Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

Readalong: Reality is Broken, Ch 7 – The Benefits of Alternate Realities

This continues the Readalong by Erik van Mechelen of Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’ with insights from Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis framework. For in-depth discussions of this book and others, join Octalysis Prime.

tl;dr Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) [not to be confused with Augmented Reality AR], are games designed to be played in the real world, which make difficult activities more rewarding, build up new real-world communities, and help us adopt the daily habits of the world’s happiest people in our own everyday lives.


McGonigal moves into the promising area of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), with great examples like Chore Wars, Quest to Learn, and SuperBetter, which helped her recover from a traumatic brain injury.

Different to standard games, ARGs offer the opportunity to make real differences in the real world, in real lives.


McGonigal’s opening anecdote made me smile:

And it just so happens that ridding our real-world kingdom of toilet stains is worth more experience points, or XP, than any other chore in the Land of the 41st-Floor Ninjas.

McGonigal once again shows how immersed she has been in testing and creating all sorts of games throughout her life.

McGonigal moves into the depths of Chore Wars with anecdotes from other users around the world. Basically, Chore Wars brings out competitive spirit and collaboration with a steady does of accomplishment.

What’s more, Chore Wars is “a game that you win even if you lose. Kiyash has the satisfaction of being the best ninja on the forty-first floor, and I have the pleasure of doing fewer chores than my husband–at least until my competitive spirit kicks back in. Not to mention, it’s more enjoyable to be partners in crime when it comes to housework, instead of nagging each other about chores.

Fix #7: Wholehearted Participation

Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.

McGonigal reminds us that “to participate wholeheartedly in something means to be self-motivated and self-directed, intensely interested and genuinely enthusiastic. 

  • If we’re forced to do something, or if we do it halfheartedly, we’re not really participating.
  • If we don’t care how it all turns out, we’re not really participating.
  • If we’re passively waiting it out, we’re not really participating.

Along with other ARG designers one day on Twitter, McGonigal came upon another definition capturing the spirit of ARGs: alternate realities are the antiescapist game.

This is a cool way to think of them. Instead of retreating to games, we are bringing the best of design and experience design and motivation and mechanics to real-world situations.

Quest to Learn is the next big example, which combines various game mechanics and techniques and overall design into the classroom. This isn’t Khan Academy or Montesorri, but some mix of characteristics that make learning engaging for students with the right amount of challenge, encouraging them through missions, quests, and collaborative exploration and problem-solving.

I might Katie Salen, author of Rules of Play and researcher of how kids learn by playing games, at a discussion at Target in 2012. She led the Quest to Learn curriculum design.

Quest to Learn, in effect, is the precursor to ClassDojo and other gameful design (including digital systems) in the classroom.

SuperBetter was the game McGonigal designed to help herself battle and defeat a traumatic brain injury.

Either I’m going to kill myself or I’m going to turn this into a game.

SuperBetter’s story is well-known, but it centers on turning recovery into a multiplayer experience in 5 steps:

  1. Create your SuperBetter secret identity
  2. Recruit your allies
  3. Find the bad guys
  4. Identify your power-ups
  5. Create your superhero to-do list

By baking cookies for neighbors and many other tasks, McGonigal “suffered a great deal less during the recovery as a direct result of the game.”

Next, McGonigal moves into a recap of types of ARGs discussed in the chapter.

Life-management ARG: like Chore Wars

Organizational ARG: like Quest to Learn

Concept ARG: Like SuperBetter

They are also live event ARGs which gather players at physical locations and narrative ARGs which use multimedia storytelling (like McGonigal’s New York Public Library game, combining both).

Finally, McGonigal’s reminder of the critical essay, “Creating the Play Community” by Bernie DeKoven in The New Games Book is a reminder of her design ethos.

I’ve read McGonigal’s 500-page thesis about performative play, and it is a useful viewpoint because it brings a different lens than most game designers and experience designers currently in the business.

What do you think?

Have you played any Alternate Reality Games? (Does Pokemon Go count? Maybe. It is definitely an augmented reality game that gets you walking around and talking to people in the real world, so sure!)

What do you think? What Alternate Reality Game should we create together?

Let me know in the comments or on Octalysis Prime‘s community (paywall).

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One response to “Readalong: Reality is Broken, Ch 7 – The Benefits of Alternate Realities”

  1. What Alternate Reality Game should we create together? I want to play a real life version of the games in Watch Dogs. I want the phones around me, if people have opted in of course, to be the opponents and objectives to connect to and hunt and find and catch. I want to actually play WITH other people. There’s more detail to the idea, but that’s where it starts.

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