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reality is broken

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Ok, Ok, I opened up to her!

Jane McGonigal and Reality is Broken… What a topic. When we read her book, I could barely stand her writing. Each section goes on about how there is just three steps and to wait because it gets better like my life… But I’m over all that criticism, because I’ve come to terms with the positive merits content as well as her optimism. Its really is good stuff, despite the beef I had (still kinda have) with her writing. But! She does cover massive gaming territory. Looking back and comparing her work to the other others we read, I can hardly believe it. She breaks down different platforms into insightful components that ended up being a great foundation for our new media studies.

Final Thoughts on Reality is Broken: Games vs. Isms

Before it’s too late to justify doing so, I’d like to get out a few final thoughts regarding McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. In general I enjoyed it, though it started becoming a pain to workthrough by the end. I ended up dropping my pen to the wayside and eschewing my usual underlining, so as to get through it faster. McGonigal is clearly better at game design than at writing. Now that I’ve exorcised those feelings of frustration, what of the arguments? I largely found the book compelling in content and the atypical ways she utilizes and suggests utilizing games seems like they could have real world benefits, small and large. It is also clear upon reading that it’s primarily a book about ethics. My reading of it sees the book as furthering a consequentialist ethics based around maximizing happiness. Unfortunately, I think McGonigal actually misses out on what the book’s thesis could maximally open up room for. By focusing rather one-dimensionally on maximizing happiness alone, she largely misses out on examining the ways in which social struggles could be helped by games and the general nuance which ethics require.

The book’s focus on maximizing happiness immediately brought to mind Utilitarianism and as such Todd May’s The Moral Theory of Poststructuralism. He argues for an ethics based on a principal he calls antirepresentationalism, which is defined as follows:

People ought not, other things equal, to engage in practices whose effect, among others, is the representation or commendation of certain intentional lives as either intrinsically superior or intrinsically inferior to others.

The basic meaning of that mouthful, as I recall (I’ll warn I read this a few years ago), is that we ought not condone or be involved in practices that create or reinforce structures of power, such as racism, sexism, the medicalization of sexual “deviance” and so on, which enforce oppression based on the valuation of certain types of identities, bodies, etc. over others.  By making this the target of a consequentialist ethics, rather than simply happiness, it creates a more nuanced space for confronting oppressive power structures, as well as -isms (sexism, racism) and -phobias (homophobia, transphobia) that come with them.

This is where I feel McGonigal’s book is too broad (or too myopic, depending on how you’d like to view it). I would have imagined that, as a woman in a very masculine focused industry, she might comment on the way in which games might subvert gendered stereotypes, but there was no mention of that. I think it’s very important that we address the various ways in which certain identities are devalued or assailed in our society, and if games are to address social issues, they must address these things too. The fact that the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games kickstarter made over $100,000 is a sign that other people are interested in more egalitarian games.

As proof of the plausability of applying McGonigal’s concepts to identity politics I would like to point to two short and easily playable games that might be of interest to the class, Auti-Sim and dys4ia.

In Auti-Sim, you take on the first person perspective role of a child with severe autism in a playground environment. As you get close to other children the screen fuzzes and shrill noises screech out of your speakers or headphones. Even if you escape the playground and surrounding forest, you still can hear the din. This represents the way in which typical social situations can cause sensory overload for people with autism. By placing the player in a first person position and encouraging them to empathize with people with autism, the game can help combat ableism, in this case discrimination against those with autism.

Likewise, dys4ia is a short, semi-abstract flash game which autobiographically describes the experience of a transgender woman with her gender and the process of receiving hormone replacement therapy (HRT). By presenting and confronting the individual and social difficulties trans women face, the game fosters understanding of trans* issues and transphobia.

If you play the games, you will notice one other thing that these games bring that are contrary to McGonigal’s vision. They aren’t particularly fun, difficult or exciting. Auti-Sim is in fact incredibly uncomfortable to play. I explored the playground quickly and then ran far away before closing my browser. Like other forms of media, gaming may be able to learn a lesson from this: not all games have to be fun to provide an enriching experience.

Chivalry and McGonigal

This past weekend, Steam released a new game called Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.  At first this game seemed clunky and poorly thought out, almost as just a teaser ‘hack and slash’ duel game.  After diving further into the game play I noticed something amazing, the fantastic ways to kill or be killed.  This game exemplifies McGonigal’s idea of ‘fun failing’.  It truly immerses the user into the game and provides for a great experience.  The first thing you see when you start the game is the first person view of your weapon, then you hear the battle cries of your allies, followed by your battle cry (if you so desire) and then the team charging into the light to start the game.  The one thing Chivalry does though is work in hundreds of ways to die, be it beheading, disarming (literally), or taking a javelin through the chest; it makes the player more excited to try again and gives an optimistic outlook due to the fun ways to die.  The more a game utilizes immersion the more of an impact the game can have on the player.  In the game mode ‘Last team standing’, the user feels as though his one life can make a difference.  In ‘team objective’, he bravely defends his castle from the onslaught and his work is making a difference.  The game gives feedback to show motivation, optimism, and advancement.  It visually shows the user’s character rank up and the battle-cries evoke an adrenaline rush for the player.  The game exemplifies some of McGonigal’s ideas of what a game is and how it can change people.

Creating a Less Terrible Reality…

Impossible.  Reality is not designed, not designed to make us happy, not designed to promote our well-being, and not designed to accord with current psychological research.  While a video game is designed by 1 to 250 people and played by millions, it relies on a very limited design.  Perhaps the design seems endless, as McGonigal’s description of Halo 2, but it is not.  It cannot go on infinitely because it has set restrictions, for example if I were to create something for the Sporepedia, I could not bring that into my Halo 2 game.  So, this is where McGonigal’s ethics become a problem.  If she thinks anyone who knows how to design a game and use technology can create reality, that seems to suggest that she thinks reality is design-able.  So then, who is currently designing reality?  Is there are group of 300 people writing down algorithms somewhere that determines who I will interact with at work tomorrow?  Reality is composed.  Reality is created every single day but it is not designed.  I cannot think of anyone, except young children and wholly naïve people, who believe life is designed for them.  Think of the old phrase “Life isn’t fair”.  It isn’t meant to be.  Life is not a game, and I see no reason why it should be.  McGonigal seems to believe that life should be for her pleasure, at all times, if only she could create a game to do so.  She does not take pride or happiness in life itself, she needs points and levels to do so.  Why should we all be like that?  I agree, it could be fun.  For about a minute.

Back to ethics.  IF we all decided that reality was really as depressing, trivial, and unfulfilling as McGonigal claims and IF we all decided to anoint certain person to fix it – who would we chose?  What theories would we follow?  What about the human hunger for power and greed?  If we escalate this question to the extreme, I cannot help but envision a future in which competing reality designers engage their masses in a full-scale war.  Perhaps virtual, at best, but more likely traditional blood and violence war.  What would be the agenda of these reality designers?  McGonigal never touches ethics.  She’s invested in positive psychology and would probably design reality according to it.  Am I invested in it?  Not so much.  Maybe you’re not at all, but there you would be, with her at her computer designing your life according to the rather shotty references she makes.

I do not design my reality and you do not design yours.  We are thrown into an already existing world, with billions of other humans interacting with their personal reality.  Somebody may tell me what I need to do at work, but they have not designed it.  Human life is interconnected on a global scale, rather than structured according to algorithms and an epic soundtrack.  None of us can create our reality because we are necessarily interacting with the un-created and un-designed reality of those around us.  All that we can control and design is our reaction to and interaction with the world around us.  All we can do is enjoy the dysfunctional, to adopt McGonigal’s point of view for just a moment, reality that we are handed at birth.  However, reality is not dysfunctional.  Reality simply is what is.  It is perfect in itself, and all we can do is love the life we have, take pride in our work, enjoy the company of a billion other people, and help others as much as possible get through the murkiness of life.

Unnecessary Obstacles

McGonigal stresses in part one the importance of unnecessary obstacles and how they are so important to the core ideas behind video games. She makes the point that because we are choosing to tackle this obstacle ourselves it is more enjoyable for us and brings us more pleasure. This is something that can be seen on an everyday basis in nearly every aspect of life. Its an old adage that you only get as much out of something as you put into it. By taking a task and adding obstacles too it and making it more difficult for yourself you end up getting more out of it in the end. I see this in a few places in my own life. I enjoy sports games, particularly the build a dynasty mode that is found in most games. When I play college football games I am particularly enamored of the recruiting part of the game. By recruiting the players and then watching them develop and play on the field I have an almost emotional attachment to them. I feel pride and disappointment in these players based on their on the field performance in the game.

Fun, Failure and Optimism is something McGonigal stresses as important, saying that failure is actually a bigger part of our video gaming experience than losing. She gives examples of games like Super Monkey Ball and how the animation when you fail is so spectacular that it almost makes it enjoyable. I agree with her to some point, but when you play the game enough, the losing animation just gets annoying. The joy in failure to me is learning where I was wrong and correcting it the next time I play. One of the games that has recently taken up a lot of my time is called Faster Than Light. The game involves navigating a space ship through battles and other decisions in your quest to reach the other side of the galaxy. In the hints of the game it specifically says that losing is in the fun of the game. And it is. As annoying as it is to watch my ship break up into pieces, there is generally always something I have done wrong, whether it was pick a fight with a ship bigger than me or choose to explore an asteroid field instead of watching for my engines to charge, its the thrill of making those decisions that makes the game so much fun. So McGonigal is correct in saying that failure is fun, but when she says its because of the animations and spectacular failure that you experience, that really only applies for the first few times you fail, just got you hooked on it.

A fix for Reality is Broken.

It’s frustratingly easy to criticize McGonigal’s work. The credibility of her argument hinges on vague psychological citations and self-produced blanket statements on current global temperaments. She assumes her readers are bored with life. I am not, so dealing with this problem kept me from becoming engaged in her work. Her writing style flatly and systematically explores her vision, aligning the text with the technical and inartistic. The text lacks both the pleasures of literary mastery and a grounding in a reality that I recognize.

Having said that, I found Reality is Broken to offer fascinating insight into reality design. McGonigal is not a writer. She is a game designer. Similarly, Reality is Broken is not a book; it’s a game. McGonigal attempts to design a reality for her reader that feels like a game. She is trying to bridge the gap between playing and not playing with the medium of literature. Her book becomes the rulebook for the game of life.

Our subjective perspectives make each of our understanding of reality different. McGonigal projects her interpretation of the reality onto the reader as the basis for her argument. This is not congruent with my experience of Earth and I’m sure many of you had similar thoughts (I was particularly thrown by her weight scientifically objectified vision of happiness). Let’s just get to it:

-Videogames are a great metaphor for life. They are fun and risky and have strong psychological rewards. We definitely should be getting these things out of life.

-Reading Reality is Broken took me out of life and made me crave it. Good for the book’s agenda, bad for the book.

-The book talks about making a game out of everything, but the book’s format was not a game. Why? This drove me crazy. It was not engaging. If your going to use the medium of text, you need understand the art of writing has always endeavored to do the this. Content is bound to medium. I understand McGonigal is not a writer. She does not have the ability to wield text like a game in itself. But there was no reason she couldn’t directly include self-referential insight that related the reading the book to a game. That would have been sticky. That would have really bridged the gap between game and reality.

-Videogame terminology is an advanced way to discuss maximizing life. +1 rad point

-Everyone should be actively designing their reality rather than passively accepting a given framework.

-Fully utilizing technology, especially in networking contexts like MMOs, is key to unlocking human potential and creating a better real world.

-Reality could be like a constant boss level. We only have one life, so the pressure is on. We aren’t necessarily wagering that mortality, but we are wagering quality and happiness. It seems like material and social success would naturally follow.

-Designed reality and living in a delusional perspective have a fine line. Balancing the game of life takes care and active networking with friends, family, and society.

These are some of my main thoughts from the book. Even though it was a bear to get through, the book has some good insight. My biggest problem, as I mentioned above, is that the book was not a fun game to read! Why not? I’d pose the same question about this class.

Applying Reality is Broken to a work enviornment

I really enjoyed reading Jane McGonigal’s book. What instantly struck me and kept recurring to me was how games or a gaming attitude could be applied in the work place. Throughout the book McGonigal gives example after example how games can get us through something whether it be a personal escape or a social platform for someone to interact with the other people. Even in fixes, games help move things along or get things done that we wouldn’t ordinarily want to do. In line with McGonigal’s idea of bringing gaming into what we do everyday and making a better world I thought of the application of her theory to the work place. What better place than work? 95% of us don’t love what we’re doing and are either working to work or working while we finish school (college anyone?). The other 5% love what they do and working isn’t work.

Why not make work into a game? give points? take points away? Award winners weekly, biweekly, or monthly? The rules and points would change per job site but it would beneficial. No more mundane work just to work. Risk and reward systems implemented almost like commission. I know if my work was a game and we got points for service or fast times that would help my days and life there be a lot easier. Thoughts? How would making your job a game change your view of it?

Applying Chapter Seven to College Life

Within chapter seven, McGonigal comes up with a new innovative game that can be used in the very reality of individuals lives, “Chore Wars”.  With the thought of this concept she really knows how to reel or bring in new ideas to get people going, motivated, and ecstatic about the simplest things that doesn’t really require that much energy to do.  She finds herself competing with her husband on who can accomplish more within chores around the house.  Mcgonigal sets up ground rules and what not to follow in order for her to stay on her task.  Interestingly enough in regularly “Fixes”, for Fix #7 she defines that, “Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.”  Points that are thrown across such as,

“:To participate wholeheartedly in something means to be self motivated and self directed, intensely interested and genuinely enthusiastic”

“If we’re forced to do something, or if we do it halfheartedly we’re not really participating.”

“If we don’t care how it all turns out, we’re not really participating.”

“If we’re passively waiting it out, we’re not really participating”

Can’t all these thoughts be processed and viewed what we do just in order to get the “dream job” that we want in life?  College students work their tales off in order to get where they want to be in life.  If one is forced into a major that is not their own particular desire, the student may or may not perform as well in the class as they would like to be.  They then aren’t really participating in what they should be at all.  If we don’t care about the outcome of a class, then say goodbye to an awesome gpa.  Lastly if one was waiting out on something, such as work to be done that can be connected to procrastination.  All of these concepts can be generally be connected to our college life and how we’re going to be able to beat this game in order to get that said “dream job”.  Just a thought on how I looked at this chapter within her book.

Serious games- Changing the real world.

In the final chapters of her book, Jane Mcgonigal talks about a serious game, one that differs from other feel-good games. Her project ‘World without oil’ is a really fascinating one. It is a game which tackles a real issue, making it possible for gamers to virtually live a real life crisis which might occur in the future. I have never really like virtual life games such as SIMS or SECOND LIFE. I feel that these types of games pull the person away from real life which has a negative influence on their health. I have however, liked games wherein you play it and come out of it learning something, or experiencing something which affects your real life in a positive way. That is why I think that this gaming innovation is a good idea, as it allows people to live something in the future. Although it is a good idea, Mcgonigal gives it a lot of credit, as she herself states “winning a nobel prize is a fairly bold idea.” Mcgonigal deviates the reader from seeing the problems with forecasting games, by trying to make WWO grander and larger in scale. The problem with the game (Mcgonigal did not talk much about it) is the fact that not many people are playing it. People prefer more fun games. She states that only nineteen hundred players have played WWO and she could have explored more on that. Why don’t more people want to play these kinds of games? How do you attract more players? Towards the end of the book, Mcgonigal lays out a structure and How-to-make guide on forecasting games. I think forecasting games are a great idea, but I would have liked to know more about the negative side to these kinds of games rather than a, advertisement on how great it is.

Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” and the epic world

McGonigal makes the assertion that there are a number of aspects of games that if applied to society’s problems, there could be significant improvement. She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology and management professor and scholar, and his theory on “flow.” By Csikszentmihayli’s definition “flow” is the engaging state of working at the very limit of one’s abilities. Gamers consider quitting and winning equally unsatisfying because the average gamer would rather continue playing the game than have it end all together. For them, the game is challenging but in all the right ways. Games are challenging, have clear goals, well-established rules for action, potential for increased difficulty and improvement, and are done for enjoyment (and not money/status/obligation). Because games are a choice and all the aspects of the game are agreed upon and accepted, the game becomes enjoyable and challenging rather than a chore. McGonigal makes the assertion that if we were to apply this technique to the mundane aspects of life, we could “engineer happiness.” By creating an environment that fosters happiness, we could make for a more productive society and a less depressed population. “If we continue to ignore what makes us happy we shall actively help perpetuate the dehumanizing forces which are gaining momentum day by day” (36). We need to structure real work like game work.

McGonigal also makes note of the concept of “epic” and “awe.” Epic is used to describe the most memorable, gratifying game experiences (not moments, but events) and awe is used to describe the moment in which we, as people, realize that we are in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. These epic events are something that “far surpasses the ordinary, especially in size, scale, and intensity” (98). McGonigal uses the example of Halo to describe epic events, projects, and contexts. These three key ways that Halo is considered to be epic create a bigger mission, provoke grandeur, and establish cooperative efforts. The bigger the situation, the more epic, and thus the more awe inspiring. However, she asserts that game engineers are not the first of their kind to create epic environments. In fact, nature itself does this daily. There are countless examples of natural epic environments. Natural epic environments remind us of the amazing power of nature while built epic environments are the result of a human accomplishment and are therefore both humbling AND empowering. This gives people a greater sense of purpose. By contributing to wiki’s and discussion forums, gamers are building a greater collective knowledge. If we were to create a more epic environment and/or a greater sense of purpose for our lives, we are likely to be more invested and less depressed.

Also check out this TEDtalk featuring Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi!