Monday, February 21, 2011

Books are not Broken

Today is a good lesson in hubris and opportunity. The post is a bit late because I have the day off today, and I figured I'd just knock it out this morning rather than do it the night before, as I usually do. Little did I suspect that it would be the kind of morning that disallows time to write until sometime well after things should be posted. So, that's a humbling reminder.

But it also made for an opportunity. Having finished the audiobook of Reality is Broken, I was initially going to take a swing at my review of it today. I've spent much of the weekend thinking about the book and my own reaction to it, both good and bad, without really concluding anything. I had a surprise inspiration this morning, while listening to my next audiobook, The Goal.

Now, The Goal has been an interesting read, but for reasons totally unrelated to games. It's a fictionalized account of how a manufacturing plant improves its means of production and a love story. It's something Paul Tevis spoke well of, and I never ignore the man's suggestions. It's been interesting, doubly so since it's a fairly old book (it's from the eighties) so there was a mix of pre-technology thinking (like no cel phones and needing to specify "computer printout" and "laptop computer") with business idea that were familiar. In this case, familiarity is not a criticism, rather, it's indicative of how much I have seen the influence of this book in other things I've read. Anyway, good stuff for the business nerds, maybe less so for the gaming nerds.

The bit that jumped out at me was in the afterward, where the author talks about his experiences since writing the book. It was a big success, and the methods in the book were demonstrably useful, but getting people from agreement to implementation was (as it always is) a substantial hurdle. In talking about the methods he tried, he quite casually mentions that one of the most obvious and successful approaches was the creation of a computer game to illustrate the principals. Here's this decades-old book making an off-the-cuff comment about the utility of games like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

And the thing is - I suppose it is.

And that's when I realized where Reality is Broken and I parted ways. While the early chapters provide some very interesting and useful analysis about what makes a game, that's not really what the book is about. There is a division between the act of playing the game (and what that can accomplish) and the game itself which needs acknowledgment. That is, a game may improve the player (teach skills, for example) or it may improve a situation (the players figure out how to solve a problem) but those are different (if related) outputs.

RiB skimps on the former in favor of the latter. Not because it's being lax, but rather because it's clear the author's passion is in the big game (a fact which makes the strongly self-promotional nature of Reality is Broken less irksome to me than it is in other). That is, the ARGs she's most excited about are ones where the game as a whole does something good to improve the world. Improvement to the player gets a mention, but it's treated far more shallowly - akin to games of "Who can pick up their room faster?" that parents have been trying to sell to kids forever. (The one exception to this is quest for learning school system, which the book provides a fantastic account of, but little analysis. It felt out of place, though it was great to read about).

Seeing this has made the book both better and worse for me. That perspective does and interesting job of aligning it with the fantastic Gamestorming, which is also about using games to do things, but on a much more personal scale (which makes it less dramatic, but more practical as well), and with that goal more clearly in mind, I think the book does a decent job.

Sadly, that's not what i was looking for. Not the book's fault, of course, but there it is. See, I'm already sold on games being awesome. I take it as a given. But I want to know HOW to make them more awesome. I want to embrace the range of their strengths (consider modeling vs creation alone - HUGE mileage there) and talk about how to use those strengths usefully. I am annoyed and frustrated when the only thing we can takeaway from games is points and ribbons, thus more or less missing the entire point. I had been hoping that RiB was the book to bring me closer to those answers, but it wasn't.

This is, I suspect, going to stand in lieu of a review, so here's the bottom line: reality is broken is worth reading, though a library copy will probably do the job. It's got some very interesting ideas about what makes a game and how they relate to work, and while they're under-explored, they're definitely thought provoking. The book it awash in conclusions and assertions that I disagree with, but they're thoughtfully made.

On the downside, it's a bit jargon heavy, and in parts outright disturbing in its tone. Matters that raise questions of bullying, addiction and indoctrination are all blithely discussed under a cheerful umbrella of "positive psychology" to an extent that left me uncomfortable at times. I think everyone who has spent time thinking about games and game culture knows there are downsides, but you wouldn't know that from this book. That omission really weakens the foundation of things.

So, there it is. It's worth a read, and I'm glad I did, but it left me waiting for something that's not here yet.


  1. McGonigal's passion is clear. I haven't read this specific work, but have read McGonigal's work and games in the past.

    Fairly/unfairly, I put her in with the "gamification" group. And Gamification is not *bad*, but as a person who also loves games I feel that trying to make games *important* a) is redundant b) is an odd justification.

    I guess I'm going too have to read the book too so that I can critique it effectively.

  2. I just finished Reality is Broken this weekend as well. I was also made uncomfortable by the unrelenting up-beatness and optimism, but that may just be because I'm a jaded and hyper-mediated generation younger than the author and, I presume, the main audience.

    That said, I do think there are important lessons to draw here about what motivates people to donate time and work, and how to access the forces and motivations that bring people together into collaborative groups.

    However, I don't think there's too much here that's useful for "analog" games (pen-and-paper RPGs, board games, etc) past the analysis of the four components of a good game (which I think is smart and spot-on). I have a very "left-in-the-dust" feel as an analog game designer, actually. I'll be over here with my dinosaur bones as the social-media-based ARGs save the world.

  3. @Nathan If it's any consolation, my positive takeaway is that we understand the part missing from her equation. Big scope is all well and good, but however big the game, it's still people, and people is what we do.

    An even more cogent positive argument is David Gray's Gamestorming. Personal scale games, making things happen. Totally in our wheelhouse.

    I may delusional, but I'm not going to pasture just yet!

  4. I haven't read anything about ARGs, Gamification, or "games in the real world." Do you recommend a place to start? My current obsession is project management and it sounds like Gamestorming would be a worthwhile read.

  5. @Ox Gamestorming is definitely worth the read, and it's very practical in its application of games to problem solving and creativity. One of its strengths is that it has no broader "gamification" agenda. It's just a useful book.

    (That said, if you want a truly kickass Project Managment book, I can't say enough good things about Berkun's, "Making Things Happen")


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