EXCERPT: Reality Is Broken
The following excerpt is from *”Reality Is Broken” *by Jane McGonigal. Learn more about the book.
Reality Is Broken
Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
THE PENGUIN PRESS
Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others.
I see a hurricane coming.
Over the next generation or two, ever larger numbers of
people, hundreds of millions, will become immersed in virtual
worlds and online games. While we are playing, things
we used to do on the outside, in “reality,” won’t be happening
anymore, or won’t be happening in the same way. You
can’t pull millions of person-hours out of a society without
creating an atmospheric-level event.
If it happens in a generation, I think the twenty-first
century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused
by cars, radios, and TV, combined. . . . The exodus of these
people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will
create a change in social climate that makes global warming
look like a tempest in a teacup.
Exodus to the Virtual World1
Gamers have had enough of reality.
They are abandoning it in droves–a few hours here, an entire
weekend there, sometimes every spare minute of every day for stretches
at a time–in favor of simulated environments and online games. Maybe you
are one of these gamers. If not, then you definitely know some of them.
Who are they? They are the nine-to-fivers who come home and apply all
of the smarts and talents that are underutilized at work to plan and coordinate
complex raids and quests in massively multiplayer online games like Final
Fantasy XI and the Lineage worlds. They’re the music lovers who have invested
hundreds of dollars on plastic Rock Band and Guitar Hero instruments
and spent night after night rehearsing, in order to become virtuosos of video
They’re the World of Warcraft fans who are so intent on mastering the
challenges of their favorite game that, collectively, they’ve written a quarter
of a million wiki articles on the WoWWiki–creating the single largest wiki
after Wikipedia. They’re the Brain Age and Mario Kart players who take handheld
game consoles everywhere they go, sneaking in short puzzles, races, and
minigames as often as possible, and as a result nearly eliminating mental
downtime from their lives.
They’re the United States troops stationed overseas who dedicate so many
hours a week to burnishing their Halo 3 in-game service record that earning
virtual combat medals is widely known as the most popular activity for off-duty
soldiers. They’re the young adults in China who have spent so much play
money, or “QQ coins,” on magical swords and other powerful game objects
that the People’s Bank of China intervened to prevent the devaluation of the
yuan, China’s real-world currency.2
Most of all, they’re the kids and teenagers worldwide who would rather
spend hours in front of just about any computer game or video game than do
These gamers aren’t rejecting reality entirely. They have jobs, goals, school-
work, families, commitments, and real lives that they care about. But as they
devote more and more of their free time to game worlds, the real world increasingly
feels like it’s missing something.
Gamers want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being
fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling
of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating
and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill
of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures
occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when
they’re playing their favorite games.
The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures,
the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by
virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t
engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom
up to make us happy.
And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community:
Reality, compared to games, is broken.
In fact, it is more than a perception. It’s a phenomenon. Economist Edward
Castronova calls it a “mass exodus” to game spaces, and you can see it already
happening in the numbers. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are
opting out of reality for larger and larger chunks of time. In the United States
alone, there are 183 million active gamers (individuals who, in surveys, report
that they play computer or video games “regularly”–on average, thirteen
hours a week).3 Globally, the online gamer community–including console,
PC, and mobile phone gaming–counts more than 4 million gamers in the
Middle East, 10 million in Russia, 105 million in India, 10 million in Vietnam,
10 million in Mexico, 13 million in Central and South America, 15
million in Australia, 17 million in South Korea, 100 million in Europe, and
200 million in China.4
Although a typical gamer plays for just an hour or two a day, there are now
more than 6 million people in China who spend at least twenty-two hours a
week gaming, the equivalent of a part-time job.5 More than 10 million “hardcore”
gamers in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany spend at least
twenty hours a week playing.6 And at the leading edge of this growth curve,
more than 5 million “extreme” gamers in the United States play on average
forty-five hours a week.7
With all of this play, we have turned digital games–for our computers, for
our mobile phones, and for our home entertainment systems–into what is
expected to be a $68 billion industry annually by the year 2012.8 And we are
creating a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy, and collective
attention lavished on game worlds instead of on the real world.
The ever-skyrocketing amounts of time and money spent on games are being
observed with alarm by some–concerned parents, teachers, and politicians–
and eagerness by others–the many technology industries that expect to profit
greatly from the game boom. Meanwhile, they are met with bewilderment and
disdain by more than a few nongamers, who still make up nearly half of the
U.S. population, although their numbers are rapidly decreasing. Many of them
deem gaming a clear waste of time.
As we make these value judgments, hold moral debates over the addictive
quality of games, and simultaneously rush to achieve massive industry expansion,
a vital point is being missed. The fact that so many people of all ages, all
over the world, are choosing to spend so much time in game worlds is a sign
of something important, a truth that we urgently need to recognize.
The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling
genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games
are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and
engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways
that reality is not.
And unless something dramatic happens to reverse the resulting exodus,
we’re fast on our way to becoming a society in which a substantial portion
of our population devotes its greatest efforts to playing games, creates its best
memories in game environments, and experiences its biggest successes in
Maybe this sounds hard to believe. To a nongamer, this forecast might
seem surreal, or like science fiction. Are huge swaths of civilization really
disappearing into game worlds? Are we really rushing headlong into a future
where the majority of us use games to satisfy many of our most important
If so, it will not be the first time that such a mass exodus from reality to
games has occurred. Indeed, the very first written history of human gameplay,
Herodotus’ Histories, the ancient Greek account of the Persian Wars–dating
back more than three thousand years–describes a nearly identical scenario.
While the oldest known game is the ancient counting game Mancala–
evidence shows it was played during Egypt’s age of empires, or the fifteenth
to the eleventh centuries BC–it was not until Herodotus that anyone thought
to record the origins or cultural functions of these games. And from his ancient
text, we can learn a great deal about what’s happening today–and what’s
almost certainly coming next.
It’s a bit counterintuitive to think about the future in terms of the past. But
as a research director at the Institute for the Future–a nonprofit think tank in
Palo Alto, California, and the world’s oldest future-forecasting organization–
I’ve learned an important trick: to develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight.
Technologies, cultures, and climates may change, but our basic human
needs and desires–to survive, to care for our families, and to lead happy,
purposeful lives–remain the same. So at IFTF we like to say, “To understand
the future, you have to look back at least twice as far as you’re looking ahead.”
Fortunately, when it comes to games, we can look even farther back than that.
Games have been a fundamental part of human civilization for thousands
In the opening book of The Histories, Herodotus writes:
When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand
years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people
accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of
plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians
devised a strange remedy for their problem. The plan adopted
against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as
not to feel any craving for food . . . and the next day to eat and abstain
from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and
along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball,
and all the games which are common.9
What do ancient dice made from sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future
of computer and video games? More than you might expect.
Herodotus invented history as we know it, and he has described the goal of
history as uncovering moral problems and moral truths in the concrete data
of experience. Whether Herodotus’ story of an eighteen-year famine survived
through gameplay is true or, as some modern historians believe, apocryphal,
its moral truths reveal something important about the essence of games.
We often think of immersive gameplay as “escapist,” a kind of passive retreat
from reality. But through the lens of Herodotus’ history, we can see how
games could be a purposeful escape, a thoughtful and active escape, and most
importantly an extremely helpful escape. For the Lydians, playing together as
a nearly full-time activity would have been a behavior highly adaptive to difficult
conditions. Games made life bearable. Games gave a starving population
a feeling of power in a powerless situation, a sense of structure in a chaotic
environment. Games gave them a better way to live when their circumstances
were otherwise completely unsupportive and uninhabitable.
Make no mistake: we are no different from the ancient Lydians. Today,
many of us are suffering from a vast and primal hunger. But it is not a hunger
for food–it is a hunger for more and better engagement from the world
Like the ancient Lydians, many gamers have already figured out how to use
the immersive power of play to distract themselves from their hunger: a hunger
for more satisfying work, for a stronger sense of community, and for a more
engaging and meaningful life.
Collectively, the planet is now spending more than 3 billion hours a
We are starving, and our games are feeding us.
AND SO, in 2011, we find ourselves at a major tipping point.
We can stay on the same course. We can keep feeding our appetites with
games. And we can watch the game industry continue to create bigger, better,
and more immersive virtual worlds that provide increasingly compelling alternatives
If we stay this course, we will almost certainly see the exodus from reality
continue. Indeed, we are already well on our way to a world in which many
of us, like the ancient Lydians, spend half our time gaming. Given all the
problems in the world, would it really be so bad to pass the coming decades
as the Lydians did?
Or we could try to reverse course. We could try to block gamers’ exit from
reality–perhaps by culturally shaming them into spending more time in reality,
or by trying to keep video games out of the hands of kids, or, as some
U.S. politicians have already proposed, by heavily taxing them so that gaming
becomes an unaffordable lifestyle.10
To be honest, none of those options sounds like a future I’d want to live in.
Why would we want to waste the power of games on escapist entertainment?
Why would we want to waste the power of games by trying to squelch the
Perhaps we should consider a third idea. Instead of teetering on the tipping
point between games and reality, what if we threw ourselves off the scale and
tried something else entirely?
What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix
what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers,
lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about
solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?
Imagine a near future in which most of the real world works more like a
game. But is it even possible to create this future? Would it be a reality we
would be happier to live in? Would it make the world a better place?
When I consider this potential future, it’s not just a hypothetical idea. I’ve
already posed it as a very real challenge to the one community who can truly
help launch this transformation: the people who make games for a living.
I’m one of them–I’ve been designing games professionally for the past decade.
And I’ve come to believe that people who know how to make games
need to start focusing on the task of making real life better for as many people
I haven’t always been so sure of this mission. It has taken a good ten years
of research and a series of increasingly ambitious game projects to get to
Back in 2001, I started my career by working on the fringes of the gamedesign
industry, at tiny start-up companies and experimental design labs. More
often than not, I was working for free, designing puzzles and missions for lowbudget
computer and mobile phone games. I was happy when they were
played by a few hundred people, or–when I was really lucky–a few thousand.
I studied those players as closely as possible. I watched them while they
played, and I interviewed them afterward. I was just starting to learn what gives
games their power.
During those early years, I was also a “starving” graduate student–earning
a PhD in performance studies from the University of California at Berkeley. I
was the first in my department to study computer and video games, and I had
to make it up as I went along, bringing together different findings from psychology,
cognitive science, sociology, economics, political science, and performance
theory in order to try to figure out exactly what makes a good game
work. I was particularly interested in how games could change the way we
think and act in everyday life–a question that, back then, few, if any, researchers
were looking at.
Eventually, as a result of my research, I published several academic papers
(and eventually a five-hundred-page dissertation) proposing how we could
leverage the power of games to reinvent everything from government, health
care, and education to traditional media, marketing, and entrepreneurship–
even world peace. And increasingly, I found myself called on to help large
companies and organizations adopt game design as an innovation strategy–
from the World Bank, the American Heart Association, the National Academy
of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Defense to McDonald’s, Intel, the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the International Olympic Committee.
You’ll read about many of the games I created with these organizations
in this book–and for the first time, I’ll be sharing my design motivations and
The inspiration for this book came in the spring of 2008, when I was invited
to deliver the annual “rant” at the Game Developers Conference, the most
important industry gathering of the year. The rant is supposed to be a wake-up
call, a demand to shake up the industry. It’s always one of the most popular
sessions at the conference. That year, the room was packed to standing-room
capacity with more than a thousand of the world’s leading game designers and
developers. And in my rant, they heard the same argument you’re reading
here: that reality is broken, and we need to start making games to fix it.
When I finished, the applause and cheers took what seemed like forever to
die down. I had been nervous that my rant would be rejected by my peers.
Instead, it seemed to strike a chord with the industry. I started to get e-mails
every single day from people who had heard about the rant or read the transcript
online and wanted to help. Some were just starting out in the industry
and had no idea how to go about doing it. Others were industry leaders who
genuinely wanted to change the direction of games for good. Seemingly overnight,
start-up companies were founded, capital was raised, and today there
are hundreds of games in development that aspire to change reality for the
better. I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for this turn of events, of course. I was
just lucky enough to be one of the first people to see it happening, and one of
the strongest voices cheering it on.
In 2009, I was invited back to the Game Developers Conference to give
a keynote address about what game developers needed to do over the next
decade to reinvent reality as we know it. This time, I wasn’t surprised to discover
that some of the most popular sessions at the conference were about
“games for personal and social change,” “positive impact games,” “social reality
games,” “serious games,” and “leveraging the play of the planet.” Everywhere
I turned, I saw evidence that this movement to harness the power of
games for good had already started to happen. Suddenly, my personal mission
to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize in the next twenty-five years
didn’t seem so far-fetched.
When I look at the remarkable world-changing work game developers are
starting to do, I see an opportunity to reinvent the ancient history of games for
the twenty-first century.
Some twenty-five hundred years ago, Herodotus looked back and saw the
early games played by the Greeks as an explicit attempt to alleviate suffering.
Today, I look forward and I see a future in which games once again are explicitly
designed to improve quality of life, to prevent suffering, and to create real, widespread
When Herodotus looked back, he saw games that were large-scale systems,
designed to organize masses of people and make an entire civilization more
resilient. I look forward to a future in which massively multiplayer games are
once again designed in order to reorganize society in better ways, and to get
seemingly miraculous things done.
Herodotus saw games as a surprising, inventive, and effective way to intervene
in a social crisis. I, too, see games as potential solutions to our most pressing
shared problems. He saw that games could tap into our strongest survival
instincts. I see games that once again will confer evolutionary advantage on
those who play them.
Herodotus tells us that in the past games were created as a virtual solution
to unbearable hunger. And, yes, I see a future in which games continue to
satisfy our hunger to be challenged and rewarded, to be creative and successful,
to be social and part of something larger than ourselves. But I also see a
future in which the games we play stoke our appetite for engagement, pushing
and enabling us to make stronger connections–and bigger contributions–to
the world around us.
The modern history of computer and video games is the story of game
designers ascending to very powerful positions in society, effectively enthralling
the hearts and minds–and directing the energies and attention–of increasingly
large masses of people. Game designers today are extremely adept
wielders of that power, no doubt more adept than any game designers in all
of human history. They have been honing their craft and refining their tactics
for thirty years now. And so it is that more and more people are being drawn
to the power of computer and video games–and finding themselves engaged
by them for longer and longer periods of time, for greater and greater stretches
of their lives.
Amazingly, some people have no interest in understanding why this is
happening or figuring out what we could do with it. They will never pick up
a book about games, because they’re already certain they know exactly what
games are good for–wasting time, tuning out, and losing out on real life.
The people who continue to write off games will be at a major disadvantage
in the coming years. Those who deem them unworthy of their time and attention
won’t know how to leverage the power of games in their communities,
in their businesses, in their own lives. They will be less prepared to shape the
future. And therefore they will miss some of the most promising opportunities
we have to solve problems, create new experiences, and fix what’s wrong with
Fortunately, the gap between gamers and nongamers is growing smaller all
the time. In the United States, the biggest gaming market in the world, the
majority of us are already gamers. Some recent relevant statistics from the Entertainment
Software Association’s annual study of game players–the largest
and most widely respected market research report of its kind:
â€¢ 69 percent of all heads of household play computer and video games.
â€¢ 97 percent of youth play computer and video games.
â€¢ 40 percent of all gamers are women.
â€¢ One out of four gamers is over the age of fifty.
â€¢ The average game player is thirty-five years old and has been playing
for twelve years.
â€¢ Most gamers expect to continue playing games for the rest of
Meanwhile, the scientific journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social
Networking reported in 2009 that 61 percent of surveyed CEOs, CFOs, and
other senior executives say they take daily game breaks at work.12
These numbers demonstrate how quickly a gaming culture can take hold.
And trends from every continent–from Austria, Brazil, and the United Arab
Emirates to Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa–show that
gamer markets are emerging rapidly with similarly diverse demographics. Over
the next decade, these new markets will increasingly resemble, if not completely
catch up to, those in leading gamer countries like South Korea, the
United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom today.
As games journalist Rob Fahey famously pronounced in 2008: “It’s inevitable:
soon we will all be gamers.”13
We have to start taking this growing gamer majority seriously. We are living
in a world full of games and gamers. And so we need to decide now what kinds
of games we should make together and how we will play them together. We
need a plan for determining how games will impact our real societies and our
real lives. We need a framework for making these decisions and for shaping
these plans. This book, I hope, could serve as that framework. It’s written for
gamers and for everyone who will one day become a gamer–in other words,
for virtually every person on this planet. It’s an opportunity to understand now
how games work, why humans are so drawn to them, and what they can do
for us in our real lives.
If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about
spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time.
You have been building up a wealth of virtual experience that, as the first half
of this book will show you, can teach you about your true self: what your core
strengths are, what really motivates you, and what make you happiest. As you’ll
see, you have also developed world-changing ways of thinking, organizing,
and acting. And, as this book reveals, there are already plenty of opportunities
for you to start using them for real-world good.
If you don’t have a lot of personal experience with games yet, then this
book will help you jump-start your engagement with the most important medium
of the twenty-first century. By the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll
be deeply familiar with the most important games you can play today–and
be able to imagine the kinds of important games we will make and play in the
years to come.
If you’re not already a gamer, it’s entirely possible that you still might not
become the kind of person to spend hours in front of a video game. But by
reading this book, you will better understand the people who do. And even if
you would never play computer or video games, let alone make one, you can
benefit enormously from learning exactly how good games work–and how
they can be used to fix real-world problems.
Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme
effort and reward hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and
collaboration at previously unimaginable scales. And they are continuously
innovating new ways to motivate players to stick with harder challenges, for
longer, and in much bigger groups. These crucial twenty-first-century skills
can help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the
world around us.
Game design isn’t just a technological craft. It’s a twenty-first-century way
of thinking and leading. And gameplay isn’t just a pastime. It’s a twenty-firstcentury
way of working together to accomplish real change.
Antoine de Saint ExupÃ©ry once wrote:
As for the future, your task is not to see it, but to enable it.
Games, in the twenty-first century, will be a primary platform for enabling
SO LET ME describe the particular future that I want to create.
Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives
to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with
a better and more immersive reality. I want gaming to be something that everybody
does, because they understand that games can be a real solution to
problems and a real source of happiness. I want games to be something everybody
learns how to design and develop, because they understand that games
are a real platform for change and getting things done. And I want families,
schools, companies, industries, cities, countries, and the whole world to come
together to play them, because we’re finally making games that tackle real
dilemmas and improve real lives.
If we take everything game developers have learned about optimizing
human experience and organizing collaborative communities and apply
it to real life, I foresee games that make us wake up in the morning and feel
thrilled to start our day. I foresee games that reduce our stress at work and
dramatically increase our career satisfaction. I foresee games that fix our educational
systems. I foresee games that treat depression, obesity, anxiety, and
attention deficit disorder. I foresee games that help the elderly feel engaged
and socially connected. I foresee games that raise rates of democratic participation.
I foresee games that tackle global-scale problems like climate change
and poverty. In short, I foresee games that augment our most essential human
capabilities–to be happy, resilient, creative–and empower us to change the
world in meaningful ways. Indeed, as you’ll see in the pages ahead, such games
are already coming into existence.
The future I’ve described here seems both desirable and plausible to me.
But in order to create this future, several things need to happen.
We will have to overcome the lingering cultural bias against games, so that
nearly half the world is not cut off from the power of games.
We need to build hybrid industries and unconventional partnerships, so
that game researchers and game designers and game developers can work with
engineers and architects and policy makers and executives of all kinds to harness
the power of games.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we all need to develop our core
game competencies so we can take an active role in changing our lives and
enabling the future.
This book is designed to do just that. It will build up your ability to enjoy life
more, to solve tougher problems, and to lead others in world-changing efforts.
In Part I: Why Games Make Us Happy, you’ll go inside the minds of top
game designers and game researchers. You’ll find out exactly which emotions
the most successful games are carefully engineered to provoke–and
how these feelings can spill over, in positive and surprising ways, into our real
lives and relationships.
In Part II: Reinventing Reality, you’ll discover the world of alternate reality
games. It’s the rapidly growing field of new software, services, and experiences
meant to make us as happy and successful in our real lives as we are
when we’re playing our favorite video games. If you’ve never heard of ARGs
before, you may be shocked to discover how many people are already making
and playing them. Hundreds of start-up companies and independent designers
have devoted themselves to applying leading-edge game design and technologies
to improving our everyday lives. And millions of gamers have already
discovered the benefits of ARGs firsthand. In this section, you’ll find out how
ARGs are already starting to raise our quality of life at home and at school, in
our neighborhoods and our workplaces.
Finally, in Part III: How Very Big Games Can Change the World, you’ll
get a glimpse of the future. You’ll discover ten games designed to help ordinary
people achieve the world’s most urgent goals: curing cancer, stopping climate
change, spreading peace, ending poverty. You’ll find out how new participation
platforms and collaboration environments are making it possible for anyone
to help invent a better future, just by playing a game.
Ultimately, the people who understand the power and potential of games
to both make us happy and change reality will be the people who invent our
future. By the time you finish reading this book, you will be an expert on how
good games work. With that knowledge, you’ll make better choices about
which games to play and when. More importantly, you’ll be ready to start
inventing your own new games. You’ll be prepared to create powerful, alternate
realities for yourself and for your family; for your school, your business,
your neighborhood, or any other community you care about; for your favorite
cause, for an entire industry, or for an entirely new movement.
We can play any games we want. We can create any future we can imagine.
Let the games begin.
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