Reality Is Broken: An expert makes the case for videogames

Did San Francisco writer Jane McGonigal, a UC Berkeley Ph.D, technology-conference keynote habitué, and director of game research and development for Palo Alto's Institute for the Future, really need to write a book?

Perhaps she got pulled aside at TED or SXSW Interactive by some hungry agent with a head full of strategies for padding seminars into salable general-interest publishing commodities. One such strategy is the red herring of manifesto, by which McGonigal's new tome seems unduly hampered. Otherwise a mashup of positive-psychology digest, proselytizing memoir and litany of boosterish game reviews, Reality Is Broken nonetheless goes through the motions of informing us that gamers everywhere are abandoning our "broken" reality, and we're all screwed unless we design more games to fix it.

Self-evidently an optimist, a geek, and a sweetheart, McGonigal is easy to like. Alarmism doesn't seem her natural style. Anyway, there's not much controversy left in her dutifully substantiated idea that games in general and videogames in particular do make people happy in real terms — that just because something can be a huge waste of time and human potential doesn't mean it must be. We mostly understand by now that whenever technology affords abundant new cultural opportunities for creative, intelligent people, the culture those people make will include new tools for improving the quality of human life.

By staying focused on reiterating the case that games help us help ourselves, McGonigal sometimes blinkers her own vision. "If we're feeling depressed or lonely," she writes, "we might not have the emotional reserves to get up and get out, or to contact a real-life friend or family member. Playing a game online ... can be a stepping stone to a more positive emotional state and, with it, more positive social experiences." Yes, and so can reading a book. You needn't be a regressive culture warrior, discrediting games at your own peril, to point this out. For all her occasional stabs at historical context, McGonigal still proceeds as if people never gave gold-star stickers before giving virtual +1s, never played charades before playing WarioWare, or never picked up real instruments before picking up Rock Band.

She's insightful about how we prefer to have our problems reframed as "voluntary obstacles," and perceptive about the means by which our games illuminate our lives, from simulator pragmatism to performance-art frolic. Clearly she's an expert on how game designers, including her, are trying hard to make household chores more fun, avert oil shortages, or just correct that disconnected feeling we all sometimes get from living in the digital world. But when she waxes lyrical about looking for deeper meaning, it only underscores the shallowness of the meaning we do get from collectively killing 10 billion virtual aliens in Halo 3.

In her acknowledgments, McGonigal playfully grants her editors "+50 Epic Guidance" for "ensuring that I use the word 'awesome' fewer than a hundred times in the final manuscript." They should've kept a similar check on her pet phrase "without a doubt" — if not for its suspicious strenuousness, at least for its tendency to evoke a haunting passage from Tom Bissell's recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter: "I do know that videogames have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt."

It's this considered ambivalence, and real literary ambition, that makes Bissell's book a more rewarding read on the same subject. But of course McGonigal's book isn't literature; it's a presentation, repackaged as a book and stretched out to nearly 400 pages. Good thing she has what's needed most to pull it off: gameness.

Jane McGonigal reads from and discussesReality Is Broken on Thursday, Jan. 27, at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight (at Cole), S.F. 7:30 p.m. free; 863-8688 or www.booksmith.com.

 
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