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/ log / 08th Mar, 2011

Reality is broken?

  1. Tue, 8th Mar 2011
  2. 0 Comment
  3. Book
  4. Community
  5. Society
  6. Third Place
  7. Video Games
  8. Reward System
  9. face-to-face
  10. McGonigal
  11. Steinkuehler
<p>‘Reality’ by Eran Cantrell (eranfolio.com)</p>

‘Reality’ by Eran Cantrell (eranfolio.com)

A day after helping with a house moving I found a decoratively wrapped up book as a surprise on my desktop: Reality is broken by Jane McGonigal. Though the subtitle of the book sounded encouraging: Why games make us better and how they can change the world, the introduction kept me quite thoughtful for some time. It starts with a paragraph from Edward Castronovas book Exodus to the Virtual World, saying:

“Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others. I see a hurricane coming. [...]”

It concludes that millions of person hours cannot pass undetected from the real world. So, is my vision of developing multiplayer games with an educational background just another contribution to remove people from the real world and shift them to virtual worlds?

A shift to virtual worlds

McGonigal provides the background of this statement in the subsequent paragraphs. She describes a society where a vast number of hours is shifted to virtual worlds. Impressing five million players spend averagely 45 hours per week playing video games. A full-time job. Many more spending a part-time job. Overall she sums up 3 billion gaming hours per week world-wide.

The reasons for that she traces back to the fact that reality obviously cannot satisfy the needs of an augmenting number of people (Though numbers seem to be at a standstill, at least in Germany). Or put more simply: Reality does not deliver a reward system as sophisticated as the consequently optimized game worlds. “We are starving, and our games are feeding us.”, McGonigal says and it sounds like a society’s disease pattern. In history obviously not a unique event: She adds an example from ancient Greece. Because of a famine people of a city decided to pass every second day playing games to get distracted from their hunger. And were not arranged ‘bread and games’ in historic Rome to take the people’s mind off the domestic problems and calm them.

Is playing computer games really a society’s disease pattern? Is reality a reason to take flight? Reality will never provide a perfectly balanced reward system while games and their methods will evolve over time/on and on. Game worlds are going to be more and more authentic and sophisticated. So exodus will be inevitable, won’t it. Then future will look like the above illustration from Eran Cantrell or be as described in Neuromancer or Matrix. I guess this would be Castranova’s hurricane.

Real-life vs. virtual worlds?

But I doubt it will go this far. As with every new media there is a lot of discussion about the societal impact. And like everything video games do have their advantages, disadvantages and dangers. I guess the most compelling games are internet-based games. Games without a human counterpart do become boring after some time. And compared to local communities, internet-based communities have the advantage to be independent from the limits of face-to-face accessibility. The ‘long tail’ that works for Internet shops also applies to this situation: People with specialized interests or interest combinations can find like-minded people much easier than in their real-life environment. Not for nothing ‘friends’ lists in Internet communities have impressive numbers. On the other hand the bonds are much weaker.

Even more sophisticated reward systems will not compensate this last point. Transferring these principles to my own experiences in e-learning communities (as distance learning) I have to say: No matter how interesting e-learning is and what advantages there are — face-to-face teaching is much more fun. Every time we have face-to-face meetings this rises motivation for both students and tutors.

Third Places & Online Games

In their paper Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places” Steinkuehler & Williams describe this phenomenon. Third places is a term formed by Ray Oldenburg and means places in-between every person’s main places: home and work. But they play an important role for creating social bonds and communities. Steinkuehler & Duncan consider today’s massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) as new third places. They describe with ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ the high degree of interconnection but lower bonding in these online communities: Overview and ken (bridging) versus social bonding.

But in the end: Do virtual communities not offer the chance to transfer them to real-life? Many internet-based projects have induced user and/or developer groups with real-life offshoots. Typo3 for example and its various local user groups and meetings or OpenStreetMap and its GPS mapping weekends. Many video games have fan groups or fan parties. And in the context of our distance learning course evolve many relationships that persist the learning context. From my point of view multiplayer games could help to bypass the lean period between face-to-face meetings; As virtual worlds that offer subject-specific problems within a context for collaborative problem-solving. A way to improve communication and collaboration of the participants and thus foster the formation of communities. Unfortunately the implementations of such game-based learning scenarios are still missing. At this point I would happily welcome a ‘hurricane’. Concerning the book I am curious about its solution to the introduction.


  1. Steinkuehler C, Williams D. Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated …. 2006;11(4):885-909. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/1…6.00300.x/full.
  2. McGonigal J. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Press HC, The; 2011:400.

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