It may be time to stop thinking that what goes down in a game world like Azeroth has no impact on the "real world."
As gaming and real life converge, Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin, 388 pp., illustrated, $26.95) is the right book at the right time. McGonigal proposes a fascinating and provocative, if troubling, manifesto that adds to our understanding of the appeal and potential power of digital games.
McGonigal's central thesis is this: Reality is discouraging, unproductive, disconnected, and broken in about a dozen other ways. Meanwhile, electronic games are already "fulfilling genuine human needs," she writes, in ways that our real lives often fail to. If lessons learned from Call of Duty or Wii boxing were applied to everyday life, could reality be "fixed"? Could day-to-day drudgery be slayed?
McGonigal replies: Game on!
"Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we're good at" and make us "a part of something bigger." Make life more game-like, and completing an onerous task becomes cake. Make reducing energy consumption like a video game with a scoreboard, and we'd get split-second feedback. Instead of receiving magical swords, we'd get the reward of knowing our progress. Or even feel "fiero," that emotional high after triumph on the battle or playing field. Log into a volunteering game with a "mission dashboard'' of "available quests'' and doing good feels like an adventure. We'd "level up" like a humanitarian avatar.
McGonigal is a clear, methodical writer, and her ideas are well argued. Assertions are backed by countless psychological studies. Yet it's hard to forget that McGonigal's rosy recommendations stem from a rather pessimistic view of what life doesn't provide: not enough encouragement, not enough meaningful hard work, insufficient structure, no way to fail in safe ways. You have to buy these critiques for her thesis to work.
You also have to believe that games induce not just post-game hooting and back-slapping, but lasting behavioral impact. McGonigal says we're already making strides with alternate reality games like Nike+, which automatically logs miles you run and lets you amicably compete against other runners. It even creates a digital "Mini" who resembles you - and whose mood depends on how often you hit the road. The game's 2 million-strong player base suggests it works. The effects of an alternative reality contest like Chore Wars are more dubious. Players create avatars and embark on epic tasks like "Conjuring clean clothes," aka doing the laundry. The more chores you do, the more virtual gold you stockpile, later redeemable for real world rewards like allowance or drinks. But is this more enduring or effective than a work wheel posted on the fridge?
In the final section of Reality Is Broken, McGonigal's argument lies closer to hope than practicality. She wants to create "very big games" - massive, collaborative problem-solving projects - that will tackle issues like hunger, cancer, and poverty. In one existing, smaller-scale example, editors of the Guardian newspaper asked readers to sift through records of expense reports from British MPs and flag abuses. Not technically a video game, the crowd-sourced project created a puzzle-solving urgency, and ended with real world results: Several MPs resigned. Whether such a strategy could be as effective in fighting a scientifically, medically, and socially complex problem like cancer seems less likely.
Games do expand creativity and forward thinking. That we do need rewards and ways to feel heroic is clear. Yet this "games fix all" gospel feels blindered. McGonigal pushes a game called Foursquare, wherein you use a mobile device to "check in" your location at a club or museum. Knowing I'm at the local watering hole is supposed to encourage my pals to scurry away from their computers to meet me. Suddenly, getting a beer feels like a game of hide-and-seek.
But do we really want another device to check, another message to send? I go to my corner cafe to see friendly faces because I enjoy chance encounters. If I want to meet a friend for coffee, I'll text him. My sense of community is largely created by spending face-time time in it, not by uploading another set of data.
McGonigal's dream of making life more game-like, and making gaming more life-like, is admirable. Yet I suspect we'll keep playing games for diversion and to forge connections. Learn a few things along the way - how to play well with others - sure. But we need not necessarily become better humans once the computer is turned off. We just want to have fun.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, critic, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com.