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Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

I don’t want to be the cranky old man at Chromed. I honestly don’t. But if I learned anything during my stint with the Taft administration, it’s that some men have roles thrust upon them. So permit me to crank up the cranky.

Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with Jane McGonigal. My Chromed cohort Stephanie has already confessed her crush on the game designer/theorist’s epic brain. A leading proponent of gamification, McGonigal has put her thoughts about harnessing the energy players pour into video games and setting it loose on more intractable problems in her new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

The central tenet of her book is one that authority figures from my mother to Principal Skinner have suggested for decades whenever faced with an onerous task: make a game out of it. It’s a technique I’ve deployed successfully myself, so I buy into the core concept. But McGonigal’s tome is an example of what critic Kathryn Schulz has dubbed The Big Idea Book. It takes a clever, counterintuitive notion and a positive viewpoint, larding on the anecdotal evidence and references to behavioral economics. The result is typically engaging, until you reach the end and begin to suspect that the entire thing is so much codswallop. (The kids still say codswallop, don’t they?) Malcolm Gladwell, whom McGonigal cites in her book, is the kingpin of the genre. I always read his articles in The New Yorker, but freely confess my favorite part comes two weeks later when the magazine publishes letters from readers punching holes in his latest theory.

At the very least much of what McGonigal says bears serious consideration. There has been a “mass exodus” to games, because they “are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.” Among the rewards that McGonigal correctly says games provide are satisfying work, experience of success (or the hope of achieving it) and a feeling of social connection. Her brief history of games includes four critical aspects — a clear goal, rules, feedback and voluntary participation — that together constitute a master class in design. Her case for Wikipedia as a game of sorts is a strong one. So far, so good.

Partly what I object to is how McGonigal expresses these ideas. Each chapter is built around one way that reality is broken. We soon learn that compared to games, reality is depressing, trivial, unproductive, unambitious and, to my amazement, too easy. It’s enough to make you want to put down the work of non-fiction that you’re reading. I understand that it’s a rhetorical gambit to sell McGonigal’s premise, but the device grows tiresome in a big hurry. McGonigal is also given to inventing her own words like emergensight (the ability to thrive in a chaotic collaborative environment) and collaboratories, a marketer’s habit that snaps the needle on my shuck and jive meter. (The kids still say shuck and jive, don’t they?)

Ultimately, McGonigal may be asking too much of games. Recently I spent some time playing Spent, a simulation that does more to dramatize the plight of the working poor than any series of front page articles. Spent doesn’t put money into the pockets of those in need, but once you play it you will view their burden in a new way. This is a small but essential first step. McGonigal’s more grandiose claims for the form are simply never borne out. The games she describes, several of her own design, come across as distinctly underwhelming. Even worse, they don’t sound fun to play.

In Slate, gaming expert Heather Chaplin criticized McGonigal’s book by saying it represents “a child’s view of how the world works.” I wouldn’t go that far — but I’d go almost that far. McGonigal points to research indicating that that youngest generations today are “more miserable than ever before … because of our increased cultural emphasis on ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-fulfillment’” and later notes “we mistakenly think that by putting ourselves first, we’ll finally get what we want.” Her book represents that kind of thinking writ large, saying in essence: reality should conform to what I’m good at and like doing.

In an unconvincing section on the social significance of the collective push to reach ten billion Covenant kills in Halo, McGonigal contrasts value with meaning. She defines the latter as “the feeling that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives. When something is meaningful, it has significance and worth not just to ourselves, or even to our closest friends and family, but to a much larger group: to a community, an organization, or even the entire human species.” I’ll play McGonigal’s game. Of course video games have value. I wouldn’t be working on March 32nd if I didn’t believe that. When the game launches, my fondest hope is that it provides a respite from real-world woes so that players can go out and tackle them afresh. Escapism is a value, and one to be prized. I’m not aspiring for meaning. I wouldn’t presume to.



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