes the role of General Manager (GM) of a winery. The last GM was a hard-driving pursuer of profit who left the winery’s mission and values in a muddle and its employees stressed out and at each other’s throats. The player makes about 150 decisions over the course of the 23 scenes that map to a timeline of one’s first half a year as GM. While the player still has to consider the usual business objectives–such as profitability–to succeed one also has to help one’s employees find Flow. The game is used by both by professors of business education courses (e.g. in MBA programs) and by corporate trainers.

 

As this is a review of the book and not the FLIGBY game, I won’t talk too much more about it beyond this paragraph. However, I did have an opportunity to play the game and found it to be both educational and engrossing. The scenes are live-action, and the cast did a great job of creating the emotional tension necessary to make one feel a stake in the decisions. There’s a narrative arc that unfolds over the course of the game, and so it appeals to the way our brains best take in information. Of course, the game also pays attention to those factors that facilitate Flow, such as offering immediate feedback and an increasing challenge such that the difficulty rises with one’s skill.

 

I’ll now clarify what I mean by the book being “a companion” to the FLIGBY game. It’s not a game manual. [i.e. The nuts and bolts of how to navigate the game as well as general background information are provided within the game itself as well as through a series of digital appendices—a list of which is included in the book.] Rather, “Missing Link Discovered” is intended to bring readers up to speed in three areas relevant to the FLIGBY game. These areas are delineated by the book’s three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 3) introduces Flow and explains how its pursuit fits into the larger scheme of leadership responsibilities. It begins with an introduction to Flow and Csikszentmihalyi’s research, then links Flow and leadership, and—finally–describes the set of leadership skills used in the game.

 

The second part (Ch. 4 – 8) introduces the game, situates it in the context of serious games (those for which entertainment is a secondary concern), and discusses the topic of feedback in great detail (Note: feedback is a crucial issue because delayed or inadequate feedback is one of the major reasons that people have trouble achieving Flow–particularly in a workplace setting.) The last chapter in this section is a collection of captioned photos that charts the development of the game from the first meeting with Professor Csikszentmihalyi to the game’s use for both instruction and research.

 

While the first two parts of the book are relevant to all players, the last part is aimed at Professors, corporate trainers, and researchers. It consists of two chapters. Chapter 9 discusses such issues as where in an individual’s education or training the game should be situated, and how it should be presented. The last chapter (Ch. 10) is a bit different in that it opens up a discussion about the research potential offered by FLIGBY. Given the game’s widespread use in both academia and the corporate world, a great deal of data is collected that can be used anonymously by researchers to study interesting research questions (e.g. how players in differing demographics or job positions make decisions.)

 

The book offers a number of ancillary features that increase its usability and clarity. The first of these features are two single-page summaries that introduce readers to Flow and FLIGBY, respectively. Besides the aforementioned photo chapter, the book has many diagrams and other graphics to clarify concepts addressed in the text. The book is footnoted throughout, and provides a glossary of key terms. It should also be noted that there is an introduction by Professor Csikszentmihalyi in which he describes his involvement in the project and presents his thoughts on the value of FLIGBY.

 

I recommend this book, particularly for those who will be playing FLIGBY or who are in the process of determining whether FLIGBY is right for one’s students or employees. From corporate programs in mindfulness to interest in Flow-based leadership, all signs point to a workplace revolution in which there is a long overdue convergence of incentives and objectives between employees and employers. It’s been a long road from Henry Ford’s plan to make sure all employees could afford the cars the company made to the explosion of Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program and others like it, but this revolution is picking up steam and if you’re unaware, you might want to look into it.

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