On Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

I finished this book last week, and I have a couple criticisms that I need to get out there before they break my brain.

First Critique: The Role of the Player

McGonigal begins her book Reality is Broken with an anecdote about the ancient Lydians, a nation of people who survived an eighteen year famine by eating and playing games on alternate days. On Monday, food; on Tuesday, games; that was the life of these people. She uses this anecdote in a number of ways, but the main thrust of how she uses it is as a way of showing that games can be used to escape the horror of everyday life. McGonigal uses this to explain that we need to bring gameplay and real life closer together–these two processes, or events, need to be close together in order to alleviate the crushing boredom of everyday life. Of course, McGonigal is not willing to critique the reasons for this–she is content to say that the isolation of the individual can be solved with games without ever attempting to critique or interrogate the causes for that isolation, but whatever.

In any case, McGonigal advocates a movement toward the gamification of everyday life. Her alternative to the world we live in is one where the tenets of game design are brought into close contact with ethical action–we become happy when we are good because we are fulfilling the clear goals of the gameplay presented to us. She is very, very indebted to this idea, that games can actually be used to do good, but there are some severe issues with this that she seems to ignore.

A quick digression here: Reality is Broken is written like a business book. I don’t think that there is any doubt about the connection of gamification, McGonigal, and the corporate business buzzword that gamification has become, and so the book is written in a very upbeat, easy-to-understand tone and all of the keywords are defined and bolded for your lowest-common-denominator audience. As my partner pointed out, Jane McGonigal writes like Thomas Friedman–wild abandon, lots of examples, spurious analysis. Digression over.

The first issue that I want to look at here is how the game designer is supposed to function here. McGonigal has a wide vision for game designers; she wants designers to be the people who steer the masses toward an ethical existence–games will jump borders, ideologies, what have you. Games are moving us forward, together. There is a gap, something unspoken, in her language: who is the game designer? This is never addressed in the book, and its problematic, because I can imagine two scenarios equally. In the first, a game designer makes sure that ethnicity is respected and presented in a realistic fashion in their game, implicitly making the players of the games more egalitarian and (hopefully) fighting back against symbolic annihilation or racism. In the second, Africans are depicted as zombies and then brutal, swamp-dwelling tribals who wear headresses and throw spears at the white player character.

The second scenario, one that I am really afraid of, seems ridiculous until you realize that it is a full fifth of the game Resident Evil 5. McGonigal presents that game designer as a kind of philosopher queen, but never stops to properly explain what that means in the world of practical game creation.

I think this is part of a larger problem that she fundamentally ignores–that of the player base. More than1.5 million people bought Modern Warfare 3 on the first day that it was available. Let that number sink in–I’ll wait. The problem with these massive numbers is that the people who are playing  the games, the generation that McGonigal claims is going to have 10,000 hours of practice at games (and therefore be experts in), are mostly young teenage boys who call one another slurs in prepubescent voices for hours every night. The philosopher king that mobilizes those masses, the person who really makes a game that infuses their life with meaning–that person will terrify me.

McGonigal gets close to this when she writes on the Halo 3 community’s reaction over reaching 10 billion–BILLION–kills of Covenant aliens in online game modes. Lots of people expressed amazement, and McGonigal quotes a number of people who worked out the numbers on what percentage of the victory that they shared. People were invested in the killing, and more than that, so were the developers–10 billion was a goal that was set, something to work toward, before the game had even launched. The Halo 3 example is what McGonigal calls an “epic” quality of a game. It makes people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves; it is the 21st century version of standing in a cathedral.

There is a disconnect here that McGonigal doesn’t comment on. What the Halo 3 players did was commit genocide. More than that, they loved it. If we are to believe McGonigal’s analysis, then these players, in an increasingly gamified world, are just becoming better at disassociating real death from death on the screen. In a world of unmanned aerial craft, of killing on the computer screen, I am not sure that I find any consolation there. The twofold process that is occurring scares the hell out of me: designers can’t see what they are doing, and players can’t see outside of the stringent black and white morality that games give them.

Next week: Second Critique: The Role of the Game

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