Reality is Broken (review/essay/gushing)

I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry JenkinsConvergence Culture.  I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways.  This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills).  More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.

The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:

Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.

The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games.  Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.

Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer.  Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more.  I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on.  I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer.  From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win.  And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.

It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons.  For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within.  McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.

Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:

“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”

The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge.  I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned.  I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task.  If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).

McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness.  Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness.  I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).

As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them.  When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power.  The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).

SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.

There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons.  These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).

Not just any old game will save the world.  But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished.  They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.

Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools.  Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.

If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

This is one of the two kinds of reality tv that I like. The first kind is where competent people excel at doing awesome things, shows like Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.

The other is shows where activism and social change are made accessible and exciting.

In Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC, Fridays at 10/9 Central), Celebrity British Chef Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef, Cook With Jaime, etc.) comes to Huntington, West Virginia to begin a revolution in public school food (presumably, he’d like to reform all eating in the USA, but the show focuses on schools). The choice of Huntington is prompted by a CDC report listing Huntington as the unhealthiest town in the country, with the highest instances of obesity-related illness and death.

Three episodes have debuted so far, garnering strong ratings (The Friday at 10PM slot isn’t a great slot, so it’s perhaps not as hard to win).

There is a bit of inflated drama, but overall, the series is a depiction of a sincere pursuit by Oliver, who has already revolutionized the British public school food system.

One of the clips used to promote the show comes from a segment where Oliver is trying to hype up excitement for his test-run doing meals in an elementary school. He goes into a 1st grade class and asks them to identify vegetables such as a tomato, a cucumber, and a potato. The students were unable to identify any vegetables correctly when prompted. This is how separated from real food many children are, and how separated they are from the process of cooking and food-making.

Oliver begins with a test week in an elementary school, competing with dietary regulations that call french fries a vegetable and require 2 servings of bread/grain per meal, but only one serving each of veggies and fruit. Oliver struggles with the dietary requirements, a combative head cook at the school, as well as a obstinately skeptical local DJ.

Oliver opens “Jaime’s Kitchen” as his base of operations to host demonstrations, teach families/kids how to cook simple, healthy meals. As the series goes on, he’s worked with a particular family, recruited a group of high-school students to be his spokespeople in school and help him raise money for a county-wide training to help their school cooks be able to prepare Oliver’s healthy fresh meals on time and budget.

This series is a frank and powerful look at Oliver’s diet/cooking activism in a place that most desperately needs some kind of revolution/reform. Oliver’s sincerity is clear at all times, as he sets himself for an incredibly tough uphill battle (if he’d picked a less challenging setting, it’d doubtlessly not make as good television — they do have to get ratings to survive, after all).

The easiest way to understand this series is to go ahead and watch it. It lacks the artificial drama and competitive greedy backstabbing of The Biggest Loser and is far more grounded in reality than a show like Dance Your Ass Off. It focuses on fresh, real food, rather than artificial/additive-laden and greasy food, showing that it can be beautiful, delicious, and isn’t too difficult or expensive to prepare. Real food may take longer and cost more than box microwave dinners or highly-processed crap, but it’s an investment that’s worth making for nearly everyone. It’s easier for me to say this as a privileged middle-class guy, but the fact remains that real food in reasonable portions is demonstrably better for your health, and in a nation where diabetes is prevalent and weight-related diseases and deaths are scarily high, it’s hard to argue on any basis other than money.

A note for the Fat Studies community: Weight by itself is not vilified in Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution. The show focuses on instances where poor eating habits and weight have lead to demonstrably negative health effects. A Teenager likely to develop diabetes before they turn twenty. A highschooler with liver spots that may cap her life expectancy in the early twenties. A girl who lost her father and uncle to weight-related illnesses. Being fat is not the problem — eating unhealthily in a way that creates weight-related illnesses and death is the problem.

I’ve quickly become very passionate about this show. I watched the first two episodes with my girlfriend, who is a big foodie and cook. I come at it from a developing love of diverse food and cooking, but also as someone who had weight issues as a teenager due to a sedentary lifestyle and a terrible diet (not helped in any way by the public school food system). We ate decently at home, but I was given the freedom to make unhealthy eating choices (massive soda consumption, junk food, etc.) and only later developed a real awareness for how bad those foods were for me, as well as learning the skills of and appreciation for cooking for myself with fresh, real food. I’m still learning those things. When I’m at home from a selling season, living alone, it’s harder to work up the motivation to cook real meals for one. To that end, I bought the companion cookbook, Jaime’s Food Revolution, and will be trying to host friends/join friends for family-style meals of real, healthsome food.

Knowing that certain foods are bad for you, on an intellectual level, is one thing. But it takes an accessible and realistic alternative and the means to transition your habits to make a real, lasting change in your life. Oliver’s show is trying to show that process with one school, leading to a school district, with Oliver’s ambition being to revolutionize school food and general eating habits in the USA, a much larger task than his already-impressive feat in his homeland.

All of the episodes are available on hulu, and there’s information and recipes on the website here:

I hope you give the show a shot, and even if you don’t like the show, I think it’s sentiment and agenda are commendable.

Save The World With Gaming [TED]

There’s quite a Theory — Praxis gap here, but her group has already taken steps along the path she proposes, and it’s a good thing for culture-makers, game-designers, and policy-makers to keep in mind.

I find it especially amusing that the "Social Fabric" she discusses runs along the same lines as the descriptions of social bonds/cohesion that are developed and affirmed by gaming (in my research’s case, it was with tabletop rpgs, a predecessor of MMOs). So I suppose I would count as a part of the “researchers have shown…”

For me, there’s two main points here — identifying that the kind of engagement that MMO players achieve is something that can be well put to work, and also the notion that by imagining our future, we can influence/create our future — which is an idea well-known in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Theory world. Judith Butler would agree with William Gibson in this, I believe.

The hard thing here is getting enough people to care enough about the games that she's suggesting that they put in the time and effort — then you also have to have a game where the result are directly applied to enact social/technological/scientific/economic change, or that the game has a direct effect on these issues/matters. So there’s a social trick (get the players), a design trick (make it relevant), and a policy trick (do something about it).

But for all the difficulty jumping the Theory-Praxis chasm, there's good ideas worth spreading here, in keeping with the TED mandate. I’ve put “Give a TED Talk”on my list of life goals, btw. Just you wait.