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Untold Play

Creating learning that uses the power of games: Or, what learning designers can learn from Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’

Creating learning that uses the power of games: Or, what learning designers can learn from Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’

Jane McGonigal is one of the most recognisable people in game design. Her TED Talks have been watched by millions and she has been brought on board for game design projects for the Olympic Games and the World Bank.   

After my not-quite review of Geoff Engelstein’s GameTek, I’ve decided to make the approach into something of a series, and McGonigal’s 2011 classic, Reality is Broken is a titan in the world of game design for real-world gains.

Like the series, this ‘review’ won’t evaluate the book. Instead, I’ll pick out some of the insights I think are most beneficial to learning designers, especially those interested in games-based learning and gamified learning. I’ll occasionally build on them with my own additions.

Games can bring out people’s best selves

McGonigal talks extremely well about the way that ‘games’ often have a negative connotation in our society: frivolous, time-wasting and unserious. This is something I often have to struggle against when promoting games-based and playful learning.

Reality is Broken collects useful ammunition for that battle. When we play games, we become intensely engaged and unleash a host of positive emotions. Our attention systems, reward centres, motivation systems, emotion and memory centres are all fully engaged.

And games can be fine-tuned to provoke flow: that sense that we’re being tested to the limits of our abilities—and so expanding them. We can make sure games give instant feedback about improvement towards an end goal. Unlike life, which is often too easy or too hard, with plenty of uncertainty about how we’re doing. As I mentioned in my article reviewing C Thi Nguyen’s ideas, learning game designers can think of learning games as clay to be sculpted—but ultimately, the learner is the real clay, their experience sculpted by the game design.

Games can bring real-life benefits

In fact, positive psychology connects a host of beneficial impacts to game-playing. As McGonigal summarises the four drivers of positive psychology, we want and benefit from:

  • Satisfying work
  • A sense of progress and skill growth, towards success
  • Connection with others 
  • Greater meaning in what we do 

Again, the frivolous image of games may lead us to doubt that games can supply these. How can satisfying work come from games? Between 2004 and 2011, players spent six million years on the game World of Warcraft, which is in itself staggering. But McGonigal argues persuasively that it’s not because the game is more fun than some of the popular games whose records it smashed. 

People spend so much time on World of Warcraft partly because it gives them a sense of productivity. They build their character and their character’s holdings progressively, through hard but satisfying work. They get a sense, through the game’s feedback loops, of self-improvement and collective development.

If World of Warcraft can achieve those things, what can games achieve if they focus on learning objectives rather than commercial sales?

McGonigal lists other real-life benefits too numerous for this article, many connected to psychology and neurology. An interesting tidbit is that one survey found that 70% of high-level executives regularly play casual games while working because they help them to de-stress and feel more productive. An interesting counterpoint to the idea that serious people don’t take games seriously.

Games are a medium for social interaction

Games also help people learn collaborative skills, because when gamers collaborate, they share focus on a collective commitment and share rewards. Even when competing, games provide a platform for social activity. 

Good-natured trash talk and teasing represent social ‘strokes’ and can be very beneficial and relationship-building. Once players are engaged in a game together, competitive or collaborative, they have something to talk about and an excuse to spend time together.

Interesting and unusual social dynamics can be brought to the fore. The label ‘naches’ describes a feeling of vicarious pride when you coach somebody else to success—games make this easy to bring about. ‘Ambient sociability’ is another interesting concept, where people play a game that’s not interactive but the knowledge of playing it alongside others and occasional interactions about the game, are found to be extremely positive by those players.

Learning designers can think about how to set up games or gameful learning experiences to create a platform for the kind of social interaction that dovetails with the learning objectives. What kind of relationships and communication do you want to build? What context will allow these to thrive? 

Games allow vital space for failure without fear

The book is a great resource for arguing for the power of games and why we should use them in learning. One of the biggest assets in these terms is the way it builds a case for allowing people room to fail. I argued for the benefits of this in my article about the relative successes of England’s men and women footballers.

In a game, failure is okay, or can even be a positive: you rarely see people laugh as much when gaming as when they fail spectacularly. In work—and in learning at work—this isn’t usually true. We have a reputation to protect. We don't want to fail. And so we do things the old, safe ways, or with an abundance of caution, which restricts learning and change. 

In fact, in positive psychology, the term ‘eustress’ is used to describe the stress that’s undergone voluntarily, enervating and energising us without the negativity and fear stress usually brings. Games can bring this out and learning games that do this will flourish. Build in the likelihood of failure the first time around, leading to learning, leading to success.

McGonigal makes a great point, too, that failure within a game is expected and acknowledged as part of the learning journey. It’s motivational, too—being really good at something isn’t quite as much fun as being not quite good enough at it yet.

Games can make us feel part of something bigger

The thing that McGonigal builds the whole book towards is how these lessons and ideas can be used to create Alternate Reality Games. She aims the power of games at things in life that are not quite motivational enough or pitched too hard or too easy, adding a ‘game layer’ that motivates and structures players’ experiences. 

Most won’t be creating games on the scale of her Olympics project, which took in players from around the world, building excitement around the games and fostering collaboration in the Olympic spirit. But even at a smaller scale, the case that the book builds—games make people feel part of a larger purpose—is persuasive. 

Examples range from ‘Chore Wars’ (building structures and achievements around doing household chores) to ‘World Without Oil’ (coming together to imagine and plan for a future without oil). From ‘Quest to Learn’ (schoolkids experiencing a syllabus as a series of motivating quests) to ‘Superstruct’ (gameful design of new structures to help with the next stage of society).

The upshot is a sense that anyone can learn from games, to harness their benefits for real-world learning and activities. A standout example for me was The Guardian’s 2009 project, which McGonigal calls ‘the world’s first Massively Multiplayer Investigative Journalism Project’. When the newspaper wanted to crowdsource sifting and sorting through thousands of receipts to unearth corruption, they didn’t simply ask for help. They made the experience as gameful as they could, with a gamelike interface, immediate feedback and reward loops and information on what others were doing to make it feel like a community endeavour. The result was 170,000 documents reviewed in the first 80 hours.

All of this says to me: that learning designers can take the things that power games, and use them to power learning experiences. Think about the player or learner journey. Where can the things that make games so impactful be brought to bear on the decisions, the feedback, and the outcomes of that journey?