paragon: jane mcgonigal’s “reality is broken”

game over manThe sheer number of games I invented or modified during my youth is both amazing and typical. Ninja Hide. Best Path. Tennis Baseball. Elder Dragon Wars. Fatal Leap. Cheater. Pothole Racing. I modified games like Dungeons & Dragons whenever I didn’t like the rules. My friends and I spent a lot of hours making major rule-related decisions and arguing specific cases. It was exercise, negotiation, litigation, and literature.

In several cases, games have sustained or revived a friendship, and I mean friendship in the fullest sense, where we played together but also supported each other and shared the details of our lives. The friendships have outlasted the games, emerging all the stronger. I haven’t really made new friends through games, but I can certainly attest to their social value.

Games have also taught me a lot about myself. In resource-based games like Risk or Starcraft, I tend to be very conservative, fortifying my territories and looking for choke points. In fixed asset games like chess or capture-the-flag, I’m incredibly aggressive, and prefer gambits and sacrifices. I like simple, multipurpose upgrades and tools, and I dislike path dependency — for example, some super-weapon that takes six different steps to build.

Because of the taboos against gaming, Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken serves a valuable purpose: it suggests, persuasively, that we shouldn’t feel guilty about games. McGonigal demonstrates that gaming is now something people do all the time, that gaming does translate into real world skills and benisons, and that there is an intimate connection between motivation and game-like thinking.

Probably the greatest value of McGonigal’s book lies in the possibility of creating games. She is a game creator herself, and her attempts at solving or improving things with games are inspiring. This book made me think more, and more boldly, about creating games, especially in social situations and in the classroom.

The book is only a starting point. Throughout the book, McGonigal structures and justifies her games through “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” and cognitive science. This is not only unnecessary, it’s a real stumbling block. Everything she says about the brain’s response to gaming is equally true of drug use. In other words, not everything that releases dopamine or stimulates the cerebral cortex is automatically good. Meanwhile, the sections about positive psychology and happiness research are plain depressing. They are all versions of Pascal’s “kneel, and you will believe”: smile, and you will be happy. Sure, I want to be happy, but turning life into an endless game of Simon Says doesn’t accomplish that. The message is simply too clear: you are such a painful case that every time you dance, you earn ten points! Can you get all the way up to a hundred? Can you? I just know you can!

McGonigal has also created a book that is optimally non-offensive (and therefore pretty limited) by omitting two major parts of life: politics and sex. One of the most obvious applications of her gaming-as-motivation theory would be creating voting games. The very nature of voting, with its zero-sum choices and competitive tallies, suggests an analogy to games and makes elections an ideal proving-ground for them. Even so, she doesn’t tackle this or any other political game. The result is a book about changing the world that never, not once, mentions the people who currently make the rules or the structures that enforce them.

Not a single game mentioned in the book has anything to do with dating, romance, or sex. I’m not sure why this is, but I can guess. Between the popular idea of seduction and dating as games, and the fact that porn is probably the only Internet phenomenon that can compete with gaming… well, the comparisons are unsavory ones. However, ignoring them does no good. McGonigal talks constantly about the neurochemistry of touch and excitement, without even glancing in the direction of arousal, flirtation, etc. These are just as powerful, neurochemically; honestly, they’re much more powerful. By not mentioning sex, she makes all the touchy-feely new-wave games seem compensatory and a little creepy.


I’ll close with this observation. Games that make people feel powerful — desirable, commanding, effective — work. Games that make people feel smart also work. Feeling that way has intrinsic value. Furthermore, gamers live a version of the “life of the mind,”  which has always had many positive features. Asceticism. Awareness of death.  Idealism. Commitment to causes greater than oneself.

We ought to content ourselves with that.

Games with ulterior motives do not work, and the reason is their phony, sentimental representation of real life. The rice that I win by playing on is perfectly predictable, and always “does good,” at least in theory. The game of “Cruel 2 B Kind,” instead of focusing on rice, focuses on random acts of kindness. It produces mixed reactions from strangers, but regardless of what happens, there’s no follow-up. The game assumes the act “worked,” not necessarily within the game, but always in the real world.

One bad sign is a ban on criticism. In sappy games that don’t work, you can only win points and praise. In games like Halo 3, you can get yelled at, before and during and after any game. You can find yourself reassigned to a different, weaker multiplayer bracket. The games are so much fun that being criticized isn’t a dealbreaker.

I prefer the model that EA uses in the Mass Effect games. There are two types of character-building: Paragon and Renegade. Some actions build one, some build the other. You can’t earn both at the same time. If you earn too many Renegade points, you literally start to come apart at the seams. Plus, once you start going in one direction, it’s easier to get those points — it’s a feedback loop. I think I know, roughly, what the creators mean by Paragon and Renegade. Still, I make wrong guesses, with no idea what I should have picked.

Unpredictable misunderstandings. Missed opportunities. Burnout. Virtuous and vicious circles. All this, for an occasional breakthrough.

Welcome to the desert of the Real.