Monday, January 5, 2015

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

I"m not a gamer, but I am a player of games from sports to board games to game-format lessons for students. Games are fun. Games are motivating. Games in cultures are thousands of years old. This book is about computer and video games. Video games have a bad rap in the U.S. The media has bombarded the public over the years about the negative effects of game addiction and violence. Lately, my students have been talking about Minecraft. They make good connections with the picture books I read and the game all the time. They've piqued my interest, especially when they were talking about architecture and buildings. It is the first time I've wanted to teach myself a video game. Before that, students have talked about Halo. Before that, World of Warcraft. Video games are here to stay. I picked this book up for a better understanding of the games that my students have passionately discussed over the years. I was not disappointed. Jane McGonigal gives compelling evidence that good game design connected with theories from positive psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and sociology, make life more meaningful for gamers. 

This book gave me ideas for improving some of the current games I've designed for library skill lessons. I took stock of the competitive versus cooperative ones and even how they tie in with character education programs. McGonigal lists games that enhance kindness and courage citing positive psychology research from the Values in Action Institute on Character. She defines from different sources and subject fields what motivates gamers and how it makes them happier by giving their life more meaning. Don't expect much of the negative side to gaming in this altruistic approach to gaming. Her book is meant to persuade the reader that gaming improves the quality of life, prevents suffering, and creates happiness. It takes courage to try and prove the world can be changed by gamers and go beyond escapist entertainment. This might be too out-there for some readers, but I was inspired. More importantly, it made me look at the games I use in the library and gave me ideas to create my own.

What makes a good game, according to McGonigal, is one that focuses on intrinsic rewards that are emotionally satisfying. McGonigal quotes a ton of research on what motivates and makes people happy. The main components of good game design are: clearly-defined goals with hard and interesting obstacles, fair rules, varied and intense feedback systems, and voluntary participation. She cites many examples on how to achieve this through games that address pyschological, social, and emotional issues. I hadn't thought about how hard obstacles are important to the goal in gamer satisfaction or how failure in a game can be positive versus negative because if the avatar dies spectacularly, the gamer finds it funny. Also, the real-time data in a game shows progress that results in the gamer focusing on the performance, not the outcome. You maybe died spectacularly, but you made it 30% through the game and these are your strengths and weaknesses. This made me think of how in sports, research shows that top athletes and good coaches get players to focus on performance and not winning which makes their internal talk positive; therefore allowing them to overcome obstacles that occur in games.

McGonigal is trying to prove that games can be a platform for change, but in order for that to happen they need to move from the virtual to the real world. In an amazing statistic, she says that by the time teenagers reach the age of 21 they will have spent 10,000 hours on gaming versus 2,000-3,000 hours on reading. The 10,000 hour threshold is quoted from Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers," that says the key to success is logging in this many hours on a task in order to have great success. McGonigal says the strength of gamers is working together collectively or "crowdsourcing" and that when harnessed they can accomplish huge tasks such as Wikipedia or the 2009 British parliament scandal. She explains how Wikipedia is set up as a game and how they get volunteers and information at scholarly levels; how in eight short years this cognitive technology created a collective wealth of information that would otherwise be unachievable. The British scandal, she explains, involved members of parliament making illegal expense claims and the Guardian newspaper uncovering the story. The problem was it required the newspaper to go through almost 500,000 scanned claim documents. The Guardian created a game and enlisted gamers to help go through the claims. In three days, more than 200,000 players analyzed 170,000 documents. All of it was voluntary and resulted in the resignation of many politicians. Games, McGonigal argues, can help the common good and be catalysts for change.

McGonigal wants to go beyond entertainment games and create antiescapist or alternate reality games (ARGs). ARGs are designed to be linked to intrinsic rewards that bring people the most happiness. Good game design for ARGs, McGonigal explains, gives more meaning in life because it is connected with a much larger goal that helps improve the quality of life and is for the common good of all. Research shows that people are the most happy when they are serving others and not themselves. ARG games should create satisfying work, inspire hope for success even if the goal seems impossible, and create strong social connections. She does make it clear that no single ARG exists that is changing the world; however, they are making differences in cancer research, hunger, and energy conservation. ARG's designed to appeal to cognitive, social, and emotional capabilities in humans make them a powerful source of enacting change with the masses.

While this book focuses mainly on positive aspects of gaming, it does give bits and pieces of the negative. Her book tries to counteract cultural taboos associated with the negative aspects of gaming. I would have liked more discussion on both sides of the issue, but I appreciated the inspirational effect of the text that targets positive aspects of gaming. What I did not expect was how her book made me think of ways to teach mundane skills in a more exciting way. If you've ever had to teach kids how to find books using the Dewey Decimal system, it can be unmotivating and boring as all-heck. I turned it into a board game and kids now ask me if they can play it. I'd like to create a video game that teaches how to shelf books or use Overdrive. It would be so much fun to tie a shelving game in with particular books. Maybe a student has to shelve Charlotte's Web and if they fail Charlotte can wrap them in a cocoon and put them in the rafters of the barn. McGonigal shows how failing spectacularly is one of the joys of video games. Whether you embrace it or ignore it, video gaming is a huge part of our culture. Game on!
5 Smileys

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