March 16, 2012

Book Review: Reality is Broken

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World contains a wealth of good ideas for improving how the real world functions. Unfortunately, like any utopian treatise, none of them will work. For in the end, behind all the self-adulation, pep-talk language, and feel-good persuasions, this book is little more than yet another utopian daydream about how the writer believes the world really ought to work. After all, if it worked according to her vision everyone would be so very much happier, especially her.

Dr. McGonigal has collected public and private grants throughout her career and used this "free" money to develop and deploy a series of "alternate reality games". Two of the more successful ones were "The Lost Ring" and "EVOKE". However, even here "success" is measured in the thousands of global participants, not tens of thousands, and certainly not the millions that she hoped for. A game designed to motivate people to participate in and evangelize what in the end is yet another version of Marx's worker's paradise just does not provide the kind of intrinsic rewards that a player derives from Halo 4 or World of Warcraft (or even my personal favorite, City of Heroes!). This is because the fatal flaw in Dr. McGonigal's theory is the recognition that games carry zero real-world risk while "alternate reality games" involve meeting real people, treating them with real respect, tolerating their bad moods, and cooperating with them in achieving a goal designed to improve someone else's life and not your own. Sadly, the vast majority of hardcore gamers do not subscribe to any form of alturism. They are generous with their guildmates and no one else.

Most of this book is very evangelical. It preaches the "need" to provide "meaningful" rewards in the workplace. It assumes that everyone (or at least, almost everyone) hates the work they derive their living from. While it is true that many people hate their jobs, it is equally true that many people love their jobs. The core aspect of job satisfaction does not come from anything any employer can provide. It comes from the individual's own ability to see the value of their job and to gain satisfaction from the contribution they are making toward a larger enterprise, irrespective of their salary. This internal mechanism is always "on" for some of us and never "on" for others. Making work more "meaningful" in the ways she defines might help a few people, but unless the individual is predisposed to perceive the value in their work it will only generate more cynicism and bitter feelings.

Many companies around the world have expended great effort and expense looking for ways to make employment more meaningful. Outdoor Products, National Panasonic, Honda Motor Company, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, and even McDonald's are just a few of the tens of thousands of global employers who have entire departments dedicated to finding ways to increase the level of employee satisfaction and morale. These companies are already using MMORPG-style reward systems to motivate their employees, or as Dr. McGonigal might say, "to create meaning" in their workforce. But Dr. McGonigal does not provide a single example of a real-world company using game techniques to enhance the work environment. Not even McDonald's, who she worked closely with while developing "The Lost Ring".

In a very real sense, "The Lost Ring" is as much a product of the fertile minds in McDonald's marketing department as it is a product of her own ingenuity. Yet, like most modern academics, she ignores the contribution made by McDonald's staff and talks about "The Lost Ring" as if it were entirely her own idea, implemented on her own initiative, and deployed with her own money rather than a collaboration between she and McDonald's well-funded, well-organized, and highly creative international marketing team. Her book gives the very clear impression (and a false impression it is!) that McDonald's is a faceless, heartless global corporation that needed her sunny disposition and brilliant gaming mind to find a way to reach their customers. She lies about the "The Lost Ring" in order to inflate her own reputation and reinforce a Marxist view of corporations as evil.

Throughout the book she repeats the mantra that by 2023 she expects the Nobel Prize Committee to award their prize to a "hardcore gamer". Her entire book is, in far too many ways, nothing more than a sales pitch to the Committee to convince them that she alone is deserving of that prize.