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

Saving the world in with video games

Dr. Jane McGonigal is a familiar voice in the world of video games: Game Developer Magazine named her to their list of “the 50 Most Important Game Developers,” while Gamsutra called her one of “the 20 Most Important Women in Videogaming”.  Increasingly, though, she’s a force to reckon with in larger economic issues. The Harvard Business Review named her work to its list of “Top 20 Business Breakthroughs” while BusinessWeek called her one of its “Top 10 Innovators to Watch”. Even Oprah Winfrey is getting in on the action, naming McGonigal one of “the 20 Most Inspiring Women in the World.”

So what’s all the fuss about? McGonigal’s central focus is summed up in the title of her latest book: Reality is Broken – Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. McGonigal believes that our current economic and social structures are flawed – that systemic inequality is leading youth around the world to increasingly disengage from society. In essence, reality is not fun – it does not provide positive feedback to billions around the world. She suggests that “alternative realities” are emerging in which games offer the satisfaction and sense of achievement that many cannot connect with in our broader society. She points out how players of the video game Halo – essentially an adventure game in which players cooperate to fight off an alien invasion of earth – gathered online to set themselves a goal: together, they will kill 10 billion aliens in the game. It took them 565 days to achieve this – and it took 15 million players to do it.

For many, our first reaction to this is to imagine what a colossal waste of time it is to task 15 million people with a year and a half of killing imaginary aliens. But McGonigal’s take is different – she sees a global community that banded together to unite in a single course of action, and have fun doing it. Imagine, she suggests, if we could mobilize this energy and zeal in support of other goals… If we could find ways to tackle our biggest problems and challenges as a global society and mobilize millions of people to work collaboratively for extended periods to achieve great things.  And to do this, we may just need to use games…

Regular readers of This is Not a Newsletter may recall competition-oriented economic development tools like innocentive.com, which offers cash prizes for research breakthroughs.  Others may be familiar with economic development simulation games, like the Prairie Futures game recently developed by Palliser Economic Partnership in Alberta with the consulting firm Future IQ Partners. And while these tools are useful and engaging, McGonigal’s work points to where economic development goes next. In an era of online economies and virtual communities, we must learn to engage a digital generation that believes our current reality is broken – to incorporate their views and their paradigm – shattering technologies and entrepreneurial ventures into our future economic development work, we need to understand what comes next.  Jane McGonigal helps to show the way.

Though written by a woman who is both a successful software developer and a PhD-bearing academic, Reality is Broken is accessible, engaging and highly recommended. You can purchase the book at a discount here.