In light of my recent critique of gamification, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I loved this essay by Heather Chaplin. Here’s the conclusion:

Sometimes I feel bad for these gamification enthusiasts. Priebatsch longs to change the term valedictorian to White Knight Paladin. And McGonigal, whose games are filled with top-secret missions in which you get to play the superhero, says “reality is broken” because people don’t get to feel “epic” often enough. This is a child’s view of how the world works. Do adults really need to pretend they’re superheroes on secret missions to have meaning in their lives?

In Reality Is Broken, McGonigal talks about a game she invented to help herself get over a concussion. SuperBetter, as she called it, involved her taking on a secret identity—Buffy the Concussion Slayer—and enlisting family and friends to call her to report on “missions.” The purpose of SuperBetter, McGonigal writes, was to connect her with her support system. I felt sad when I read this. What, you couldn’t just pick up the phone? You needed to jump through all those hoops just to talk to your friends?

Life is complex and chaotic. If some people need to do a little role-playing now and then to help them through the day, mazel tov. It’s another thing entirely, though, to rely on role playing for human contact, or to confuse the comfort of such tricks with what’s real. Having a firm grip on reality is part of being a sane human being. Let’s not be so eager to toss it away.

Text Patterns

March 30, 2011


  1. "It's another thing entirely, though, to rely on role playing for human contact, or to confuse the comfort of such tricks with what's real. Having a firm grip on reality is part of being a sane human being. Let's not be so eager to toss it away."

    At the risk of establishing a reputation as a negative commenter, I can't resist, this is a really poor conclusion. I'd say that a lot of people some of time and some people most of the time actually find loosening their grip on reality quite necessary. There is something in this. It doesn't sound like McGonecal has developed her theory very effectively from the reviews I've read, but dismissing it on the grounds that grown ups should have a firm grasp on reality is worse. One could just as blithely reject religion on the exact same grounds.

    May I suggest the writings of Erik Davis for a more useful tack? And also the PhD thesis of my friend Gordon Calleja on the topic of gaming and reality is quite brilliant.

  2. I agree that McGonigal's "Superbetter" game sounds kind of pathetic when you hear about it 3rd hand as an outsider, but it's hard to get any sense for the spirit in which she and her family & friends did this.

    In general the stuff McGonigal writes about seems very weak, but I sympathize with the impulse that asks, "Is there any way to harness all the energy that goes into playing games for something more worthwhile?" But I suspect the answer is no.

    To me, the strongest part of Heather Chaplin's article is not the sneering at the "childishness" of people who want their lives to seem more "epic." Surely we agree that the desire at least for a life that is more exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling is a good one? And that this really is a problem in our society?

    More important is what Chaplin says about corporations that are salivating over these ideas as ways to get people conditioned to accept virtual rewards for their work rather than actual rewards.

  3. What I find most troubling is how western culture has an outlook of the world as total work; of work-for-work's sake. Whether it is for pay or "superhero" points is almost not the point. We need to foster an atmosphere is society that allows for more than just material progress. We need a degree of the classical world view which viewed both useful work and philosophical work as vitally important to the full development of man.

    In short, more people need to read things like Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Comments are closed.