Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken”

It’s taken a while to appear, but my piece for the Observer on Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken has come out. The book has been extremely widely reviewed, but I hope this brings out some of the larger philosophical issues that surround it. You can read the piece on the Guardian website here or, now that the Observer is off sale, below in a slightly edited version.

Excluding extinction, science fiction has traditionally imagined three possible futures for intelligent species: the stable, the exponential and the solipsistic. A stable future means reaching equilibrium, while an exponential one means expansion at an ever-increasing rate. A solipsistic future is the most intriguing, however – for this means a complete retreat from the universe into some other, manufactured realm. Solipsism answers the physicist Enrico Fermi’s famous question “where are all the aliens?” with a simple proposal: they’re all playing computer games.

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken makes it clear that humanity is starting to face a related question. Globally, we now play over three billion hours of videogames each week. We are seeing a mass migration of human effort, attention, relationships and identities towards artificial worlds designed expressly to entertain and enthral us. What does this mean – and what might we learn from it?

Despite its title, Reality is Broken is not a rallying call for virtual emigration. According to McGonigal – an American game designer and researcher with some of the last decade’s most ambitious experiments in gaming on her CV – what’s broken is not so much the physical world we inhabit as the social structures layered on top of it. “Today,” she argues, “many of us are suffering from a vast and primal hunger. But it is not a hunger for food – it is a hunger for more and better engagement.” Games, she believes, have far more to offer than solipsistic retreat.

The key insights of Reality is Broken, then, are not so much technological as psychological. “No object, no event, no outcomes or life circumstances can deliver real happiness to us. We have to make our own happiness – by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.” Electronic games, seen in this light, are not just a medium or even an art form. They are potent engines for creating and enhancing emotional experience: for making our lives “better”.

This word “better” is a problematic one. Are we better people, ethically, when we are happier? Sometimes, but by no means always. And determining what is best, either for an individual or for a society, is a fraught task. Yet McGonigal is persuasive and precise in explaining how games can transform our approach to those things we know we should do – and to those collaborations that might teach us what we don’t. We crave, she argues, “satisfying work” that allows us to be “optimistic about our own chances for success”; that involves “social connection”; and that allows us to feel “curiosity, awe and wonder”. This craving goes beyond simple, single definitions of happiness, moreover: it can also help us to work collectively, to maintain optimism against the odds, and to remember that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

McGonigal’s examples include remarkable projects like Foldit, a game that uses players’ spatial reasoning to model the three-dimensional structures of proteins, and her own game World Without Oil, which created collaborative solutions to the exhaustion of fossil fuels. But her account of how we can “make our own happiness” is as much a visionary appeal as it is a pragmatic one – something that shouldn’t be too surprising, given that game designers are not the only ones over the last few millennia to have tried changing the world via inspirational stories and incentives.

McGonigal is also adept at showing how good games expose the alarming insubstantiality of much everyday experience. The “work” undertaken within virtual worlds, she argues, often feels more meaningful than much of what passes for work in modern life. From human companionship to the creation of products we can be proud of, many of our lives are not real enough by half. It’s no coincidence that the world’s most popular game worlds invoke pastoral simplicities – farms, pseudo-medieval idylls – or that a hard day’s play within them revolves around trade skills or crop harvesting, albeit without the gruelling bother of back-breaking physical labour.

As we have always done, we slake our miseries with imagined worlds. Today, however, we are in a new position to learn and to act – or to opt out altogether. McGonigal is a passionate advocate for the former. Given the power and the darker potentials of the tools she describes, we must hope that the world is listening.