Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Entice gamers to tackle real-world problems? It's not a far-fetched idea to Harold Thimbleby

May 12, 2011

We could all make a list of the world's problems: water shortages, environmental concerns, climate change, broken nuclear reactors, child soldiers, terrorism, budget cuts, lack of trust, human rights abuses and growing social isolation.

Each of us would have our own list - and the nagging feeling that some of these problems could be solved if only we put our minds to them. We need people to focus on these problems and to seek solutions.

Did you know that each week more than 3 billion hours are spent, wasted, by people playing games? The people playing these games are solving problems, and they find the experience addictive. They spend hours developing their skills and working with other people to build fantasy worlds that are incredibly compelling. It's hard to get them away from computers.

Once you get into Tetris, Minesweeper, Guitar Hero or World of Warcraft, or even newspaper crosswords, it's hard to stop. You need a fix, and you get better and better at your chosen game. Some 70 per cent of top executives regularly spend time playing games at work. It makes them feel productive. Collectively, we've spent about 6 million years playing World of Warcraft alone. That is longer than we took to evolve since the first primate stood upright.

What would happen if we could direct a similar amount of attention to solving real problems?

The key insight, made here by Jane McGonigal, is that games are not the problem. Games are not a waste of time; games work beautifully. It is reality that is broken; it just isn't providing the motivation that games do. Real-world problems do not offer the addictiveness, sense of success, productivity and happiness that computer games are designed to do. We therefore need to fix reality. Instead of complaining about wasted hours, we should be repackaging the real problems so that they grab attention the way that games do.

A lot of research is going into the reasons behind the success of games. Two insights here stand out, and both undermine key fixations of the modern world: happiness does not come from owning but from deliberate effort; and failure is not to be avoided because it helps us get better and can create a sense of drive - if there is hope for success. Game players will spend hours enjoying hard work and effort, and they will endure failure after failure so they can improve. Reality is broken because in the real world we want to buy success and get it quick, and we can't cope with failure.

McGonigal's insights provide ammunition for managers who want to change the rules of organisations, but she does much more. We Times Higher Education readers can learn a lot about turning our universities into the game that changes the world - and students will love it. We want their focus and attention, and we want them to win in life and become motivated to do things that matter and to jump back up after failure.

Nobody much wants to change how they live. But everybody wants an epic adventure and a life full of meaning. Try playing Evoke, which you can find at; it is a crash course in empowering people all over the world to find creative solutions to urgent social problems, with real-world mentors in organisations such as Intel and the World Bank offering support to players. The game's object: imagine new social enterprises that will help save the world.

Reality is Broken is the book one wishes David Cameron had spent time reading when he was toying with war games over Libya. It's rare for such an important book to be so stimulating. Please read this book, and start playing for our future.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

By Jane McGonigal

Jonathan Cape

320pp, £12.99 and £13.56

ISBN 9780224089258 and 9781409028987 (e-book)

Published 3 February 2011

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