Reality Is Broken, By Jane McGonigal

Reviewed,Pat Kane
Friday 25 February 2011 01:00 GMT

It has been strange to read a book which claims that reality is listless, uninspiring and broken compared to computer games as the Arab revolutions swarm across our screens. We watch real citizens defy real riot police in order to achieve real control of public space and institutions. At this moment, it's not that easy to hear Jane McGonigal tell us that immersion among the trolls and space warriors of virtual worlds is a way to recover our sense of epic idealism and heroic altruism.

But even in the blazing context of the new Arab dawn, McGonigal might have a point. One of the cheekier posters held up by the Tunisian youth in their mass protests was "Game Over": and we know generally how much cyber-culture enabled the fall of Ben Ali.

Even though Mubarak in Egypt was sharp enough to hit the off-switch early, it didn't seem to matter anyway. Digital-era protestors were already planning to play around with the oppressive reality of Egyptian public life. Remarkably like the "alternate reality games" that McGonigal has created in the streets of major cities for corporate clients, young activists began to stage creative protests that subtly reclaimed their streets. They flash-mobbed in city centres to sing the national anthem; they dressed in black and stood silently beside the Nile.

Egyptian street tactics for the initial "day of rage" on 25 January - in the words of activist Ahmed Salah, aiming "to be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces]" - sound exactly like the kind of collaborative, laterally-thinking play that McGonigal (and others, like Steven Johnson and Tom Chatfield) celebrate as the core cognitive benefit of computer games. Sociologists, here's a brief: how has interactive culture shaped a new sense of civic confidence among Arab youth?

Reality Is Broken is the most powerful justification yet for computer games as one of our central literacies - parallel to literature or movies in the way they connect our motivations and energies with the challenges of understanding and intervening in our social worlds. As with literacy in the first Enlightenment, the huge popular embrace of this medium provides a rich test-bed for new grand theories about human nature and society.

Armed with an impressive bibliography in psychology and neuroscience, McGonigal makes the claim that the huge rush towards gameplay is a kind of exodus from what Theodor Adorno called "damaged life" - work that doesn't satisfy, relationships that don't persist, societies that don't find a place for hope or ambition. She brilliantly links the growing scholarship on happiness to the gimmicks and tricks that commercial game designers devise to engage their febrile audiences. Games help us get off the "hedonic treadmill", in which our consumer choices are fated never to satisfy us, and help us build up what she calls hedonic resilience.

The tough challenges we willingly embrace in computer games generate an internal sense of satisfaction that spills over into other areas of our lives. For example, and counter-intuitively, she cites numerous studies that heavy social gamers display greater levels of community-mindedness than non-gamers.

Ambitiously, McGonigal wants to take that emerging swell of human engagement and connect it to the solution of real-world problems. She has been involved in games about peak oil and other global instabilities, where the fun comes from playing out possible futures, using comic strips, web videos and elaborate avatars.

McGonigal begins and ends her book with Herodotus's tale of the Lydians, who turned to dice games to help them get through their 18 years of famine - and then played one final, giant game, drawing lots to choose which half of the population would leave the country to seek prosperity elsewhere. Her point is that games can both raise spirits and build collective understanding, particularly at moments of extreme crisis.

As Arab activists grapple with the grown-up difficulties of a free public sphere, they may currently have a less-than-ludic take on their "broken" reality. But there was an imaginative component of these protests which took its cue from something other than the usual verities about civil rights. As McGonigal might say: watch this game-space.

Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan

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