BOOK REVIEW: How games can change the world

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal

HERE are some facts worth considering: hundreds of millions of people worldwide are opting out of reality for hours each week and playing computer or video games. Today this industry is worth an estimated $109bn.

I met the author at the BCX Disrupt Conference a few weeks ago, and was struck by the importance of her insights. This is the first book I have reviewed that is six years old, but I feel it is so important for people to be introduced to its ideas that I have broken with my 18-year tradition of only reviewing the best of the latest. 

“What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists? Imagine a near future in which most of the real world works more like a game,” author Jane McGonigal asks.

When many people think of games, what comes to mind is wasting time on activities unworthy of their time and attention. Consider how negatively we talk of games: "Don’t play games with me." "This isn’t a game!" Hardly the stuff most likely to shape the future, solve the most vexing problems facing humanity, and correct a 'broken' reality.

Gamers work hard at games: they invest time and effort, they overcome challenges and respond to failure by trying harder. They enthusiastically invest their best efforts in the game with no thought of extrinsic reward.

Game developers clearly know better than almost anyone else how to inspire extreme effort, and facilitate cooperation and collaboration. They seem to continuously find new ways to motivate players to stick with harder challenges, for longer, and in much bigger groups.

“These crucial twenty-first century skills can help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us,” McGonigal asserts. “Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality.”

I want to focus on just one aspect McGonigal deals with – the world of work.

What exactly is a game? All games have four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

The goal is the outcome that players will work to achieve. In golf the goal is to get a small ball into a distant hole with fewer strokes than other players. Games have rules that place limitations on how players can achieve the goal, so that players have to be skilled, sometimes creative and strategic.

Games all have feedback systems, so players know how close they are to achieving the goal, and are tacitly promised that the goal is definitely achievable. This provides motivation to keep playing.

And games are voluntary, so participation is a sign that you knowingly and willingly accept the goal, the rules, and the feedback.

The philosopher Bernard Suits explained playing a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

If you wanted to put a little ball in a small hole far away in the real world, you would pick it up with your hand and carry it to the hole, and drop it in. Compare the ease of doing that with playing a game of golf! When you play Scrabble, your goal is to spell out long and interesting words with lettered tiles. In the real world, we have a name for an easy version of this kind of activity- it’s called typing.

“Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use,” explains the author.

In the definition of a game there is nothing about winning, because this is not a necessary condition. In so many games all but one player (or team) must lose; and in most of the online games, you are guaranteed to lose, because if you win once, the game simply gets harder. A good quality game keeps you at the edge between winning and losing - so you continue playing.

The feedback in online games is clear, instant and graphic.

Working to the very limits of our ability

All these factors, game designers and psychologists know, keep us working to the very limits of our ability, in what is called the ‘flow’ state.

Games make people happy, which is why we engage. This is because good games are hard work that we choose for ourselves. Almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.

“All of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness - our attention systems, our reward centre, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centres - are fully activated by gameplay,” McGonigal points out. In this state of happiness we think better, are more positive, make social connections, and build personal strengths.

The ability of digitally-constructed games to have exactly the right effect on people is easier than many other games, but not impossible, which is why so many non-digital games are so satisfying.

When we choose not to exert ourselves at work, it’s usually because it is not the right work, at the right time, for the right person. Consider what a boost to global net happiness and prosperity could be achieved, if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better, hard work.

Quality video games involve many types of work. There is high-stakes work, like saving the world, which is challenging and calls on our cognitive faculties. But there is also completely predictable and monotonous busywork, which players can choose because it helps them feel contented and productive.

There is discovery work that makes us feel confident, powerful, and motivated.  And there is hard, creative work where we can make meaningful decisions that make us feel proud of what we have achieved.

Computer and video games today offer the possibility of teamwork across large groups of people, emphasising collaboration, cooperation, and contributions not possible in the past.

Some games demand physical work, which raises our heartbeat, gets us breathing harder, and makes our glands sweat.

It is not unimaginable that real work can have the same effect on people as work in the world of games.

Compared with games, reality is so unproductive. I often ask clients to evaluate how much of their staff’s capability, that they are paying for, is delivered. I call what they are not getting the ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ tax. Most of those who do this exercise realise how much ‘tax’ they are paying.

In the world today there are literally hundreds of millions of adults who voluntarily and enthusiastically play computer or video games 13 hours a week, and tens of millions who play 45 hours a week!

Try this simple thought experiment: what would happen in your workplace if you could apply just some of the insights from gaming? When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us, and people work hard and love even mundane tasks…

And McGonigal has many more profound insights that I didn’t have space to share. Read this book – it is paradigm-shifting.

Readability:  Light ---+- Serious
Insights:       High +---- Low
Practical:       High ---+- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.