Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world McGonigal, J. (2011) – A review

Over the last 3 months, maybe a little more, I have spent my bus rides flipping the pages of Jane McGonigal’s book; Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Below I do a short topic-based analysis of the things that I found interesting and important to discuss. (Despite having an interest in doing a more detailed analysis, time pressures do not allow me. I hope the little I do makes some sense).

Something is wrong with reality

Jane begins the book by makes a strong statement, that the real world, and as civilized as we would like to think we are, is lacking a lot in the way of engagement, satisfaction and meaning. This suggests that we need to reexamine and redesign reality if we intend to derive meaningful lives out of it.

…computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy (McGonigal 2011, p. 4). 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 around us (McGonigal 2011, p. 6).

Characteristics of games (Finite vs Infinite)

She then goes on to define the 4 characteristics of a game; goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation.

In contrast Carse (1986, p. 4-10) does a more comprehensive definition of games, including a categorization into two classes; finite and infinite, where finite games are those played for extrinsic motivations while infinite are played for intrinsic. The main difference to be observed here is that in finite games, players play within boundaries while in infinite games, players play with the boundaries. Carse (1986) discusses several aspects of life and work in terms of games, with an individual’s participation been seen as participation in a game.

He discusses how some aspects of extrinsicism are self propagating (Carse, 1986, p. 10, 11);

Although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever plays a finite game plays freely, it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do, for the following reasons:

  • ..players must be selected. While no one is forced to remain in their role (lawyer, rodeo performer, yogi), after being selected for these roles, each role is nonetheless surrounded both by ruled constraints and expectations on the part of others. One senses a compulsion to maintain a certain level of performance, because permission to play in these games can be canceled. We cannot do whatever we please and remain in our roles (lawyers ..)- and yet we could not be either unless we pleased
  • Finite games are played to be won, thus players make every move in a game in order to win it. Whatever is not done in the interest of winning is not part of the game. The constant attentiveness of finite players to the progress of the competition can lead them to believe that every move they make they must make
  • it may seem that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible. There are, to be sure, games in which the stakes seem to be life and death. In slavery for example, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death. In this extreme case, we must still concede that whoever takes up the commanded role does so by choice. Certainly the price for refusing to it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed.



Infinite vs finite games – Carse 1986 p. 4-10

Infinite game

Finite game

Players cannot say when their game begins (nor do they care – since their play is not bound by time)

The start and end time are explicitly defined – to which all players must agree

Purpose: preventing the game from coming to an end

Purpose: to win – the game comes to an end after a win

No spatial or numerical boundaries

Contains spatial and numerical boundaries (Place, number of persons) – for all conflicts from a board game to a war

No questions of eligibility (anyone who wishes may play)

Cannot be played alone. Thus, in every case, we must find an opponent, and in most cases, teammates, who are willing to join in play with us.

Played in time created in the play itself

Played in world time

Cannot be played within a finite game

Can be played within an infinite game

Rules must change in the course of play. The rules are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play

The rules are the contractual terms by which players agree to continue playing

Rules of play – define what the game is, places a range of restrictions on the players

Rules are not laws; they don’t mandate specific behavior, they allow considerable room for choice within those limits

Rules are contractual terms by which players determine the winner. They must be established and agreed upon prior to play. They cannot change during play

They are only valid when players freely play by them.

There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on

Players play with boundaries

Players play within boundaries

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivations

Although Jane makes an effort in describing intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, she fails to make a clear distinction between the two; (McGonigal 2011, p. 28-29):

Extrinsic motivation; “When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person. It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end. Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems. It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us optimistic, and doesn’t invigorate us”.

Despite these strong observations against the delegation of tasks to others or of our acting out or extrinsic motivations, she suggest that giving others work to do could make them happy!

Intrinsic motivation; “What a boost to global happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work. We could offer them challenging, customizable missions and tasks, to do alone or with friends and family, whenever and wherever. We could provide them with vivid, real-time reports of the progress they’re making and a clear view of the impact they’re having on the world around them.”

The suggestion that ‘we’; can be in the know of what is good for others contradicts intrinsic motivations. Krippendor (2004) argues that intrinsic motivation is not measurable and measurement is only applicable to mechanized elements.

..intrinsic motivation escapes comprehension for outside observers without appreciation of particular skills, conceptions and learning abilities that people bring to a phenomenon.

Any operationalization of these experiences in terms of objective measurements, as provided by mechanical devices or scales imposed upon those who have these experiencesfundamentally fails or at best correlates with the phenomena to be explained and encouraged.

Different categories of engagement

Following the lack of clear distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it is unclear to see what sort of engagement would be derived from the games and game-play she proposes . With intrinsic (I) and extrinsic (E) motivation, we can derive at least 4 categories of engagement as follows:

  1. Optimal engagement (I1, E0) – caused by the engagement in actions out of intrinsic motivations – personal interest in a specific phenomenon, including how it is done and with whom. Case study example: democratic education affords students the freedom to decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn and to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their learning environments are run.
  2. Diluted engagement (I1, E1) – caused by the interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements. Case study example: the truth about what motivates us [Video] describes studies that have shown that the introduction of monetary rewards reduces performance in cognitive tasks.
  3. Concocted engagement (I0, E0) – caused by the invention and or introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something. Case study example: Milligram’s experiment may be taken as an extreme example of extrinsic motivation, suggesting that extrinsic motivation does not necessarily result to intrinsic motivation. Participants in such phenomenon do not assume ownership of the rationales for doing an action.
  4. Zilch engagement (I0, E0) – caused by the lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.

These categories can be mapped into an Engagement, Causes and Effect Matrix;

Engagement Causes Effects


(I₁ E₀)

Voluntary participation to a situation out of personal interest – Individual’s sense of purpose, mastery, autonomy The most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience. (McGonical 2011, p.45)


(I₁ E₁)

Interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements. (Obvious & visible)Poor performance, Emotional withdraw,  Conformity, Chronic illness, Hedonic adaptation, Triggers avoidance, behaviors/disorder, ..(Invisible)Invisible curriculum: emotional & intellectual dependency (Sheepling, dumbing down), Suspension of one’s freedom, ..


(I₀ E₁)

Introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something


(I₀ E₀)

Lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. None

As can be deduced from the matrix above, Optimal engagement may not necessarily be directed towards productivity but is more favorable to it than the other categories of engagement.

The human body cannot be extrinsically rewarded.

Jane can be seen to suggest that the human body is still so primitive, (hardwired to benefit only from the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals), that it has not learnt how to benefit from the acquisition and amassing of external elements such as money, and neither can it store the ‘feel-good’ chemicals for a ‘rainy day’. In fact when confronted with stressful situations, (our good feelings or extrinsic rewards may not be of much to us) we only tap into our primal stress response system, fight or flight. Extrinsic rewards do not really benefit us and we risk an addiction to them as hedonistic adaptation suggests (McGonigal 2011, p. 32 & 42). The little ‘good feeling’ they might be claimed to give us does not last as the body always returns itself to its ‘chemical equilibrium’ enabling it to continue experiencing the world (rather than locking itself up in the moment).

This subtle suggestion that the human body cannot be rewarded extrinsically may have a big impact on design; that although we may earn rewards in the form of points, badges and what have you, they may be utterly useless to us.  also argues that if games and fun were about points, we would all be playing games that earn us a whopping trillion points every time we hit the button.

The funnest game ever – if fun were about "rewards". (Inspired by Jakob Stjerning's Progress Wars).
The funnest game ever – if fun were about “rewards”. (Inspired by Jakob Stjerning’s Progress Wars).

(McGonigal 2011, p. 42) Autotelic: self-motivated, self rewarding activity is autotelic (from the Greek words for “self,” auto, and “goal,” telos). We do autotelic work because it engages us completely, and because intense engagement is the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state we can experience. When we set out to make our own happiness, we’re focused on activity that generates intrinsic rewards – the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us. (Intrinsic rewards). We are not looking for praise or payouts. The very act of what we are doing, the enjoyment of being fully engaged, is enough.

What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

(McGonigal 2011, p. 42) Hedonic adaptation: When we try to find happiness outside of ourselves, we’re focused on what positive psychologists call “extrinsic” rewards – money, material goods, status, or praise. When we get what we want, we feel good. Unfortunately, the pleasures of found happiness don’t last very long. We build up a tolerance for our favorite things and start to want more. It takes bigger and better rewards just to trigger the same level of satisfaction and pleasure. The more we try to “find” happiness, the harder it gets. Positive psychologists call this process “hedonic adaptation”, and its one of the biggest hindrances to long-term life satisfaction. (hedonic adaptation). The more we consume, acquire, and elevate our status, the harder it is to stay happy. Whether it’s money, grades, promotions, popularity, attention, or just plain material things we want, scientists agree: seeking out external rewards is sure path to sabotaging our own happiness.

(McGonigal 2011, p. 32) Stress response: when we’re afraid of failure or danger, or when the pressure is coming from an external source, extreme neurochemical activation doesn’t make us happy. It makes us angry and combative, or it makes us want to escape and shut down emotionally. It can also trigger avoidance behaviors, like eating, smoking, or taking drugs.

Extrinsic motivators on the other hand, are nothing more than pellets dropped for rats in a cage,” “creating virtual food pellets for you to eat“.

Gamification as an invisible curriculum

Jane does not raise concern over the effects of the invisible curriculum that is also potentially inherent in gamification. Notably and perhaps of essence in extrinsic motivators are the concerns that have been raised over the effects of the hidden curriculum in education systems. Gatto (1992) and Neil warn that control and guidance of students by their teachers only serves to remove their autonomy, making the students emotionally and intellectually dependent on their superiors.

Gamification can be said to have similar effects (Zichermann & Cunningham 2011) since, no matter how subtly it is applied or its impact are recognized its outcomes including stages of success and failure and the actions to them are predetermined before participation commences and as a result a participant only follows established footsteps without necessarily being able to forge a route that suits them. Carse (1986) compares this to play, where a learner’s actions are not their own but a theatrical act of the role that they are required to play by their educators. This, Carse (1986) says requires a veiling of oneself, a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others.

‘The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots’. – A.S. Neill

Human vs technical problems

Jane does not make a distinction between human and technical problems and therefore fails to address the root causes of the problems she discusses. This, I feel, is the greatest shortcoming and misconception in the book. Jane discusses every problem in terms of its symptoms and thus proposes solutions for the symptoms rather than for the root causes. To illustrate this, I reference the following games Free Rice, JetSetter and Investigate your MP games – see detailed discussion below. The solutions that these games provide do not in anyway remove the actual causes rooted in the structural/environmental design. This we can compare directly to the pharmaceutical industry which is notorious for treating symptoms and not root causes of illnesses for profit.

For designers to truly address any challenges, they not only have to look beyond their symptoms but also ‘think outside the box’ when addressing problems. Else we delude ourselves that we are doing something to address the problems while we do not remove their root causes. This we have to acknowledge that it would suit us well as we propagate our business sector indefinitely while also deluding the masses.

(McGonigal 2011, p 234) The Rice game (which is basically built on the premise that by playing and earning points, sponsoring corporations will show you their ads and feed the starving) attempts to deal with a technical problem by addressing it as if it was a human motivation problem.

It is as if the starving are doing so because the fed are not playing games.

In contrast, I see this as a technical problem simply because only technical solutions can solve the problem both in the short and long term. Technology to grow food even without soil exists and that food supplies as well as the means for transporting food resources to wherever they may be needed across the globe exist. As a result, no games or game play would be required to feed the starving or to enable them to feed themselves.

(McGonigal 2011, p 150) JetSetter is an interesting example. It is designed to make you feel happy when you traverse poorly designed airports and increasingly frustrating queuing and security checks. First of all, when services and products are designed for elitism, it is inevitable that not all users can use them. This is a technical problem since the design of any shared space should be based on the available materials, space and users’ needs and not stratification. Universal usability should be the aim.

Secondly, if we were to design society to remove the need for frustrating security, we would need to go beyond our individualistic and nationalistic interests and learn to see the world as a shared heritage, where the needs of all would be met according to the available resources. As such, we would not see the need in creating enmity towards others or having bigotry. Alternatively, if we were to believe that we needed all the security measures that we can install in places, we would then focus on designing machines that scanned us without having to unpack and undress and vice versa every time we came across a security check.

(McGonigal 2011, p 221) Investigate you MPs expenses also falls under the same premise. Corruption is inherent in the monetary (property and growth) based economies. It is therefore not a characteristic that a few bad apples possess, but a condition made visible via the design of the environment within which people live. To contrast this to a resource based economy (RBE), there is no incentive in taking public property to one’s private use. This is because  RBE provides to the needs of its users. Therefore, investigating a corrupt MP is not a design solution to the problem – as it is not rooted in people.

I cannot stress enough, how distasteful these gamified band-aid solutions are, especially in time when we possess the technical know how and capability to redesign the various sociotechnical systems to improve the human experience.

Misrepresents games and what makes them fun

Jane seems to claims that rewards (+points, badges, ..) are what makes games engaging, and that rewards are necessary to sustain engagement. If this were the case, the following would be the most engaging game ever, earning you a whopping trillion points every time you hit the button:

The funnest game ever – if fun were about "rewards".
The funnest game ever – if fun were about “rewards”.

All fun, leisurely activities and time will eventually be used for productive work

Carse (1986 p 38) warns that players’ leisure time and activities will eventually be replaced by actual and real work. This seems to be one of the proposals that Jane makes – that gamers should now be given challenging and actual work to do rather than just play for fun. How that will benefit us is a different matter but one thing is certain, (if we must play) we will not be free to play (Carse).

..playing at, or perhaps playing around, is the kind of play that has no consequence. This is the sort of playfulness implied in the ordinary sense of such terms as entertainment, amusement, diversion, comic relief, recreation, relaxation. Inevitably, however, seriousness will creep back into this kind of play. The executive’s vacation, like the football team’s time out, comes to be a device for refreshing the contestant for a higher level of competition.

Even the open playfulness of children is exploited through organized athletic, artistic, and educational regimens as a means of preparing the young for serious adult competition.

This exactly what Quest to learn (Q2L) seems to be doing; (McGonigal 2011, p 129) : …the students learn math, science, geography, English, history… But it’s how they learn that’s different: students are engaged in gameful activities from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they finish up their final homework assignment at night.

The schedule of a Q2L sixth-grader name Rai…

  • 7:15 a.m. Rai is “questing” before she even gets to school.
  • 11:45 a.m. Rai logs on to a school computer to update her profile in the “expertise challenge”, where all the students advertise their learning superpowers
  • 6:00 p.m.  Rai is at home, interacting with a virtual character named Betty, with the goal to teach her how to divide mixed numbers
  • over next two weeks: Rai plans to spend extra time working harder on her math assignments to qualify for a mathematical specialist role in a music composition team

Gamification is already making the typical fun activities like running, flying, shopping, bar-hopping, etc. productive (with productivity here referring to actions taken for a gain)

And without trying to, gamification is already making the typical fun activities like running, flying, shopping, watching TV, bar-hopping and dining, sharing & socializing, and just about anything you may want to or not do. productive (with productivity here referring to actions taken for a gain). Foursquare is a prime example of this – we not only go to places we like for their own sake, but increasingly, we will find ourselves going to those places for gains; the points, badges, mayorships and merchant discounts (coupons and other offers).


  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games.
  • Krippendor K (2004). Intrinsic Motivation and Human-Centered Design
  • Gray, P. (2011) The Human Nature of Teaching III: When Is Teaching an Act of Aggression? []. Psychology Today. Available from [Accessed: 3 January 2013].
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.Psychological bulletin125(6), 627.
  • Pink, D. H. (2010). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1992). Healthy work: stress productivity and the reconstruction of working life.
  • Gatto, J. T. (1992). Dumbing us down. Philadelphia: New Society.
  • Joseph, P. (2011, January 15). Zeitgeist: Moving forward. 2011 [Video file]. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.