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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POEM: Madmen on the March

by Gustave Dore (via Wikipedia)

 

Madmen on the march
Clones de la Mancha
Pouring through the arch
Lacking lingua franca



Seeking common thrills
An army of sham knights
Tilting at windmills
With more pride than fight



It’s not a sickness of the brain
that scripts this lunatic life.
It’s chasing the sanction of “sane”
that breeds this stream of strife.



[Note: A poem on the hilarity of defining sanity as the recognition of reality. As if any of us knows what’s real in a meaningful sense. Sanity is being able to pretend you know what’s real with sufficient confidence to avoid grinding against society’s sensitive spots.]

BOOK REVIEW: Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff

Reality: A Very Short IntroductionReality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one has an inquisitive nature and finds oneself with a bit of time on one’s hands, one is likely to question reality eventually. What is reality? What does it mean to be real? (Yeah, just like Morpheus’s “How do you define ‘real?’”) How could we know if we weren’t in the reality we think we are? Does it matter? i.e. If we aren’t in the reality we think we are, do we have any other choice than to behave as if we are—in other words is there any hope of escaping whatever unreality our consciousness exists in?

Does the quantum world not make a lick of sense relative to the world as we know it because the ancestors who are simulating us never expected us to get far enough to investigate that scale before we crashed? And now, like the writers and directors of an unexpectedly popular and long-lived TV show, they have to find a way to cobble some convincing story together because their overlords aren’t willing to scrap a perfectly functional simulation as it’s churning out huge amounts of data. Of course most people quickly dismiss such possibilities as sci-fi, but—then again—that dismissal is what one would do if one was programmed to be psychologically pained by the idea that the lunatic shouting and running naked through the streets may have found freedom, while you–who appears to be fully successful in living life—are an automaton, a slave pure and simple?

Philosopher Jan Westerhoff provides a brief survey of the many ways reality has been questioned over time and what evidence proponents cite—or, if not evidence per se, what inexplicable phenomena at least make the possibility seem feasible. The book consists of just four chapters. The first chapter offers a context by discussing dreams and simulations. Dreams are one of humanity’s first sources of doubt about reality. This was most famously summed up by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s quote “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that societies eventually develop a capacity to run extremely advanced simulations that would feel very real, and, furthermore, the proliferation of such simulations would make it much more likely that we are in one than in a real world.

The next three chapters examine three subjects where reality is taken for granted, but which each face challenges. The author starts with the most basic component of reality, matter. If you ask someone how they know the world is real, they might just knock on wood or kick a stone. Of course, that response only goes so far because there are a lot of entities we consider real that aren’t made of matter (e.g. is an economic recession real?) and so it’s definitely not a complete way of looking at the topic. There’s also the fact that all this hard and solid stuff we experience is mostly empty space. In this chapter, Westerhoff spends much of his time examining the basics of quantum mechanics, and the quantum strangeness that has put it in the minds of many that the world is probably not what we think it to be.

Chapter three explores the reality of a person. This is where people have the hardest time questioning reality, because most of us are quite certain that we exist. Descartes statement of: “I think, therefore, I am” nicely sums it up. But is there a place associated with personhood, or is it an emergent property? If it has a point of origin, where is it? Westerhoff describes the famous rubber hand experiment that shows that the connection between mind and body is more illusory than we think. He discusses many of the syndromes that challenge our intuitive beliefs about what it means to be a person, e.g. Cotard syndrome, in which individuals firmly believe that they don’t exist. (Note: this topic—at least the scientific dimension—is covered in detail in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Chapter four explores whether time is really what we think it is, and what it feels like to us. A lot of this chapter takes up findings about free will. A famous study in the neurosciences showed that before people make a decision at a conscious level, there is activation of subconscious parts of the brain such that what feels like a decision freely and consciously made is actually already made before the consciousness ever becomes aware of it. This study, now overwhelmingly validated by replication, presents a major challenge to our notion of free will—which isn’t to suggest we’re necessarily being fed a decision from some mysterious elsewhere but if some combination of our limbic and enteric nervous systems are making decisions without conscious input, then what is the nature of freedom in free will?

The book has an interesting Conclusion that gives the reader a map to consider the various ways reality might exist (or not.) This isn’t a dichotomous question—i.e. it’s not necessarily a matter of the world is real or it’s not. Instead, it can be thought of more as a continuum between everything is real and nothing is real with various way-points in between such as “I am all that is real” or “Everything is real, but me” and various ways of considering how some of the world might be real while some of it is not. Among the latter models, the relevant factor maybe consciousness (i.e. conscious may be unreal or maybe it’s the only thing that’s real.)

There are a number of graphics used to support the text, most of these are photographs and artworks, but some are diagrams. There is a “References and Further Readings” section in this book that is more substantial than most of the ones I’ve seen in AVSI (A Very Short Introduction) series books. It’s organized by chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. I think the author does a great job in a small space of introducing various conceptions of reality. He draws on well-known works of film and literature to help clarify issues, and provides many thought-provoking ideas. It’s readable and doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae.

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