There are more than four thousand charter schools in the United States, but there's only one that tries to mimic a video game. At Quest to Learn, which serves sixth through twelfth graders in New York City, students get little of traditional homework, lectures, studying, or even grades. Instead, they engage in goal-oriented "missions," supposedly accumulating knowledge and skills across disciplines while, say, pretending to be an adviser to the Spartan government during the Peloponnesian War. As in a video game, they progress at more or less their own pace, and there's never anything as definitive as a permanent score or a failed assignment.
We desperately need alternative models to our country's failing public-education system. But to game designer Jane McGonigal, the author of Reality Is Broken, Quest to Learn represents not just an alternative but the very future of secondary education. "Their ideal school is a game," she writes, which would mirror the immersive online worlds in which millions of children—and adults—spend their free time. And McGonigal's faith in the power of games is hardly limited to education. According to her, games can, and will, refashion the way we work, volunteer, and socialize—that is, the very way we live, online and off. "Game design," she writes, is "a twenty-first-century way of thinking and leading. And gameplay isn't just a pastime. It's a twenty-first-century way of working together to accomplish real change."
McGonigal is not alone, at least when "accomplishing real change" means "making lots of money": According to the popular online magazine VentureBeat, over the past year the tech industry has invested some $135 million in "gamification," or the use of gaming tropes, like finding "secret treasure" or completing "levels," to get consumers to visit a store or buy movie tickets. The best-known example is Foursquare, a smart-phone-based application in which players "check in" to locations (shops, concerts, movie theaters) to win points. Gamification, many in Silicon Valley believe, is the next big thing in Internet technology, following in the footsteps of blogs and social networking.
But McGonigal wants to take things still further. Her book is full of gnomic pronouncements like "The real world increasingly feels like it's missing something" and "Compared with games, reality is depressing." In response, she advocates a sort of ludo-cyborgism, in which we recast our daily lives to mimic the mechanics of video games and their culture. "Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization," she writes. "They're leading us to its reinvention."
There's no doubt that games are rapidly becoming the dominant form of consumer entertainment. Over a five-day period last November, Call of Duty: Black Ops, the most recent in a hit series of first-person-shooter games, made $650 million worldwide—the highest-grossing debut of a media product ever, more than any book, movie, or album. Collectively, gamers have spent six million years playing the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft—about as long as Homo sapiens have been walking planet Earth, McGonigal notes breathlessly. "By that measure, we've spent as much time playing World of Warcraft as we've spent evolving as a species."
McGonigal, it's fair to say, is given to overstatement. After all, there are any number of banal activities that, taken collectively, mankind has spent millions of years doing—yet no one has written a book about how dog walking or standing in line at Starbucks is revolutionizing society. And this is the main problem with Reality Is Broken: McGonigal refuses to recognize the gap between the reality of video-game playing and the "reinvention" she sees around every alien-infested corner of Halo 3. Literally: She writes that the collective "killing" of ten billion enemy aliens in Halo 3 since the game debuted in September 2007—a feat celebrated on fan sites around the world—proves that "the more we learn to enjoy serving epic causes in game worlds, the more we may find ourselves contributing to epic efforts in the real world."
But McGonigal rarely asks, or bothers to find out, whether all that online backslapping really did translate into increased activism. The only evidence she cites is a vaguely explained study showing that children who are helpful in games are more willing to help others in real life. Setting aside the obvious questions—young people as compared with whom? How do you quantify "willingness"?—there's the larger issue of time tradeoffs. There are only so many hours in the day, and all those millions of years spent playing World of Warcraft have to take the place of some form of real-world activity. I'd love to volunteer at the homeless shelter, but I'm too busy helping my friends beat BioShock 2.
This belief in the matchless power of the Web is a flaw common to techno-utopians. Clay Shirky, the doyen of social networking, sees the same promise lurking in the declining hours we spend watching television and the increasing number we spend online, where interactivity and collaboration should allow us to become more productive and engaged citizens. But if all it took to unlock our creative potential were an ethernet cable, how does Shirky explain I Can Has Cheezburger?
Like a lot of hard-core gamers, McGonigal believes that game worlds offer something better than reality: "In today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy." One could say the same about a drug high—indeed, McGonigal often mimics the chatter about marijuana's world-altering potential common to freshman dorm rooms. Still, if she's right, it's only because, as real as some games look and as human as some of their characters appear, games are by design not real. Huge chunks of the human condition have been left out. Decisions have been simplified. Despair, anger, jealousy—emotions like these are engineered out of the gaming experience, not because game companies want to turn us into zombies, but because that's what we demand: escape into a simplified existence from the messy disappointment of reality. Simply put, video games can't help us change the world if they're designed to divorce us from it.
To be fair, McGonigal doesn't envision Halo 3 and its fans altering the world on their own—hence her love for Quest to Learn. To effect real change, we must use the basic mechanisms of video-game play—discrete challenges, tangible rewards, opportunities for collaboration—to refashion the way we work, socialize, even clean the house. "What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality?" she asks. "What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?"
For example, she and her husband don't simply spend Sundays making their way through their household chores. Instead, they play "Chore Wars," in which every time they take out the trash or wash the car, they win "experience points," which they can trade in for, say, control over the radio on a long car ride. They even refashion their chores into "epic" quests: "Brushing out our Shetland sheepdog is 'Saving the dog-damsel in distress from clumps and shedding.'"
Maybe this works for McGonigal and her husband—to each their own. But most people would find it patronizing to suggest that they can't get by in life without immediate rewards to urge them on. The lack of such incentives, though, is precisely what McGonigal believes is "broken" about reality. "Ideally, the real world would present us with the same kind of intensely gratifying, save-the-world work flow we get from good games," she writes. But this is the mind-set of a child; part of becoming an adult is realizing that life doesn't reward us every time we do something good (or punish us every time we do something bad). What McGonigal wants, in other words, is to turn society into a never-ending kindergarten.
McGonigal's infantilizing vision isn't suited for actual children, either. Quest to Learn immerses students in an environment where failure and stress are absent, traded in for a feel-good curriculum where everyone wins. As the parent of a very young child, not to mention a former nervous wreck around tests, I found that an appealing notion, at first. But do we really want our children to grow up expecting life to be a series of "boss levels" and "secret challenges"? School is not, in fact, about sugarcoating knowledge or removing the real world from children's lives; it's about preparing them to meet its challenges. If that means a little stress, well, better now than on the first job interview.
McGonigal's analysis also faces a more fundamental contradiction: She purports to advocate games for fun—and yet, in harnessing games to every purpose except simple relaxation, she manages to drain them of actual enjoyment. She praises games for their potential to eliminate "mental downtime from [people's] lives." But downtime is precisely the reason most of us play games in the first place. Sure, games engage the mind in a way that passive entertainment like television can't, but most of us pursue both to the same end. We don't play games because they'll make us better people; we play them because they don't make us anything at all. There's a reason kids prefer Halo 3 to classic educational games like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and it's not just the superior graphics.
Fun is a fragile construct. The minute we're told that a game has a purpose beyond play—whether it's to make us smarter or more efficient at work—we start to lose interest. It may be possible, as McGonigal is likely to reply, that designers will someday build a purposive game so compelling that we won't care why we're playing it. But her book doesn't provide a single clue about what that game would be like. With all due respect to her domestic arrangements, I'm pretty sure it won't look like Chore Wars.
There's no doubt that video games can play a positive role in our lives. They can bring families together, provide lonely teens a way to socialize, and give us an outlet for our frustrations after a long day of work. In other words, they can be a hell of a lot of fun. Isn't that enough?
Clay Risen is an editor of the op-ed page of the New York Times.