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Reality Is Broken

Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

By Jane McGonigal

As William Flew says, "playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." Compared with games, reality is easy - games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use. For example golf - you have a clear goal; you and yr friends have agreed to make the goal more challenging than it reasonably shd be; and it has a clear feedback system.

Tetris one of the most addictive computer video games, even though you cannot win - the game simply gets harder and harder until you fail. But as you play, you get three types of intense feedback: Visual, as row after row disappears, Quantitative, as score displayed, and Qualitative, as you realise it's getting harder and harder.

The thing about most computer games is that you're always playing at the very edge of yr skill level, always on the brink of falling off. And when you do fall off, you want to try again. This is 'flow': you don't want to win and end, you want to keep playing.

Traditional games tell you the rules first and then let you play; computer games put you in a situation where you don't know what to do - you have to learn to play by watching what the game allows and how it responds to yr input.

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good hard work. The opposite is depression, in which we suffer two things - a pessimistic feeling of inadequacy, and a despondent lack of activity.

In the real world, hard work is something yr forced to do, usually with the fear of failing in front of peers and superiors, you get no feedback, and it's usually not hard enough - leaves you feeling underutilized and unappreciated.

Flow: in the past took years of practice to get to the stage where basic skills automatic and you cd immerse yourself in the experience - say, dancing in crowded streets during Carnival, or skiing down a challenging mountainside. But video games deliver that immediately - very tight feedback loop - every micro-level of difficulty you survive gives you another quick emotional high.

Cannot find/buy happiness - have to make it by working hard at activities that provide own reward. When focus on extrinsic (outside yourself) rewards, like money, material goods, status - make us feel good when we get them, but the reward doesn't last.

But opposite when concentrate on intrinsic rewards - work hard on goals that develop personal strengths, and build personal relationships.

We crave: satisfying work, success, social connection, meaning.

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World of Warcraft started 2004, and as of Jan 2010 has 11.5 million players worldwide, paying $5million a day subscriptions. Primary job is self-improvement. You have an avatar and yr job is to make that avatar better in as many ways as possible - better, stronger, richer - more experienced, more abilities, more skills and a better reputation. You earn rep points with constant work flow of quests, battles and training - the more points you earn, the higher yr level, which means the more challenging the work. Takes at least 500 hours to develop yr avatar to maximum capability, which is when the fun really starts. A guy who got a PhD in W of W (yes, really!) reckoned it was actually a workplace disguised as a game. "Computers were made to work for us, but video games have come to demand that we work for them."

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With office work it's difficult to see any tangible result from yr efforts - even if you try really hard nothing changes. This is what makes computer games more 'real' than reality - seems like you're doing something meaningful because get real results and change the world. You feel like you accomplish far more in W of W than do IRL.

Games only fun as long as haven't mastered them - learning is the drug.

Depression - why is it still in our gene pool? Must have some benefit otherwise wd have been bred out long ago. Suggest that it's a mechanism to stop us falling victim to blind optimism and squandering resources on unattainable goals. If persist in pursuing unattainable goals, depression kicks in. Perhaps this mechanism is responsible for the epidemic of depression in US - the media dangles extreme possible goals in front of average people - fame, fortune and glory, all supersized. Kids grow up being told that they can achieve anything they set their hearts on. But nobody tells them about the need to develop real skills and abilities, or to do the hard yards.

So instead of going after the goals we might realistically achieve, we get distracted by unachievable ambitions.

Schools - growing disconnect between classrooms and vivid virtual worlds kids inhabit. This generation knows what it's missing. School full of mandatory, standardised work. Failures go on yr permanent record.

Quest to Learn a public charted school in New York partly funded by Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. Traditional subjects, but all in games. 'Levelling up' keep adding points to become a Master Storyteller or Mapmaker or Creative Writer etc. No failures; if one quest doesn't work, can get points elsewhere. Your profile is on an 'expertise exchange' where you advertise yr skills. Designed to encourage collaboration - build respect among peers, recognise that different people contribute in different ways. 'Teachable agents' for homework - software that knows less than you do, so you have to instruct.So don't need tests to demonstrate that you've learned something. Produces creative problem solvers, strong collaborators and innovative thinkers.

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SuperBetter health game. To fix any health or psychological problem, you need three strategies:
1. set goals, stay optimistic, focus on any progress
2. get help from friends and family
3. read your symptoms - how you feel tells you when to do more, do less, take breaks - so that can gradually work up to more demanding.

Designed to help recover from chronic illness or serious pain. Start with missions to do every day - James Bond type story lines where you fight off the bad guys (the things which kick off your symptoms).

Other games you create avatars which you customize to look like you and which you put in Facebook profile or desktop. They gain or lose weight as you exercise. People say they want to exercise to 'keep the avatar happy'.

Folding@Home: Everything that happens in our bodies is done by proteins. There are more than 100,000 different proteins, each with 100-1000 different parts. To do its job, each kind of protein folds up into a unique shape. Even if you know the amino acids that make up the protein, its still impossible to predict the shape it will fold into.

Researchers realized that a supercomputer available free - games consoles are purpose-designed to process large amounts of visual data. So got gamers to donate spare processing time when not using - now most of the research is done on these virtual supercomputers.

excerpt from NY Times Review of Books:

"Jane McGonigal, the author of "Reality Is Broken," sees the Internet differently. She's a game designer. To her, the virtual world isn't a foreign contraption. It's our own evolving creation. She agrees that bad online games can addict people, make them belligerent, distract them from reality and leave them empty. But this is our fault, not the Internet's. When virtual life brings out the worst in us, redesign it.

In the rise of multiplayer games, she sees a happier picture of human nature - a thirst for community, a craving for hard work and a love of rules. This, she argues, is the essence of games: rules, a challenge and a shared objective. The trick is to design games that reward good behavior. The Internet's unprecedented power, its ability to envelop and interact with us, is a blessing, not a threat. We can build worlds in which nice guys finish first."

Read full review here

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