National Writing Project

Book Review: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Change the World

By: Amy Gonzalez
Date: September 19, 2011

Summary: Game designer and Director of Game Research at the Institute For The Future, Jane McGonigal, argues that games can change the world for the better. Using theories from positive psychology, cognitive science, sociology, and philosophy, McGonigal connects how game playing can make us happier and more productive.


"What the world needs now are more epic wins: opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary things—like change or save someone's life everyday," writes Jane McGonigal in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World .

Contrary to the popular misconception that playing games is an alternative to working, McGonigal, a game designer and Director of Game Research at the Institute for the Future, describes game playing as hard work in which we voluntarily take on unnecessary obstacles. She uses a quote from Brian Sutton-Smith, a psychologist of play, as a starting point for what games can do. "The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression," she writes.

When we consider the clinical definition of depression, "a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity", we begin to understand how games may reverse that. According to McGonigal, game play brings an "optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity." When focused on game play, neurological and physiological conditioning is happening at the same time, enabling people to think positively more often.

How often do you hear that you must find joy in the work you do? This is difficult in reality when teaching comes with the pressure of high-stakes standardized testing, criticism from people who have never observed your classroom, and the reality of working harder for fewer benefits. In addition, it is often hard to see the immediate impact of our teaching, which would otherwise allow us to build our confidence.

I have heard many student comments like, "Miss, this is too much," reflecting that they feel the same way about the tasks they have to do, In these working conditions, a particularly helpful take away from Mcgonigal's book is the biological phenomenon called eustress (pronounced you-stress). Eustress is experienced when people are able to choose the kind of hard work for themselves that they want to undertake, and it is different from the common form of negative stress. Eustress affects our adrenaline, reward circuitry, and blood flow, as does negative stress. But with eustress, our thinking is different. The stimulation and optimism we feel when meeting a challenge we choose energizes rather than drains us.

The Right Hard Work

In Reality is Broken, McGonigal classifies different types of hard work and describes how "the right hard work takes different forms at different times for different people":

  1. High-Stakes Work: This offers both the possibility of both big success and failure. You have to think fast, and there is a lot of action.
  2. Busywork: This is predictable and monotonous work that focuses our mind on a clear result.
  3. Mental Work: This work asks us to figure things out either in a timed or non-timed manner.
  4. Physical Work: Anything that gets your heart pumping faster and releases those endorphins.
  5. Teamwork: Work that asks you to collaborate, cooperate, and contribute to a larger group.

All the gold star stickers in the world are not going to increase student motivation to learn.

McGonigal also makes note of the neurochemical high, fiero, brought about by the positivity that game playing can engender. Fiero is an Italian word for "pride." McGonigal explains that fiero has "been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don't have a good word for in English." You feel and see fiero when it happens. It's when you feel so triumphant, you throw your arms up and yell. I have had moments of joy in the classroom, but nothing like fiero.

How Games Feed Our Hunger for More Engagement With the World

A useful starting point into understanding how games work and how they can possibly be applied to classroom instruction begins with McGonigal's four essential traits of games:

1. Goal: The purpose of the game. The outcome players will achieve.
2. Rules: Limitations are placed on how players can achieve the goal; that way, they are encouraged to use creativity and strategic thinking.
3. Feedback System: Provided in real time, it tells players the goal is achievable and provides points, levels, or progress bars.
4.Voluntary Participation: Everyone has to willingly accept the goal, rules, and feedback system. This freedom of choice is what keeps intentionally challenging work a safe and pleasurable activity.

Notice how there is nothing here about extrinsic rewards. The idea of "winning" is not even essential, as McGonigal points out that not every game is made to win, referring to Tetris as a prime example. As many of us in education believe, all the gold star stickers in the world are not going to increase student motivation to learn (see Alfie Kohn ). We know that to build life-long learners we've got to create environments and lessons that make intrinsic rewards possible. McGonigal's research in positive psychology led her to categorize intrinsic rewards this way:

1. Satisfying work
2. The experience, or at least the hope of, being successful
3. Social connection
4. Meaning or the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves

Furthermore, McGonigal draws attention to the fact that these intrinisic rewards all have to do with engaging others and our environment.

As an educator, I can see how I can vary the type of work I develop in my classroom. I can focus on how I can structure the work around these four categories of intrinsic rewards. However, how is it possible to design an activity like Tetris, in which there is no end in sight, no "winning," that will motivate students to continue?

Part of the answer lies in feedback. Games like Tetris are addictive because of the amount and types of feedback. There is visual (pieces falling into place), quantitative (score), and qualitative (levels become more challenging) feedback. Educators understand the importance of feedback on student work, but the challenge is deciding how and when to provide that feedback. McGonigal admits that the intensity and variety of feedback is greater in digital games than nondigital games. Still, even having the forms of feedback described in her book gives me ideas of how I can implement visual, quantitative, and qualitative feedback on student work.

Reinventing Schools

"When we know what it means to play a good game, we can stop reminding each other: This isn't a game. We can start actively encouraging people instead: This could be a game," states McGonigal at the end of chapter one. In chapter seven, McGonigal explains how in the fall of 2009 one public charter school in New York changed school into a game called Quest to Learn .

To illustrate how students learn at Quest To Learn, McGonigal includes the schedule of a sixth grader and analyzes the intrinsic value of each assignment. The subjects are the same as those taught in traditional schools with math, science, English, history, etc., during the day. The difference is students choose assignments, often called "missions." Many of these mission are uncovered through the deciphering of secret codes (for more, see the New York Times article on Quest to Learn, Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom ).

McGonigal writes, "Obviously, not all schoolwork can be special, secret missions. But when every book could contain a secret code, every room a clue, every handout a puzzle, who wouldn't show up to school more likely to participate, in the hopes of being the first to find the secret challenges?"

Another difference between Quest to Learn and traditional schooling is the replacement of grades with a "level up" system, where students earn points as they tackle more quests or missions. The harder students work, the more points they get. Students are also connected to a social network where they can describe their skills and interests in the hopes of being called on to collaborate on a team project.

Issues of equity in education affect how schools can improve using innovative strategies, but during these times it is more important than ever for administrators and educators alike to remain optimistic that they can bring about positive change. In the education profession, we are working hard, yet feel like we are losing our way when test scores do not improve and criticism from those with little teaching experience abounds.

The reality is our students are voluntarily taking on hard work, whether it be in the form of sports, video/computer games, board games, or card games, to name a few. McGonigal's book, Reality is Broken, brings hope that with collaboration and planning we can begin to structure meaningful and motivating hard work by using games for our students and ourselves.

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