Just before Tekkoshocon, Pez lent me his copy of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better. I regret to say, actually, that I didn’t get a chance to crack it open until well after the show was over. On the flip side, though, it only took me about twenty pages before I realized I needed a copy of the book myself.
McGonigal doesn’t waste any time in providing her argument. She starts off with a mythological story about how the ancient Lydians survived an eighteen-year famine through the effective use of games. (Which put the other purchase I made at the bookstore that day– Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games— is a markedly less pleasant light.) She then breaks her argument into three parts, detailing along the ride eleven ways that reality could be improved through the strategic implementation of behaviors that are seen in gaming of all stripes.
While McGonigal focuses predominantly on electronic gaming, only breaking out of it for a handful of her examples, she presents an incredibly strong case that the mechanical aspects of gameplay in general are worth far more than the condescension that most people have for players of games. And, while fundamentally I agree with a lot of her points, I also have to take issue with her assertion that making everything a game will make life better. This is mostly out of the incredibly poor way that a lot of “gamification” efforts have been implemented in the past.
When dealing with incredibly boring or tedious tasks in my childhood, I was often told that I should make a game out of it. The problem is that fun cannot be “enforced” in that way. It didn’t matter how I compelled myself to accomplish whatever I was told to do, only that I did it. And if I wasn’t invested in the task to begin with, there was no way I was going to put in the mental effort to compel myself to do it. Now, if the game had developed organically among the other people I was working with at the time– or hell, even if there were other people to engage in the game– it would be a different story. But solo, it was just frustrating to be told that I should somehow force myself to enjoy something objectively boring.
That’s why I take a jaundiced eye to games like Chore Wars or Fitocracy: it’s great to compete with other people in these games, but for someone on their own, if they’re not already committed to the tasks, they sure as hell aren’t going to be motivated by a little number or avatar. It’s a bit like having a competition to see who can finish their homework first. There might be a reward at the end, and it might not be any more substantial than bragging rights; in the end, though, you’re still doing your homework, and if you just plain don’t want to do homework, no reward is going to be good enough. More to the point, games of any sort get boring after an extended period: when people ultimately get bored of Chore Wars, the dishes will start to pile up again.
Do I think that making reality more fun is going to make people happier? Absolutely. I love games, and I play them constantly; earlier this month I was introduced to Tiny Tower, and I’ve been using it alternately as a time-waster and as a productivity monitor (work for x minutes, check on the tower for one or two, then back to work for x more). But I have some issues with the assertion that gaming can become a force that will make kids do their homework or eat their broccoli, or make adults save for retirement or mow the lawn. Games are only so powerful, after all.