Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Reality is Alright
by Ian Bogost on 01/14/11 10:05:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Reposted from

Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World is destined to be one of the most influential works about videogames ever published.

The book is filled with bold new ideas and refinements of old ones. It's targeted at a general readership, but game designers, critics, and scholars will learn plenty from the book too, thanks to the new twists it takes on familiar subjects.

The ordinary reader will perhaps be most intrigued by McGonigal's claims that games can save the world (part III in the book), but those of you who would think to read my review are probably already primed for that idea. Instead, I predict you'll be most struck by Jane's bold redefinition of the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which comes in part II of the book (part I is about why games make us happy).

She takes "ARG" to mean any game that integrates itself with the real world, not just one that involves the usual trappings of that genre, like distributed narrative and puzzle-solving. Some will scoff or sneer at such a broad definition, perhaps, but it's a brilliant reframing, turning an obscure genre into a mainstream one. The ARG already owed part of its birth to Jane, and it now owes its coming of age to her too.

That broad definition allows McGonigal to discuss a wide variety of examples in the book, from "traditional" ARGs like I Love Bees to popular social services like Foursquare to deliberate wordly interventions like Chore Wars to social experiments like The Extraordinaries.

She also covers most of the games she's worked on personally, from complex, high-profile ARGs like World Without Oil and Evoke to improvised, personal games like the one she invented to recover from a bad concussion. The book also includes a discussion of Cruel 2 B Kind, the street game Jane and I made together in 2006, as well as a kind mention of my iPhone airport game Jetset.

She argues that playing and making games like Evoke not only make people happier (she calls game designers "happiness engineers"), but also inspire people to collaborate to solve problems. If we can leverage even a fraction of the millions of hours that gamers spend in virtual worlds and engage them in the real world, then they can accomplish "epic wins," ambitious, real successes that would match the ambitious, make-believe ones we accomplish all the time in games.

But don't worry, despite some overzealous simplifications in press coverage, Jane also believes the time we spend playing ordinary games is valuable in its own right. One can only hope that McGonigal's book scores an epic win against the trite, simplistic trends in "gamification" that her smart, sophisticated ideas overshadow.

All that said, Reality is Broken was a challenge for me to read. Not because it's hard, mind you; the book's 400 pages sail by thanks to the energy and earnestness of her writing. No, it challenges me because I can't seem to agree with some of her key principles, despite our friendship and collaborations.

But don't conclude that I think she's wrong; it's not that simple. Jane's an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know. And those of you who know me probably realize that I'm not the biggest optimist you know. See, I don't think reality is broken. It's messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don't get to fix it, ever. It's flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright.

And I don't think games are happiness engines, either. They are complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected. I play games to remind me of this. I make them for that purpose too. Jane and I have both designed games that engage the world's problems, but I tend to see my games as troubling the idea of solutions rather than leading us toward them.

For me, the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery. The systems-thinking games embrace shatters the very ideas of world-changing with which we have become so accustomed. And we don't occupy game worlds because the real world isn't happy or fun enough, but because we need help embracing that real world through the properties of ambiguity and intricacy that make games like the world in the first place.

As it happens, I very much agree with many of the strategies McGonigal draws from games: a long view, systems thinking, and experimentation, for example. We're of one mind on such topics. But here's the key difference: for me, we never save the world. It trudges on, new gears growing like tubers and meshing with old ones, old cogs grinding to dust behind them.

At many points in the book I really see eye to eye with Jane on this matter ("World Without Oil gave players a space for nonwishful thinking"; "The best-case scenario outcomes were posed not as probabilities—and certainly not as inevitabilities—but rater as plausible possibilities worth working toward").

There are ruffly, velvety undertones of reservation in Reality is Broken, and I found myself retreating to these caves of welcome hesitancy from the book's overall lagoon of confidence. I need to remember that reality is always a mess. That's not tragedy to me. It's the unstoppable infinity of being.

It's easy to call Jane a pollyanna, but that's a cynical move that must be rejected. And it's not that I'm a nihilist to Jane's optimist either. It's something more subtle: where she values happiness and epic wins, I value wonder and sublimity. The awesome hugeness of the world and its problems, as well as their solutions, always partial, always tentative, like a giant mountain peering through the fog, impossible.

Reality is Broken helps me see that we need both kinds of people in the world. I'm grateful to Jane for that, for pushing me to see my world through her eyes, which glow blue with daylight and buoyancy, spilling waves of hope toward the horizon.

Related Jobs

Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Activision Publishing
Activision Publishing — Santa Monica, California, United States

Tools Programmer-Central Team
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States

VFX Artist-Vicarious Visions
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer


Luis Blondet
profile image
"And we don't occupy game worlds because the real world isn't happy or fun enough, but because we need help embracing that real world through the properties of ambiguity and intricacy that make games like the world in the first place."

Most people want to escape this reality, not embrace it. It's unfair, cold, bland and lacks elegance.

If you think Reality is alright, you haven't suffered enough.

Ian Bogost
profile image
That's why we have to face the reality of reality, rather than believing either in escaping or in "changing the world." Most people want easy answers, and escape is an easy answer. But the reality of reality is hard.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Yes, I agree that it is hard...and broken.

Changing our environment, or reality, is not the same as escaping it, it's the exact opposite. It's recognizing the problems, analyzing them and innovating solutions. All of this world's problems can be solved by having higher quality Humans and that can only be achieved through the quality of education and upbringing. Better Humans means a better (not perfect) society and environment for all creatures.

I like Jane's optimism because she seems to be practicing the whole "Only acknowledge the Negative while always focusing on the Positive" philosophy, which is very practical.

Malcolm Miskel
profile image
But therein lies the problem: you can't educate greed, hatred, or lust out of mankind. If that was the case then why is it that some of the world's most educated men are ranked among its worst?

Attempting to change the /world/ around oneself is good, but at the same time we have to realize that we can't change the very nature of people. I think it's similar to the 20th century when we thought we'd medicate mankind to perfection. Now people are starting to realize that medication is just not enough. It's the nature of people, people who KNOW that eating a certain way is horrible for them (e.g. the southern USA), people that would rather avoid reality with drugs and wasteful pursuits, that is the problem.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Yes you can with Empathy. Those behavior patterns happen because of empathic blindness, except for Lust in certain situations.

Give examples of these worst "world's most educated men".

You CAN change the nature of people. That is why different areas with different cultures have people's with vastly different natures.

Malcolm Miskel
profile image
Hitler was very intelligent. Alexander the Great (though lauded in history books, war and "conquering" only spread pain and hatred). Napoleon. Just go through a list of world leaders, to be honest, and many of them were well educated. The Age of Enlightenment was ripe with violent leaders.

How does empathy negate hatred? I can see some circumstances, but just because you empathize with someone doesn't mean you'll no longer succumb to fits of passion/rage. That is how the vast majority of murders occur, and the loved ones of the deceased usually harbor a hatred for the murderer.

Or how about absent parents and broken families? Isn't that usually cited as the main factor of misogyny and gender hatred in general? Also, people usually bully others because of their own inadequacies. How do you educate "not feeling good enough" out of people with empathy? Problems like these are EVERYWHERE, and things like greed, hatred, lust, envy, laziness...they surpass all cultural boundaries.

Different stories with strikingly similar themes can be found throughout history spanning all areas and people groups. You can't educate people to "love" or influence how often it turns sour. As long as we are feeling, emotion based beings we will forever have a nature that causes destruction, but take that away to make us pragmatic, calculating persons and we're no longer "human". What makes us also breaks us.

I grew up in the ghetto and, along with myself, have plenty of friends that have seen and been subjected to horrendous things. I've also been to several third world countries. I know suffering. Reality IS broken, but that's something we should accept while at the same time fight against. We can only put a band-aid on the wound; we can't magically heal it.

EDIT: When I say "nature", I don't mean personality or customs. I'm talking about how we function. A predator is going to prey in some way, be it on something dead or alive. In the same way a human is going to feel, and thus there are going to be problems.

JB Vorderkunz
profile image
Hmm, I guess the world will never be entirely perfect, but we can certainly make it a better place...


I wonder what you feel about Edward Castronova's "Fun Economy" and "Fun Society" concepts in Exodus to the Virtual World...they are extremely positive with potentially beneficial applications, yet they also seem capable of being read in a sort of dark inverse where they might be tools of political and social re- and op-pression...

Dan MacDonald
profile image
Reality is fine, people are broken :)

This is one of the most respectful criticisms I've read from one peer critiquing another in a public forum. I found I ended up appreciating both Ian's and Janes perspective. Granted I haven't read Janes work, but after reading this critique I'm left with a distinct impression of how highly she is regarded by the author, I'm now inspired to. Well done.

Luis Blondet
profile image
No, Reality is broken...really. There are things in this reality that are imbalanced and broken regardless of Human influence. We have had 3 extinction events on this planet as far as we know. They all came out of nowhere and suddenly. A big asteroid, a comet and even a super rare Gamma Ray Burst, which all of the sudden, soaks every living thing with deadly radiation. One minute you're some creature worrying about food and survival, the next you are dead.

That is broken.

Better Humans means better mastery of our environment for all creatures. With a good enough Human society, the above events can be prevented.

The above was just one example, albeit a dramatic one, but still to the point.

Tim Carter
profile image
Games as religious movement.