Gamification: Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds.

The art of play.
March 29 2011 2:14 PM

I Don't Want To Be a Superhero

Ditching reality for a game isn't as fun as it sounds.

Portrait of Jane McGonigal. Click image to expand.
Jane McGonigal

In October 2004, a Bush aide—widely believed to be Karl Rove—informed the New York Times Magazine's Ron Suskind that, as a journalist, he was part of the "reality-based community." It wasn't a compliment. The aide told Suskind, scornfully, that "when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality … we'll act again, creating other new realities."

Unless I'm talking to a quantum physicist, I don't trust people who argue for multiple versions of reality. That is why I'm wary of "gamification," an idea that's been blowing strong through confabs like South by Southwest and is championed by authors, consultants, and startup gurus like Jane McGonigal, Seth Priebatsch, and Gabe Zichermann. The basic idea arises from how engaged people are when they play games, even if they're doing mundane things like running a farm or mining ore. If we make the world more like a game, the thinking goes, we can harness all that energy to solve real-world problems.

It's a compelling idea, certainly. I've been covering video games for more than 10 years and am especially interested in the "serious games" movement; I believe whole-heartedly that wonderful things can happen when people play. But gamification advocates do not preach the beauty and power of play. Perhaps without knowing it, they're selling a pernicious worldview that doesn't give weight to literal truth. Instead, they are trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of day-to-day life. This isn't fun and games—it's a tactic most commonly employed by repressive, authoritarian regimes.

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McGonigal, a designer of alternate-reality games, is gamification's most passionate supporter. In her book Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Change Us and Make the World a Better Place,McGonigal describes an epiphany she had about the rise of virtual worlds. Looking at the millions of people who spend millions of hours working for points and status, she concluded that people in the real world aren't given enough opportunities to feel the same kind of achievement and satisfaction they do in World of Warcraft. I couldn't agree more.

So, how does McGonigal propose that we bring gaming-esque achievements into our daily lives? A typical example is Chore Wars—a game wherein people do household tasks in exchange for virtual experience points and treasure and avatar power-ups. You can get 10 dexterity points for dusting without knocking anything off the shelves, McGonigal writes, or five stamina points for properly dealing with the recycling.

Chore Wars is a benign example—if pretending you're being rewarded helps you do your chores, fine. But it reveals that McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want.

What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples' lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they'd make it into heaven. I think they'd have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.

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