Jane McGonigal’s new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World is destined to be one of the most influential works about videogames ever published. The book is filled with bold new ideas and refinements of old ones. It’s targeted at a general readership, but game designers, critics, and scholars will learn plenty from the book too, thanks to the new twists it takes on familiar subjects.

The ordinary reader will perhaps be most intrigued by McGonigal’s claims that games can save the world (part III in the book), but those of you who would think to read my review are probably already primed for that idea. Instead, I predict you’ll be most struck by Jane’s bold redefinition of the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which comes in part II of the book (part I is about why games make us happy). She takes “ARG” to mean any game that integrates itself with the real world, not just one that involves the usual trappings of that genre, like distributed narrative and puzzle-solving. Some will scoff or sneer at such a broad definition, perhaps, but it’s a brilliant reframing, turning an obscure genre into a mainstream one. The ARG already owed part of its birth to Jane, and it now owes its coming of age to her too.

That broad definition allows McGonigal to discuss a wide variety of examples in the book, from “traditional” ARGs like I Love Bees to popular social services like Foursquare to deliberate wordly interventions like Chore Wars to social experiments like The Extraordinaries. She also covers most of the games she’s worked on personally, from complex, high-profile ARGs like World Without Oil and Evoke to improvised, personal games like the one she invented to recover from a bad concussion. The book also includes a discussion of Cruel 2 B Kind, the street game Jane and I made together in 2006, as well as a kind mention of my iPhone airport game Jetset.

She argues that playing and making games like Evoke not only make people happier (she calls game designers “happiness engineers”), but also inspire people to collaborate to solve problems. If we can leverage even a fraction of the millions of hours that gamers spend in virtual worlds and engage them in the real world, then they can accomplish “epic wins,” ambitious, real successes that would match the ambitious, make-believe ones we accomplish all the time in games. But don’t worry, despite some overzealous simplifications in press coverage, Jane also believes the time we spend playing ordinary games is valuable in its own right. One can only hope that McGonigal’s book scores an epic win against the trite, simplistic trends in “gamification” that her smart, sophisticated ideas overshadow.

All that said, Reality is Broken was a challenge for me to read. Not because it’s hard, mind you; the book’s 400 pages sail by thanks to the energy and earnestness of her writing. No, it challenges me because I can’t seem to agree with some of her key principles, despite our friendship and collaborations.

But don’t conclude that I think she’s wrong; it’s not that simple. Jane’s an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know. And those of you who know me probably realize that I’m not the biggest optimist you know. See, I don’t think reality is broken. It’s messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don’t get to fix it, ever. It’s flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright.

And I don’t think games are happiness engines, either. They are complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected. I play games to remind me of this. I make them for that purpose too. Jane and I have both designed games that engage the world’s problems, but I tend to see my games as troubling the idea of solutions rather than leading us toward them.

For me, the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery. The systems-thinking games embrace shatters the very ideas of world-changing with which we have become so accustomed. And we don’t occupy game worlds because the real world isn’t happy or fun enough, but because we need help embracing that real world through the properties of ambiguity and intricacy that make games like the world in the first place.

As it happens, I very much agree with many of the strategies McGonigal draws from games: a long view, systems thinking, and experimentation, for example. We’re of one mind on such topics. But here’s the key difference: for me, we never save the world. It trudges on, new gears growing like tubers and meshing with old ones, old cogs grinding to dust behind them. At many points in the book I really see eye to eye with Jane on this matter (“World Without Oil gave players a space for nonwishful thinking”; “The best-case scenario outcomes were posed not as probabilities—and certainly not as inevitabilities—but rather as plausible possibilities worth working toward”). There are ruffly, velvety undertones of reservation in Reality is Broken, and I found myself retreating to these caves of welcome hesitancy from the book’s overall lagoon of confidence. I need to remember that reality is always a mess. That’s not tragedy to me. It’s the unstoppable infinity of being.

It’s easy to call Jane a pollyanna, but that’s a cynical move that must be rejected. And it’s not that I’m a nihilist to Jane’s optimist either. It’s something more subtle: where she values happiness and epic wins, I value wonder and sublimity. The awesome hugeness of the world and its problems, as well as their solutions, always partial, always tentative, like a giant mountain peering through the fog, impossible. Reality is Broken helps me see that we need both kinds of people in the world. I’m grateful to Jane for that, for pushing me to see my world through her eyes, which glow blue with daylight and buoyancy, spilling waves of hope toward the horizon.

published January 14, 2011


  1. Federico Fasce

    And let me say that, me, as a designer, I’ve learned and I have much to learn from both of you. So, thank you, Ian and Jane, for your remarkable work.

  2. Margaret Weigel

    I respect your work, and Jane’s work, but I’m not convinced that games can change the world. Perhaps I’ll need to read teh book, eh.

    In general, the biggest issue I have is that the world doesn’t operate under a set of rules (besides gravity and its ilk); it’s chaotic, the rules are always changing, it’s hard to judge what constitutes ‘winning’, etc. To espouse game-playing as a way to change the world seems like a step in the wrong direction. Better to inculcate ‘players’ in these new ARGs to randomized and shifting parameters rather than construct a framework that is well-defined.

    Closely linked to this is the new reality that money talks, and mostly talks to financial titans. ARGs designed to change the world are inconsequential drops in the bucket in a culture which has grown tolerant of permanent homelessness, millions mired in poverty, tainted food, untested drugs, and all the other products of a defunded government.

  3. Nick LaLone

    But don’t conclude that I think she’s wrong; it’s not that simple. Jane’s an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know. And those of you who know me probably realize that I’m not the biggest optimist you know. See, I don’t think reality is broken. It’s messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don’t get to fix it, ever. It’s flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright.

    And I don’t think games are happiness engines, either. They are complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected. I play games to remind me of this. I make them for that purpose too. Jane and I have both designed games that engage the world’s problems, but I tend to see my games as troubling the idea of solutions rather than leading us toward them.

    These two paragraphs really drove your point home for me. I also agree with Margaret Weigel. I can’t see a game being made that shows the player how market forces “free” a nation from their historically developed economy. Would there be a game that can make people feel great about the US crashing the corn market in Mexico?

    For example, the Third World Farmer “game” does an ok job with displaying the global impact of capitalism but it is so far removed from something like China or the Asian block that it only manages to communicate that things are hard in Africa and maybe if they had more they could accomplish something. These sorts of games can end up adding to the problems we (the US) have caused worldwide.

    My worry is that this movement in gamification will catch on and the resulting game creation will only aid in removing the core countries epistemologically further away from the periphery (I think that is the word I want to use there).

    That said, your review has cemented a purchase for me. Thanks for posting it!

  4. Melanie McBride

    As above, much respect to you and McGonigal. I appreciate what she’s saying, for exactly the same reasons you do. And have seen her work as a great contrast and challenge to a games industry that is dominated with games that reinforce consumerism, capitalism, militarism and oppressive social themes (i.e., racist, sexist, etc). And as a teacher who committed to social justice and equity, I’m often at odds to find ways to integrate games into the curriculum that don’t oppress the identities and backgrounds of my students in the process (also, our board is mandated by the human rights code which forbids the use of curriculum resources that are explicitly sexist, racist, violent, homophobic or otherwise harmful. our job falls under “do no harm”).

    All that said, I am also a gamer. And, like bell hooks, I believe the first way into cultural analysis and critique of the hegemony is the DIRECT route. Which is via the actual culture – however offensive, questionable or banal (by our own standards) – it may be. Rather than removing these materials from our classroom I am advocating – despite our board mandates – that we find ways to bring those materials in. In order to critique them (what better game to look at racist, sexist and homophobic stereotypes than Rockstar’s GTA or Bully?). To critique in the same way we critique literature, art and etc. We cannot do so if we’re not engaging the “ugly” stuff as well as the utopian (i.e., creating positive, equitable games). Before we can “change the world” via more equitable models and themes, I think it’s critical that this current content not go without direct engagement.

    As well, in the Practical Advice piece drawn from her book [ http://janemcgonigal.com/2011/01/08/practical-advice-for-gamers/ ] she talks about the social. And says playing with “real life friends” is “better than” playing with “strangers” online. I would argue that for some people, particularly more marginalised or isolated groups (marginalised especially by poverty or perhaps cultural affinities that are not present in their communities), game spaces – particularly the highly social space of MMOs and guilds – provides a VITAL social link to others who can form closer bonds to people who some of these players may call “friend” – and those friendships are real. In my time in mmos, I’ve met a great number of people who are socio-economically disadvantaged. In the gamespace, nobody judges you because you live in a crappy apartment – or place to entertain your friends, don’t have the $ to go out to a restaurant or, possibly, lack the time (because you work shifts at the supermarket) to make plans with your more privileged 9-5ers. There are a lot of very good reasons why the social relationships people have in game are not only positive – and sometimes MORE Positive – than those in “real Life” – which should never be held up as superior. Particularly in a world, as Castronova points out (in Second Skin documentary) in which other human beings judge you by your skin colour, size, age, socioeconomic status. As Castronova points out, the desire to spend time in a world where some of these things are more flatted out – or redefine yourself – might be an opportunity not for escapism but for redefining new kinds of social interactions that the real world lacks.

    Finally, as a gamer who started with *comfort* zone games (i.e., those I deemed non offensive to my sensibility) but then moved finally into more violent territory I’m also going to argue that there ARE benefits to playing militaristic, combat or competitive games – when it’s done in a critical and reflexive way. For me as a woman, getting into pvp (for example) took me out of a socialized space of ‘defensive’ action to a space of ‘offensive’ action – much like chess. And, as Nietzsche argued in Birth of Tragedy, art is the ultimate space to work through the darker aspects of our humanity that might otherwise be played out in reality. To sublimate and engage with it directly. Playing a violent game doesn’t create a condition of pathology unless there is already an underlying pathology present. The point is, we OUGHT to play “bad” games as well as “good” ones. And the goal, in any of this, is to cultivate more insight and a critical engagement with this culture.

    I share McGonigal’s motivating utopia, just not her proposed route.

  5. Chris H

    “the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery”

    On some level, isn’t this what mastery is? The more you learn results in the feeling there is so much more to actually learn.

  6. Ken Eklund

    “where she values happiness and epic wins, I value wonder and sublimity.”

    Hope I’m not pointing out the obvious, but these values are not mutually exclusive. I haven’t read Jane’s book yet (it’s on order) but I hope it discusses the changes to the idea of “game” that technology affords. It is now quite possible to build a game that will in essence “surprise itself.” Indeed, ARGs like World Without Oil are built for exactly that purpose. When we design these games we surrender the power of defining the epic win state to each player, and open the game up to gameplay that goes beyond what the gamemakers imagine. There’s your wonder and sublimity, I think.

    Hand in hand with this, I echo Chris H’s thoughts on mastery. You can master Tic Tac Toe, but I doubt that anyone would say they “mastered” ILoveBees or World Without Oil. Not in the old-school understanding of externally defined mastery, anyway. They hit Chris’s and your more internal mark: “the more you learn results in the [more tranquil] feeling there is so much more to actually learn.”

  7. Natasha Wolf

    “It’s the unstoppable infinity of being.”

    I like the way you think sir

  8. Tim Morton

    A very great Buddhist teacher recently described samsara as â??waiting for something to happen.â?

  9. Louis F.

    I haven’t read McGonigal’s book yet, but I really enjoyed this peek in the dialogue between your ideas. The line between ‘happiness’ and ‘wonder’ is thin but significant, and this review helps grasp it.

    From a long-time fan (and very satisfied buyer of A Slow Year : )

  10. Ian Bogost

    Louis, many thanks on both counts.

  11. Molly Eichar

    The potential for game-systems theory for use in re-igniting passion for learning is my big takeaway from Reality is Broken.

    Educators are vividly aware that students expect excitement, drama, and victory in their education. We are constantly reminded that we must be performers, song-and-dance women/men to technology natives. So when McGonigal lays out a rich stream of parameters for making learning more game=like, I applaud and ask myself how to use these notions in the classroom.

    McGonigal, as the spokeswoman for a new culture of positive gaming for social ends, opens up a world of possibility for education. I, for one, am excited about its potential.

  12. Adi

    i think Jane McGonigal is a great marketing person, with a interesting vision, but i find her “research” kind of suspect.

    I feel like McGonigal can sell her idea of making real world problems into games, because they appeal at some level to everyone. While this in itself is not harmful (a charitable view is think of her vision as interesting and her work making small steps towards that goal), what worries me a little is the number of people who have completely bought into this idea of “solving” real world problems by gaming.

    To me her research is a bit like alchemy. It sounds a little like some of these weight loss products that promise great results, yet not require us to stop eating junk food.

    I am also concerned that this book might influence educators, while i do feel there is a lot that can change in our educational systems, I am concerned that we are leaning towards teaching an generation of people that they should always expect to be “entertained” even while solving world poverty, or issues related to the oil crisis.

  13. Barry Loewen

    Great review, Ian! I was troubled with many of the same ideas you have so eloquently put here. For me, it might be semantics in terms of what reality is and what it means to be broken. I might say reality has changed, but to say reality is not reality because it is broken is a bit much and close to what is being said. Also, historical perspectives would say these changes in how people experience life has always happened and at many points people might propose the same idea about reality being changed. So it is not a novel idea, but needed to be made in order to suggest that there is a fix for it.

    I know that there are many young people who would rather ‘go outside and play’ rather than do gaming. I see them in my classrooms. Gaming does appeal to many of these youngsters, but many do not buy in or become ‘gamers’ like others do. So I am not sure how much engagement would happen or what its result would be in terms of creating solutions to problems and issues. Arab Spring gave us some inkling of things that can happen, but the Occupy movement has, so far, fallen short of transforming inequity in money resources. These two are examples of ‘digitally connected’ movements.

    If it happened, it would need the ‘fulness of time’ component and serendipity to allow it to happen. That is an exciting possibility and I do hope for any solution that makes a better future. The book was instructive and informative and hopeful, as you have said, but optimistic. Your review certainly hit the nail on the head for me regarding the questions that were percolating around in my brain as I read.

    Thank you for your review!

  14. David Golumbia

    Ian, I was just directed back to this by an errant #mla13 comment, & while I’m here I want to take serious issue with only one comment you make here, but I suspect you won’t object to my argument. You write that “Jane’s an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know.” This is what she wants us to think, but my #1 problem with the book and with what McGonigal advocates is that she is, on my reading, an incredible pessimist, one so blinded by the power granted to her by industry & her fans that she does not see it. The pessimism is reflected in the title of her book particularly as it reaches for a metaphysical generalization about reality–that reality itself is broken, too much for us, can’t be addressed without some tools that don’t currently exist. The fundamental problem with her book is her unwillingess to examine how it is that reality got what she calls “broken,” and what forces exist that push it in that direction–when read carefully, her diagnosis is not incredibly different from, e.g., Sherry Turkle’s, but unlike Turkle, McGonigal suggests more time in front of screens as a remedy for symptoms that have arguably been caused, in part, by screen time. McGonigal condemns our world (she really does, again and again), and the only remedy she provides is so evanescent and irreal (not the real games we have now, but new games that haven’t been invented/conceived yet) as to be unbelievable: our world is vile and, between the lines, there’s nothing to be done about it at all. The most rabid fans of her work don’t actually seem to absorb her gestures toward not-yet-existing games (or the, I apologize, execrable SuperBetter), and she does nothing to limit–in fact seems to encourage–their obsessive indulgence in the likes of Halo, CounterStrike and Doom, as if playing them will fix our “broken reality.” I suspect you’ll agree that such obsessive turning away from the world is not going to help things, and I find your generally open-minded and healthily critical attitude toward the existing stuff of our world to actually point in many more constructive directions than McGonigal does: and hence, you, sir, are the optimist, despite your reasonable pessimism, while her view of our future is much darker than she lets on (or even realizes).

  15. Ian Bogost

    David, you offer a very interesting portrayal of the situation. I’ll have to give it some considerable thought.