At my suggestion, my book group has been reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. I have to admit that at first glance, the title struck me as frivolous. But reading just a little way into it was enough to convince me that this is an important book – important enough that I want to quote or summarize some of its key points here so I can refer back to them.
McGonigal’s main point is that there’s a reason why many people spend huge chunks of their waking hours playing games – namely, that the design of games makes them rewarding in ways that much of the rest of the world (“reality”) is not. And we would do well to redesign the workplace and other productive activities so that they provide similar rewards.
The rest of this post is either quoted directly or paraphrased from Jane McGonigal’s book.
What Exactly is a Game?
All games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.
- The goal is the specific outcome that players will work to achieve. It focuses their attention and continually orients their participation throughout the game. The goal provides players witha sense of purpose.
- The rules place limitations on how players can achieve the goal. By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.
- The feedback system tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, it can be as simple as the player’s knowledge of an objective outcome: “The game is over when…” Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.
- Voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, the rules, and the feedback. Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together. And the freedom to enter or leave a game at will ensures that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity.
Note that the concept of winning is not one of the defining attributes of a game. Tetris, often dubbed “the greatest computer game of all time,” is an example of a game you cannot win. The game simply gets harder and harder. It never ends. Instead, it simply waits for you to fail.
In a good computer game you’re always playing on the very edge of your skill level, always on the brink of falling off. When you do fall off, you feel the urge to climb back on. That’s because there is virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the limits of your ability – or what psychologists call “flow”. When you are in a state of flow, both quitting and winning are equally unsatisfying.
Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.
One more emotional benefit to hard fun: “Fiero” – possibly the most primal emotional rush we can experience. Fiero is the Italian word for “pride.” It’s what we feel after triumph over adversity. We almost all express fiero in the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.
The Four Secrets to Making Our Own Happiness
Extrinsic rewards – money, material goods, status, praise – make us feel good temporarily, but we quickly build up a tolerance for these things and want more. Positive psychologists agree that seeking out external rewards is a sure path to sabotaging our own happiness.
Intrinsic rewards, by contrast, are the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections we build by engaging intensely with the world around us. The enjoyment of being fully engaged is enough.
Positive psychology findings from the past decade suggest that intrinsic rewards fall into four major categories:
- We crave satisfying work: being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
- We crave the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful.
- We crave social connection. We want to share experiences and build bonds, and we most often accomplish that by doing things that matter together.
- We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curiosity and awe about things that unfold on epic scales, especially by contributing to something that has lasting significance beyond our own individual lives.
It’s well known what kinds of practices make us happier. For example:
- Practice random acts of kindness.
- Contemplate death for five minutes every day. (It helps you appreciate the present moment.)
The trouble is that most of us won’t follow such good advice because doing these things feels somehow hokey or inauthentic. Doing them in the context of a game can make it easier. For example:
- In Top Secret Dance Off players record videos of themselves wearing a mask and dancing and post them on a website. Players work through the game by completing increasingly difficult dance challenges.
- In Cruel 2 B Kind, players who don’t know each other come to a designated area of a city to play the game. Each is assigned “weapons” such as “make a happy offer to help” or “give a compliment”, and proceed to try to hunt out and capture other players by “attacking” them with these weapons.
- Tombstone Hold ‘Em is a variation of poker played in a cemetery, using gravestones as cards. Partners make the best “hand” they can find.
When a game is intrinsically rewarding to play, you don’t have to pay people to participate – with real currency or any other kind of scarce reward. Participation is its own reward, when the player is properly invested in his or her progress, in exploring the world fully, and in the community’s success.
The game mechanics that drive player rewards and incentives should be designed:
- So players feel invested in the world and their character.
- So players have long-term goals.
- So players can’t grief or exploit them, or each other.
- So that content are rewards in and of themselves.
In other words, players should be able to explore and impact a “world” or shared social space that features both content and interactive opportunities. They should be able to create and develop a unique identity within that world. They should see the bigger picture when it comes to doing work in the world – both an opportunity to escalate challenge and to continue working over time toward bigger results. The game must be designed so that the only way to be rewarded is to participate in good faith, because in any game players will do anything they get the most rewarded for doing. And the content and experience must be intrinsically rewarding, rather than providing compensation for doing something that would otherwise feel boring or trivial.
Collaboration requires three distinct kinds of concerted effort:
- Cooperating: Acting purposefully toward a common goal
- Coordinating: Synchronizing efforts and sharing resources
- Co-creating: Producing a novel outcome together.
Co-creation is what sets collaboration apart from other collective efforts: it is a fundamentally generative act. Collaboration isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.
By observing how the most successful and influential players in massively multiplayer games work, we can see that “collaboration superpowers” involves three key skills:
- High PQ (Ping Quotient). Extraordinary collaborators have no qualms about pinging – or reaching out via electronic means – to others to ask for their participation. They’re also highly likely to pong back when other people ping them.
- Collaboration Radar: A sixth sense about who would make the best collaborators on a particular task or mission. This comes from building up a strong social network and maintaining a kind of peripheral awareness of what other people are doing, where they are, and what they’re good at.
- Emergensight: The ability to thrive in a chaotic collaborative environment, dealing with the unpredictable emergent properties of a very large, complex social environment. Extraordinary collaborators don’t mind messiness or uncertainty. They immerse themselves in the flow of the work and keep a high-level perspective rather than getting lost in the weeds. They have the stamina to filter large amounts of noise and focus on what’s meaningful to their work. And they practice “possibility scanning,” always open and alert to unplanned opportunities and surprising insights. They are willing to throw out old goals if a more achievable or more epic goal presents itself. And they are constantly zooming out to construct a bigger picture: finding ways to extend collaboration to new communities, over longer time cycles and toward more epic goals.
Fixes to Reality
- Fix #1: Tackle Unnecessary Obstacles. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use. Unnecessary obstacles increase self-motivation, provoke interest and creativity, and help us work at the very edge of our abilities.
- Fix #2: Activate Extreme Positive Emotions. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.
- Fix #3: Do More Satisfying Work. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work. They help us achieve a state of blissful productivity, with clear, actionable goals and vivid results.
- Fix #4: Find Better Hope of Success. Games improve our chances for success and eliminate our fear of failure (by making failures fun and by keeping the game going.) They train us to focus our time and energy on truly attainable goals.
- Fix #5: Strengthen Your Social Connectivity. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “prosocial emotions,” including happy embarrassment and vicarious pride. Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) provide ambient sociability – the feeling of being around other people even when we’re physically alone.
- Fix #6: Immerse Yourself in Epic Scale. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.
- Fix #7: Participate Wholeheartedly Wherever, Whenever We Can. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing and help us enjoy our real lives more, instead of feeling like we want to escape from them.
- Fix #8: Seek Meaningful Rewards When We Need Them Most. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort. Points, levels, and achievements can motivate us to get through the toughest situations and inspire us to work harder to excel at things we already love.
- Fix #9: Have More Fun With Strangers. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch. They can build our capacity for social participation, connecting us in new ways.
- Fix #10: Invent and Adopt New Happiness Hacks. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits.
- Fix #11: Contribute to a Sustainable Engagement Economy. The gratifications we get from playing games are an infinitely renewable resource. Crowdsourcing games can engage tens of thousands of players in tackling real-world problems for free.
- Fix #12: Seek Out More Epic Wins. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together. Social participation games can help players save real lives and grant real wishes by creating real-world volunteer tasks that feel as heroic, satisfying, and readily achievable as online game quests.
- Fix #13: Spend 10,000 Hours Collaborating. Games help us make a more concerted effort – and over time, they give us collaboration superpowers.
- Fix #14: Develop Massively Multiplayer Foresight. Games help us imagine and invent the future together. They can turn ordinary people into super-empowered hopeful individuals – by training us to take a longer view, to practice ecosystems thinking, and to pilot massively multiple strategies for solving planetary-scale problems.
Very big games represent the future of collaboration. They are the best hope we have for solving the most complex problems of our time. They are giving more people than ever before the opportunity to do work that really matters, and to participate directly in changing the whole world.
Games are a way of creating new civic and social infrastructure. They are the scaffold for coordinated effort. And we can apply that effort toward any kind of change we want to make, in any community, anywhere in the world.
If we commit to harnessing the power of games for real happiness and real change, then a better reality is more than possible – it is likely. And in that case, our future together will be quite extraordinary.
For another view on improving real life through games, see The Game of Life.
- Reality is Broken – The Web Site
- Bounce – Cross-generational conversation game
- Chore Wars – Earn experience points for housework
- Come Out & Play Festival – Annual street festival for new mobile, social games
- Cruel 2 B Kind – Random Kindness “benevolent assassination” game
- Day in the Cloud – In-flight social game (playable even if you’re not in flight)
- Evoke – Game network for social innovation and “African ingenuity”
- Fold It! – Contribute to science with this protein folding game
- Free Rice – Games to end hunger
- Ghosts of a Chance – The Smithsonian Museum’s experimental game
- Groundcrew – Volunteer to fulfill a wish
- Hide & Seek Festival and Sandpit – New social immersive experiences being invented and playtested
- Investigate Your MP’s Expenses
- Lost Joules – Energy saving game
- The Lost Ring – Alternate reality game played worldwide during the 2008 Olympics
- Nike+ – Join the running game and view other Nike+ challenges
- Quest to Learn – World’s first game-based public school
- Sparked – Social business platform evolved out of The Extraordinaries micro-volunteering experiment
- Spore – Single-player “god game” inviting you to evolve life from single cells to intelligent galactic colonization.
- Superstruct – Massively multiplayer forecasting game created by the Institute for the Future in 2008
- Tombstone Hold ‘Em – Rules to the cemetery game
- World Without Oil – A massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis.
- More Alternate Reality Games by Jane McGonigal
And now for the dark side.
The same systems of motivation that make game playing so appealing can be used for more sinister purposes. The government of China may be building a “social credit” gaming system that could be used to monitor how closely a citizen’s activities follow the party line, and issue rewards and punishments accordingly. It’s unclear if this is actually happening, but the potential is certainly real.