FOR MANY NON GAMERS, the time and energy expended every day in games like World of Warcraft and Halo represent a missed opportunity for engagement with reality, an avoidance of the real world that's wasteful at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Whether these critics are championing a "real world" of Two and a Half Men reruns or community gardens, there is a righteous sense that real is real and games most definitely are not.
Game designer Jane McGonigal would probably agree with the implicit premise that a distinction can be made between reality and games—because, as she persuasively argues in her new book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, games are better. Games, broadly defined, offer challenges and rewards that reality does not. From Halo to fantasy football, they offer a setting in which we are encouraged to work to the extent of our abilities, and rewarded for that work; they provide an environment designed to engage our intellect and emotion in a way our work and social lives often do not. It follows that some game designers, McGonigal among them, are pursuing game-inspired ways to "fix" reality—to increase individual happiness and social connectedness, to facilitate creative solutions to contemporary social issues, and to harness the collective time and energy of gamers toward problem solving on a global scale.
Take education: Why, she rhetorically asks, are we surprised when children who have grown up playing games designed to stimulate and engage have trouble focusing in school? Instead of asking students to adapt to the classroom, why aren't we asking classrooms to adapt to students, and using new tools to engage students in new ways? She provides the example of Quest to Learn, a charter school in New York City with a curriculum based on game design. Students are assigned quests and secret missions; they identify and develop their own strengths, work collaboratively with other students to solve problems, and "level" up instead of competing for grades. It's one example of an "alternate-reality game," a reality fix geared toward generating the "four intrinsic rewards" offered by gameplay (satisfying rewards, hope of success, social connectivity, and meaning) "when we can't or don't want to be in a virtual environment."
But McGonigal goes beyond the application of game theory in practical contexts to discuss how effort expended in-game can have positive real-world results. The collaborative and problem-solving abilities of millions of gamers provide a valuable resource for games designed to tap into them: the Guardian newspaper's "Investigate Your MP's Expenses" project, for example, which enlisted the internet's help in organizing and analyzing thousands of government documents; or an online role-playing game that asked participants to imagine specific, real-world problems that an oil shortage might cause, and then to devise solutions to those problems.
Most of us are gamers now, McGonigal points out, whether we're in a WoW guild or number among the staggering 90 million people compelled to till virtual ground on Facebook in FarmVille. In Reality Is Broken, she relies on both her own experience as a game designer and a decade's worth of research from the positive psychology field to persuasively and enthusiastically argue that the millions of hours we collectively spend playing games don't represent a problem or threat to "reality"; rather, they offer a very real opportunity to change the way we approach reality's pesky little problems.