Reality Bites

Debunking the myth of the lazy video gamer


In the United States alone, reports Jane McGonigal in her new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, there are 183 million people who spend an average of 13 hours a week playing video games. In the seven years that World of Warcraft has existed, its acolytes have collectively spent 5.93 million years playing it. In 2009, McGonigal writes, a journal called Cyberspsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking reported that "61 percent of surveyed CEOs, CFOs, and other senior executives say they take daily game breaks at work."

These factoids may sound like the opening salvo to the latest anti-gaming screed, but in fact they're the opening salvo to a slightly rarer beast, the pro-gaming manifesto. McGonigal is the director of Game Research & Development at a Palo Alto, California think tank called the Institute for the Future, and she believes that we can use the game play techniques that keep millions of people awake all night slaying blood elf bandits to score epic wins over real-world problems like climate change, food insecurity, and rising rates of depression.

If, like me, you count yourself among the 127 million Americans who can't pull ourselves away from Netflix, iTunes, and Target clearance sales long enough to invest 13 hours a week playing video games, you may find McGonigal's pessimism about the state of the world unfounded. Whatever problems we have, a world where goods and services are so abundant and so accessible that even people of modest means can afford to spend as much as 45 hours a week killing imaginary monsters is obviously not a bad place to be.

[In 2008, Drew Carey toured Second Life for Click to watch. Article continues below video.]

But it's not necessary to agree with McGonigal's assessment of reality's sorry state to find her take on the untapped power of gaming compelling. Typically, gamers are written off by their critics as lazy, passive escapists who retreat from the rigors of the real world for more spoon-fed thrills.

In McGonigal's estimation, this perspective is completely wrong. Gamers aren't lazy—they're incredibly industrious and productive. They invest hundreds of hours in learning to play intricate, often extremely challenging games not because they're apathetic and unmotivated, but because they want more engagement in their lives, more heroic purpose, more chances to collaborate with others in the pursuit of truly meaningful accomplishments. Compared to games, the real world comes up short. It lacks the clearly articulated goals that help motivate people. Its feedback systems aren't as deftly calibrated to help us improve ourselves. And thus it doesn't make us happy as readily as, say, the quest for armor with magic powers. "The truth is this," McGonigal writes. "In today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy."

Of course, if reality were truly bereft of the experiences and rewards so many people find in video games now, gamers would still be steering tiny yellow dots around static mazes and trying to elude a gang of adorable but relentless dot-eating ghosts. In part, games have gotten so engrossing because for the last 25 years or so game designers have been working hard to make them more realistic, more nuanced and three-dimensional, more like life.

Now, though, it may be time to make life more game-like. While McGonigal is an unabashed gaming enthusiast, always insisting that virtual play offers real rewards, she also looks at the 3 billion hours the world's gamers spend each week slaving away in Azeroth and Farmville and wonders if there are ways to harness the energy and ingenuity they expend there by making real life equally rewarding.

To this end, she champions the burgeoning genre of alternative reality games (ARGs)—or games that "you play in your real life (and not a virtual environment) in order to enjoy it more." In a free online game called Chore Wars, housemates compete against each other to earn experience points for emptying their dishwashers or brewing coffee. At Quest to Learn, a charter school in New York, the gamer concept of "leveling up"—acquiring the skills and experience necessary to reach a game's next level and take on new challenges and adversaries—has replaced letter grades. Instead of measuring student prowess via a finite number of assignments or tests, students can engage in as many "quests" as necessary to get the points they need to demonstrate their command of a given subject.

If you're thinking that there's no way anyone who works at a place called the Institute for the Future might be satisfied with figuring out ways to make mopping the bathroom more fun, you're right. Already, great numbers of people regularly use the powers of the Internet to collaborate on non-gaming projects of enormous scope. Motivate them more effectively, however, and their productivity could explode. Indeed, as McGonigal points out, if it took 100 million man-hours to create Wikipedia (an estimate she borrows from Clay Shirky), World of Warcraft's 11.5 million subscribers alone "could conceivably create a new Wikipedia every three and a half days."

Granted, cleaning your bathroom or writing a Wikipedia entry on atom transfer radical polymerization is never going to be as immediately rewarding as disemboweling a centaur in God of War III. But if adding elements of game play can enhance such activities even a little bit, why not add them? In 2009, after The Daily Telegraph (London) broke a story about a member of Britain's Parliament who expensed a "floating duck island" and numerous other personal gardening expenditures, the British public demanded more information about all MP expenses. The government fulfilled this demand by releasing more than a million unsorted expense forms and receipts that had been saved as electronic images and were thus hard to search and cross-index.

The Guardian enlisted the public's help in examining the documents, but rather than just publishing them all on a website, it presented the challenge as a World of Warcraft-like quest, with clear goals and instructions, satisfying feedback mechanisms, and social elements that showed individual contributors that they were part of a larger collaborative effort. "The number one lesson from this project: Make it feel like a game," the site's developer told the Nieman Journalism Lab, and because he accomplished that, the participation rate of the site's visitors was unusually high: In less than 80 hours, 20,000 people had already reviewed 170,000 documents. Their efforts helped catalyze resignations, criminal investigations, new expense codes, and repayments of more than $1 million pounds.

When McGonigal moves on from such specific examples to more speculative fare about games that last 1,000 years and "engage every single human being" in a massive exercise in transformative "planet crafting," things get fuzzier, but here and now, McGonigal has those three billion hours a week gamers invest in their second lives on her side. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars they pay for the privilege when other content industries can barely get people to fork over the occasional buck for a song or a movie. That games like World of Warcraft inspire such devotion at a time when attention spans are measured out in tweets is something every dying media outlet, floundering business, and presidential hopeful should take note of. Those who best incorporate the principles and tactics McGonigal describes in Reality is Broken may at least have a shot at leveling up as the Internet continues to reshape our world.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.