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63 of 131 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Some Good Ideas, Some Very Poor Writing, January 12, 2012
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This review is from: Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Paperback)
I sympathized strongly with McGonigal's viewpoint from the beginning. I've played games for almost all of my life, having been born a few years after the release of the NES, and have long felt like games were responsible for some of the better parts of my education. So when McGonigal began her book heralding the possibilities of games educating and improving society -- one of her strongest arguments -- I was totally on board.

But when McGonigal goes more in-depth, expounding on readings of specific games mixed with hand-picked psychology findings, I was very disappointed. Her readings hardly scratched the surface of these games. Most were structured around some combination of "this is what players do in these games" and "this is how many people play this game", and drew very unearned conclusions on these bases. She explained the games in a very general way that would be clear to non-gamers, but didn't go into any kind of convincing detail. Her summaries of psychological studies were equally unconvincing; to name one example, Tal Ben-Shahar's work is significantly more complex and interesting than how it is presented in McGonigal's book. My biggest complaint along these lines, however, has to be aimed at her extremely low standard of "evidence" or "proof". Two sentences in particular are burned in my memory as examples of the kind of writing that would earn poor marks in a college-freshman-level environment:

"As countless scientists, psychologists, and spiritual leaders have proven..."
"This [that people could have fun playing her cemetary poker game] proves that Alternate Reality Games can change the world in a positive way"

What? No, it doesn't! Neither of these sentences prove anything -- moreso, her poor writing renders interesting and plausible ideas unconvincing and tenuous.

Which is a very unfortunate thing, because some of her formulations are quite challenging and impressive. McGonigal is absolutely right about the incredible amounts of energy and effort expended by gamers in service of play, and that instead of trying to direct that attention away from games, we would benefit much more from games that improve the world. She's right that games fulfill real-life needs that are unsatisfied by reality, and that we need to change reality, rather than make more interesting diversions, to properly harness the latent energy of games. I'm in total lock-step with her up to that point, and it's unfortunate that such a poor writer as McGonigal has been given such a prominent voice with which to represent these ideas.

Perhaps a more competent writer could also see a larger flaw in the argument itself, which is that the problems McGonical seeks to address are, with very few exceptions, extremely bourgeois. Putting it another way, she seeks to transform daily life through games, but her conception of daily life assumes abundance of money and food and material need. Can games change poverty? Hunger? Can they change disenfranchisement of the second- and third-world? How can games transform the world we live in if they cannot change the material conditions of the world? If they truly cannot--as is implied by her failure to consider these topics as worth discussing--are games impotent, useful only for improving the leisure time of the priveleged class?

My most common feeling in this book was that of frustration: there are some truly transformative and interesting ideas buried under layers of oversimplified, overstated arguments. It felt like having to open a hundred empty boxes to find the prize buried in a single layer of annoying packaging. Sure, the prize was good-- but was it worth the drudgery?
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 28, 2012 12:07:59 AM PDT
Nic says:
That was a truly thoughtful and useful review. I agree that those two sentences are poorly written, or perhaps more accurately, contain poor logic. I was interested in this concept and idea after seeing her Ted talk and was thinking the book would give more depth, but now I'm usure. I might check it out at the library for a skim.

Posted on Feb 4, 2013 12:28:08 PM PST
one small point about your interesting review: McGonigal wasn't "given" a prominent voice. She used her voice and it became prominent. Many other expounders on this topic and other that concern our society are lost in the gaming blogs and it is up to those writers and even you to bring voices forward.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2013 12:46:59 PM PST
wilarseny says:
Sure, fully agreed. To me, though, that's also part of the problem: mass-market books about specialized topics need both clarity and rigor, and I felt like McGonigal sacrificed much of the latter in her quest for the former. Whereas the game blogosphere can be pretty impenetrable if you haven't been gaming your whole life and don't feel like tabbing over to wikipedia every ten seconds to clarify terminology.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2013 1:27:21 PM PST
yes. better editors always needed.

Posted on Feb 14, 2013 11:20:39 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 14, 2013 11:21:00 AM PST
GB says:
Those sentences you quote are not in the book. I searched and they don't seem to appear anywhere. To point out errors that are not in the book seems unfair.
Note: I may be biased because this is the best book that I have read in the past decade. Just loved it.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 14, 2013 11:21:59 AM PST
wilarseny says:
They are. I will look them up and edit the post when I get home.

Further, there are many examples of this sort of logic in the book. Regardless of your views on the book, this much should be clear.
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