Reality is Broken and the Tyranny of Fun


During her “Reality is Broken” GDC Rant games researcher and creator Jane McGonigal made a funny, poetic and passionate plea for game designers to do nothing less than change the world.

The nut of her argument was that game designers are in the business of making people happy and they’ve gotten quite good at it over the years. So, why put limits on this magical art at the boundaries of the game board or box? Why not use these skills to make the mundane, painful and sad exciting, safe and wonderful?

The premise seems so self-evidently positive that I think the four or five hundred people in audience in were a bit taken aback by the question posed by game developer and deep thinker Jonathan Blow.

What Blow wanted to know is this: McGonigal offered lots of examples and ideas of how game design could make the world a better, and more fun place. One example dealt with getting players wired up to something like the Nike+ running system, so that lumpy WOW players could level up their characters by running around the neighborhood. Tah dah! Exercise plus making the grind fun again. (McGonigal actually has been playing around with games using her own running).

Blow wondered if this was really such a good idea. Did we want to make something as natural and simple as running into something burdened with context and rules and conceptual overhead? He countered with the “game” of frequent flier miles. Where once you could simply take a flight, now you have to barter, negotiate, scheme and plan to optimize, not just travel schedules, but frequent flier mile accumulation and distribution.

I don’t think Blow was satisfied with McGonigal’s answer that good and smart and kind game developers simply would not design ugly, nasty and no-fun systems like the frequent flier mile example.

For me, this also raised another issue: Is there such a thing as too much fun? Should we be making our homes, and schools and bus stops and office spaces more fun, more enjoyable, more playful?

I don’t have an answer to that one, anymore than there is a ready answer to the question, “Does turning our lives into games make them more complicated than just letting them be a little boring a lot of the time?”

Here, I’d just like to point out the connection of questions and suggest that before we go about turning the planet into a fun house, might want to consider the consequences. After all, wasn’t that what concerned Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle?

3 Responses to Reality is Broken and the Tyranny of Fun

  1. Jon Blow is mistaken. No one has to “to barter, negotiate, scheme and plan” when flying. I never do. Similarly, no one will have to be “burdened with context and rules and conceptual overhead” when running.

    Indeed, simple running already has several contexts layered on it at times: soccer, marathon, tag, etc. That doesn’t prevent those who run just for itself from doing so.

    Your concern that there might be “too much fun” is more apt. Not everything must be a game to be enjoyed.

  2. I think you echo what I would summarize as Jane’s reply, which was “We won’t design bad games for things like running; we will devise good games.”

    Still, I’m sensitive to Blow’s basic objection, that we might use games to make easy things complicated as much as we might make them fun.

    For example, I like to run. I’m not freakishly obsessed with it. But one thing I stopped doing was running with headphones. I decided that I should run in such a way as to make running fun in and of itself. The headphones was a way to sedate the running and, in a way, acknowledge that I didn’t want to run, I just didn’t want to be fat and die. But if that was really the goal, I’d be better off to watch what I eat.

    Which is to say, I think there is a reason to focus on something, and not just make it into something else–bubblegum flavored medicine, television screens in elevators, iPods in public. Maybe there is a danger in designing games to take us away from our need to exercise and learn.

    Then again, maybe I am just sounding oddly Amish about this:)

    — David

  3. To me there’s two distinct categories here. Sweating off the pounds in a Nike/WOW mashup is a carrot and stick approach to some tangible benefit. Would those guys be running for the ‘fun in and of itself’? No. In the same way as kids in new gyms play DDR or cycle, because the leveling up, the competition against others, the integration into a medium they’re familiar with makes it more interesting. Sad? Maybe. But it works. And so in an age where a lot of us sit on the couch to play PS2, standing up and moving to play the Wii is an improvement. The same goes for the dubious but effective use of Americas Army to recruit soldiers, or other serious games.

    If something *is* designed for pure play, then we have a tendency to add all those layers on, or make it too specific. Maybe thats why game designers have started building sandbox type games, which don’t define as much the engagement or the creativity. Some of the most interesting video game clips on YouTube have nothing to do with the original intent of the designers: glitch maps on LineRider, stunts pulled in GTA, and synchronised aerial manouevers in BF2. The most interesting ‘play’ article I read recently stated that citizens of Amsterdam growing up in the 60’s all remembered fondly the classic playgrounds of architect and planner Aldo van Eyck. The revolutionary key to hours of play and conversation? A set of 4 or 5 rocks ringed with some park benches.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE