Readalong for “Reality is Broken”: Chapter 1, What Exactly Is a Game?

tl;dr Embrace high stakes work and instead of telling yourself this isn’t a game, say this could be a game. 


McGonigal makes the point that gamers want to play games (and not “game” them) and uses the 4 traits of a game to establish some ground rules for the rest of her book.


Gaming is part of our lexicon. “Gaming the system” or “You’d better start playing the game” are part of everyday speech.

This statement leads McGonigal into a discussion of what a game is…a game has:

  1. goal players will work to achieve
  2. rules providing limitations
  3. feedback system giving player progress
  4. voluntary participation

“This definition may surprise you for what it lacks: interactivity, graphics, narrative, rewards, competition, virtual environments, or the idea of “winning” — all traits we often think of when it comes to games today. True, these are common features of many games, but they are not defining features.”

Bernard Suits:

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unneccessary obstacles.

“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles: Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.”

Erik: I have to challenge this. In the intro, McGonigal talks about escapism and useful escapism to games, but here comments that reality is too easy. Obviously, it could be different for different players and different games, but in general I would argue that reality is more difficult than games. It’s way harder to be happy in real life than in an attention-fulfilling game.

McGonigal goes on to discuss several games, including golf and Tetris, which provides intense feedback (CD3). It gets harder as you improve, “creating a perfect balance between hard challenge and achievability” (Erik: this sounds like Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory.)

Limitations are put in play in a 2007 game called Portal, which is a single-player action/puzzle game beginning in a single 3D environment with very few available actions or instructions (CD7). (Erik: a game like Portal, or Myst, is fun because it is ambiguous and serves the explorative player, and also mirrors real life where what one should do at any moment isn’t always clear, and in fact is usually unclear.)

Games provoke positive emotion because they are “hard work we choose for ourselves.”

Brian Sutton-Smith:

The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.

The clinical definition of depression: a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity.

Jane cleverly argues if we flip this, we get something like an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. 

The punch line: if we can make work meaningful for more people (through gameful design), we can improve the world.

McGonigal continues with a compelling discussion of high-stakes work (CD1/6/8), busywork (CD2/8), mental work (CD2/3), physical work (CD2/9-sensation), discovery work (CD7), teamwork (CD5) and creative work (CD3/4).

Noël Coward:

Work is more fun than fun.

“Virtually every activity that we would describe as a “relaxing” kind of fun–watching television, eating chocolate, window-shopping, or just chilling out–doesn’t make us feel better. In fact, we consistently report feeling worse afterward than when we started “having fun”: less motivated, less confident, and less engaged overall. But how can so many of us be wrong about what’s fun? Shouldn’t we have a better intuitive sense of what actually makes us feel better?”

^^^ I love this quote from McGonigal. It questions the cultural or marketed idea of fun. My challenge to readers: what would you do for fun if you could today? Why did you choose that activity? Where did that idea of fun come into your brain. Was it an intrinsic or extrinsic source?

When I think of this question, I wrote down: “I like reading, thinking, arguing, grappling with ideas, and writing.” (This weekend I met up with three friends and we argued about interesting ideas for 3 hours.)

McGonigal brings up eustress and its importance. Gree eu, for “well-being” and stress. Our frame of mind is positive when experienceing eustress. We often choose stressful situations on purpose, and that’s okay if they generate eustress.

I like McGonigal’s characterization of “fiero”. To sum,

…the more challenging the obstacle we overcome, the more intense the fiero.

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