happiness zombies attack humanity, proving reality is broken


“Hey ladies, you know that creep at the office who’s always trying to give out free back rubs? What if I told you that science has finally invented the rolling travel creep for the girl on the go?” -VICE

I’ve been reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, thanks to an alert reader responding to my discussion of video games in “From This Point Forward.”

It’s good, which is pretty remarkable, considering the topic. I’m looking forward to writing about it in detail, including mentioning at least a few of McGonigal’s useful and far-reaching arguments.

But tonight is not that night. I haven’t finished the book yet, and I have not come to sing McGonigal’s praises.

Down below is a picture from McGonigal’s chapter on Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs. (They are called ARGs because most of the people who play them also celebrate National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day.) I call this picture “Happiness Zombies Attack Humans.” McGonigal helped design this particular ARG, and its goal is to induce people to engage in happiness-enhancing behaviors. See, there are these behaviors that make people happy. We know exactly what they are. Yet people won’t do them! It’s the darnedest thing. I mean, don’t people want to be happy?

Here’s why:

Outside the structure and social support of a clinical trial or classroom, these self-help recommendations are surprisingly hard to implement on our own… The first and most important reason is summed up best by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who laments, “Why do many of the most powerful happiness activities sound so . . . well, hokey?” Lyubomirsky earned a million-dollar research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to test a dozen different happiness activities—and she discovered that despite their incontrovertible effectiveness, many people resist even trying them. The most common complaint, according to Lyubomirsky? Happiness activities sound “corny,” “sentimental,” or Pollyannaish. (Reality Is Broken, 185)

Society, it seems, is to blame:

There’s an undeniable tendency toward irony, cynicism, and detachment in popular culture today, and throwing ourselves into happiness activities just doesn’t fit that emotional climate. (185)

Not in this ARG, though! In this game, you go around doing nice things for strangers, because you don’t know whether or not those strangers are on the opposing team. If so, you’ve eliminated them. Last team standing wins. Now here are the “moves” of the game, with my annotations in brackets:

Welcome your targets to beautiful (your neighborhood or city).
• Tell your targets, “You look gorgeous today!” [Then say, “But you look so tense. Would you like a backrub?”]

• Point out something amazing to your targets, such as, “Isn’t that an amazing bird!” [If they say, “No,” then say, “Fuck you, you fucking amazing bird hating motherfucker”]

• Praise your targets’ shoes. [“Nice shoes!” you know the rest]

• Offer to help your targets with something specific. [For example, offer to help them create their own infomercial! If they say “yes,” then go, “OK, where’s your movie studio, Mr. Infomercial? Because I am ready to move some volume!”]

• Thank your targets for something they’re doing right now. [For example, walking. You know, because they’re probably walking. If they stop walking because you’re thanking them for walking, say “Oh, great. Well now you’ve ruined it. You’re not doing the thing anymore, that you were doing before.”]

• Express “mind-boggling” admiration of your targets. [If they think you’re being sarcastic, say “If I was being sarcastic, would I really use the word ‘mind-boggling’ to describe how much I admire you?”]

• Wink and smile at your targets. [This can be combined with the shoe compliment.]

• Volunteer to answer any questions your targets have about something specific nearby. [After they ask, just start laughing uncontrollably, gasping for breath, until you begin to cry and yet are still emitting short little bursts of laughter. Say, “You’re asking me about WHAT NOW?! Oh, oh man. That is a good one. Whew.  Oh, sweet Jesus. You…you! OK, seriously though, what questions do you have for me?”]

Here’s why people think these kinds of activities are corny: because they are corny. The idea that you can reverse-engineer happiness by starting with the action, and then working your way back to the emotion, is the kind of idea that would only ever occur to one type of person: a researcher who can get research grants by telling people that they’ve discovered the secret to happiness.

Now, granted, McGonigal did get some people to volunteer to play, and some of them are in the picture. So let’s talk about them, and let’s be mean. The reason I’m being mean is quite simple: I shouldn’t have to be nice. Here they are:

happiness zombies attack humans

Together, the seven of them represent approximately $1.57 worth of social capital, and that’s including the woman in the upper left, who I can’t really see. Look at the guy on the lower left. First of all, that is a great shirt. It’s the kind of shirt that says, “…and I haven’t even been to Hawaii! I got this shirt just for casual Fridays!” What goes really well with that shirt is a beard (hides beer-related extra face) and jazz hands. The guy behind him is rocking a style I call “Dungeons & Paratroopers.” The woman — meh. Awful shoes, boring hair style, but still the best of the bunch. (Which is why she’s in the foreground.) Next to her, also foregrounded, is Captain Big Pants. I give him credit for at least wearing jeans. I wouldn’t talk to him, though, because I’m not interested in hearing about vaporizers. Behind him is A Guy Who Went To Some College. He wore those same sunglasses back then, too. He also had that same beard all through college. The only time he didn’t have that beard was when he got his driver’s license photo taken, and if you talk to him, the odds of you seeing that photo are 100%. Finally, on the far, far right, we have the bald man who makes his own fun. He’s so low-status, even in this group, that you can’t really see him. That’s why he’s bald — in the books about getting girls, they recommend it.

Here’s the deal. When McGonigal writes about Halo 3 or World of Warcraft, she’s persuasive, because so many people play these games that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you think they’re losers. Their popularity makes them an undeniable social fact. They also happen to be games where you can be violent, powerful, and (in WoW at least) beautiful, because they take place in virtual worlds. Then McGonigal tries to switch over, without missing a beat, to games where you are yourself and you have to be goofy and sappy, as if it’s all one. She has to do this, because otherwise, her argument that we can “move” games into the “real world” becomes harder to sell.

It’s not all one. Her game will never be impactful; if they weren’t doing this, these folks would all be doing some other, similarly dorky activity — in fact, whatever they’re not doing now, they’ll do next week. People like this drift restlessly from game to game, and from Assassin to flash mobs, caught between their aesthetic blind spots and the belief that they were meant for something better than Halo 3. 

McGonigal herself quantifies status in Reality is Broken, defining “high-status” and “low-status” behaviors in her discussion of teasing. She therefore has no excuse for pretending, when it comes to ARGs, that social hierarchies and stigmas don’t exist. She extols the virtues of extremely violent games, which makes it very hypocritical of her to then snipe at popular culture for being too jaded. Her message in the ARG chapter is pretty clear: we need to make reality better, so we should all applaud these strangers just for showing up, regardless of what they chose to wear. Halo 3 players, by contrast, don’t need anything from us, and that’s her point about Halo 3 — but she can’t have it both ways. Either games are a moral imperative, or they’re an inevitability.

I was talking to my friend tomemos this morning, and mentioned another ARG called Chore Wars, to which McGonigal gives a glowing review. He immediately sent me here:


Look at that jerk, refusing to play. What has he got to do that’s so much cooler than Chore Wars? What’s that in his hand? It’s — oh.