Context Book Assignment- Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world by Jane McGonigal

Socially Isolated
Addicted young people
Few real-life social ties

These are just a few of the phrases used to describe the traditional “lonely gamer” in the article The “lonely gamer” revisited by Diane Schiano, Bonnie Nardi, Thomas Debeauvais, Nicolas Ducheneaut, and Nicholas Yee. This has been the stereotype of the traditional gamer for the past two decades.

However, Jane McGonigal, a New York Times bestselling author and world-renowned game designer would argue otherwise. In McGonigal’s 2011 book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world, she explores the positive benefits that games can have on people’s everyday lives and how gamers are connecting socially and intelligently to create a better world.

As libraries seek to transition into the role of Library 2.0 we must be willing to listen to our users and understand their needs. According to the PEW Research Center’s report titled Adults and Video Games, written by Amanda Lenhart, Sydney Jones and Alexandra Macgill, 53% of Americans aged 18 or older play video games while one in every five adults play video games on a daily basis. If we turn our attention to teens, a staggering 97% of teens play video games. Games offer us an exciting and engaging opportunity for us to connect with our users in a more positive way and in a way that they feel more involved. If so many of our users are turning to games as a form of entertainment and social connectedness, we as librarians would be wise to look closely at how games are engaging users in a positive way.

McGonigal combines her extensive experience in the gaming industry with well researched psychological theories to explore why games make us happy and how we can apply 14 ‘fixes’ to reality. McGonigal argues that these ‘fixes’ would make for a much more engaging and rewarding reality. If you would like to explore McGonigal’s 14 fixes in greater depth, I would recommend you read the book in its entirety as it reads well for gamers and non-gamers alike. For the purposes of this post, I will be exploring only a handful of the 14 fixes that I feel could be applied effectively to library space to better engage users and promote a more participatory Library 2.0 experience.

According to McGonigal, there are countless forms of games for players to engage in, these range from single player to multiplayer to even massively multiplayer games, some of which take no more than five minutes to play and others that can involve a much more extensive time investment to play. Although games come in diverse forms, McGonigal outlines four key traits that all games have in common at their most basic level.

The Four Defining Traits of Games

First, all games have a goal. By providing players a goal the game gives them something to work towards. As McGonigal says, this goal is a sense of purpose.

Secondly, all games must have rules. These rules give the player the foundation for how they are expected to accomplish the goals set out for them by the game.

Thirdly, for games to be effective they must have a feedback system. A feedback system allows users to quickly evaluate how well they are doing in relation to meeting their goals.

Finally, games must have voluntary participation. Users must feel in control of their participation in games. This is one of the most important aspects of games; the ability for players to enter and leave a game at will ensures that they are in a safe environment.

These traits form the basis of all games, and it is upon these that McGonigal has derived her ‘fixes.’ I have chosen to explore three of these ‘fixes’ in more detail below.

Fix # 3: Do more satisfying work

“Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 55).

According to McGonigal, creating more satisfying work begins with two important things: a clear goal and actionable next steps. By clearly presenting a goal we are able to know exactly what it is we are being asked to accomplish, while actionable next steps ensure that we know exactly what is expected of us to ensure that we succeed in that goal.

According to McGonigal, one game in particular does this extremely well. World of Warcraft is a popular massively multiplayer game created by Blizzard Entertainment. Players navigate a massively online world completing quests, leveling their characters and working in teams of 5, 10 and 25 players to overcome huge tasks impossible to complete on their own. When players accept a quest from one of the thousands of non-playable characters (NPCs) in the world, they are presented with a clear goal with actionable next steps.

Quest in World of Warcraft: Glory to the Horde


Above you can see an example of a World of Warcraft quest called Glory to the Horde. The goals for the quest are clearly outlined. Players are being asked to win two battles at two very specific locations. The actionable next steps are clear: take part in the battle and lead the team to victory. Another reason this work is so satisfying in this virtual world is that the rewards for completing quests are very clearly identified, making completing the quest more fulfilling.

According to McGonigal, there are almost endless series of quests in World of Warcraft. It is the clearly defined goals and actionable next steps that make World of Warcraft so engaging with players and make the work they are doing more satisfying.

Fix # 5 Strengthen your social connectivity

“Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “prosocial emotions” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 82).

Prosocial emotions, according to McGonigal, include love, compassion, admiration, and devotion. Essentially, any feel-good emotions that can be directed to others. Although games don’t evoke these emotions on their own, they are an added side effect of playing games in social networks, such as Facebook, and I would argue in many face to face games, like chess or Monopoly.

When playing games through social networks, many of them allow you to trash talk your opponent by posting to a chat window or to their virtual profile. Although trash talking normally carries a negative connotation, McGonigal argues that research shows that playful teasing is one of the fastest and most effective ways to create positive feelings toward another person (McGonigal, p. 84). Dacher Keltner, a researcher at the University of California argues that teasing feels good because it builds trust and makes us more likable.

While McGonigal primarily focuses on video games, I think almost anyone who has played any kind of game (video game or board game), has had a playful teasing experience. It is these social encounters that help games promote social connectivity to the people around us.

Fix# 8 Seek meaningful rewards for making a better effort

“Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 148).

According to McGonigal, real life just doesn’t give us the feedback we need to feel rewarded on a daily basis. Although this fix isn’t necessarily tied to a game in the traditional sense, it does apply game mechanics to everyday activities.

McGonigal once joked while doing a presentation at a technology conference that she wished she could receive instant feedback after doing a presentation like she got after playing a game. For example giving a good presentation would award her +1 Presentation Skill, after helping stick up for someone you would receive +1 Backbone, etc.

A few days after the conference she received an email from Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs, a community of open-source developers looking to make the government more transparent. He attended her presentation and quickly coded a website that allowed people to send +1’s to people for a wide variety of different tasks and attributes. If a user signs up for the service, all their +1’s stack to create a very game-like profile for yourself. It is this idea of meaningful visual rewards that can help encourage people to put forth a better effort.

Gaming may be fun but how can it be utilized in the library?

So how can librarians use this book to better serve our patrons? As I mentioned earlier, a large number of Americans are already playing games, and it isn’t just kids. Adults and seniors are also playing games and in many cases they are playing games more frequently on a weekly basis (Lenhart, Jones, & Macgill, 2008). According to Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service, written by Michael E. Casey and Laura C. Savastinuk, libraries are “losing the interest of our users,  [w]e no longer consistently offer the services our users want, [w]e are resistant to changing services that we consider traditional or fundamental to library service” (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007, p. xxiv). By utilizing the ideals presented by McGonigal, libraries can create more engaging ways to get users to participate in library services.

Children’s librarians could implement World of Warcraft style quests for book clubs, as outlined in McGonigal’s fix #3. They could ask teens to read a certain number of books per week and present them to the librarian for their rewards. Libraries could invite people into the library to take part in board game nights to strengthen social connectivity as outlined in fix #5. This would build trust within certain library communities.

It is for these reasons that libraries can look to video games and the gamification of services to create more engaging experiences for our users. By exploring Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal, information professionals will gain a better understanding of the positive psychological impact games are having on players around the world and how they are positively influencing user experiences. McGonigal’s ‘fixes’ can be used to create stronger participatory services to library users by providing a unique engaging experience using game mechanics.

Supplemental Video for Context Book Assignment


Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service.

Lenhart, A., Jones, S., & Macgill, A. (2008). Adults and Video Games. PEW Research Center.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

Schiano, D.J., Nardi, B., Debeauvais, T., Ducheneaut, N., & Yee, N. (2014). The “lonely gamer” revisited. Entertainment Computing, 5(1), 65-70

References for Video Supplement:

Lenhart, A., Jones, S., & Macgill, A. (2008). Adults and Video Games. PEW Research Center.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

Media Evolution. (2011). Gamification- how we can use game mechanics in areas that are not a game.

Rolighetsteorin. (Oct. 15, 2009). Bottle Bank Arcade. Retrieved from

14 thoughts on “Context Book Assignment- Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world by Jane McGonigal”

  1. Jane McGonigal did a TED talk filmed in February 2010. She presents a very interesting idea of how she sees games being utilized to build a better world.

  2. Thanks for a great synopsis, Ryan! I think gaming has great possibilities in the library, and in a classroom or workplace setting, for that matter. It offers the chance to learn and showcase skills, as you mention: teamwork, participation, goal setting, Students may not want to learn about cables and coding for the sake of passing a technology class, but put a barrier between them and their games, and they will surely figure it out! McGonigal articulates nicely the opportunities that gaming provides to foster those skills. It entices those who may not normally want to participate and offers the chance for students to exhibit leadership skills. Those same opportunities can be offered in a workplace setting as well. I’ll definitely need to add this to my reading list!

    • @karewh

      Thank you for your comment Karen! In my opinion gaming can offer people a deeper learning in a fun and safe space. Games allow you to make mistakes and often encourage it!

      We live in a society that doesn’t put enough value in failure and learning from our mistakes. In a great article called The philosophy of educational makerspaces: Part 1 of making an educational makerspace (citation below) they explore the power that failure can have in the learning process saying:

      “It’s OK to fail. In fact, we encourage what most of society calls “failure,” because in reality, it is simply the first or second or third step toward success. No amazing innovation is created on the first try. Truly paradigm-shifting technologies and devices are the outgrowth of many iterations. Thus the path to success is paved with failures. There is a famous concept in business that to reach success more quickly, one must find ways to double their failure rate. (3) Educational makerspaces must be failure tolerant, and it would be even better if exploration and productive failure were explicitly encouraged by signs, words, and responses to failure. Big ideas are built on the lessons learned from smaller failures!” (Kurti, S., Kurti, D., & Fleming, 2014).

      In many libraries I think we are afraid to take chances on anything new because of the way we measure success!

      Kurti, R. Steven, Debby L. Kurti, and Laura Fleming. “The philosophy of educational makerspaces: Part 1 of making an educational makerspace.” Teacher Librarian 41.5 (2014): 8+. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

  3. Ryan, what a thoughtful, engaging vlog!

    Your mentioning older persons gaming reminded me of articles discussing how women 40+ represent one of the largest gaming demographics:

    From 2010:

    But also check out the 2015 survey by the Entertainment Software Association:

    Even though women make up about 44% of the survey, the average age is 43. Neato!

    I also loved your idea about gamifying circulation, esp. as something motivational for volunteers (learning categorization) or fine reduction for patrons. I think that has potential to free up circ staff for more creative/challenging endeavors in the library. 🙂

    Speaking of gamification and LIS, I’ve seen rather interesting articles on the gamification of metadata:

    Metadata Games Crowdsourcing Toolset for Libraries & Archives:

    Building blocks of metadata: What can we learn from Lego™?

    • @sairuh

      Thank you for your comment and those links, I’m going to have to check them out!

      One of the courses offered at Carleton University is a Women and Gender Studies class that explores the representation of women in video games (how cool!). I was asked if I would be willing to meet with a small group of these students who felt they couldn’t take the course because they didn’t think they had the ‘skills’ or ‘knowledge’ about video games to get through the course content (I’m not great at games, so I too feel like I don’t have the skillz<—with a 'z' to call myself any kind of game expert).

      To this day we haven't met with the students but I would be so honored to either help out or teach these students about games. I think that this would be such a rewarding experience, empowering people to try something outside their comfort zone in a safe and experimental space like games.

      I also recently had an opportunity to explore an Oculus Rift game with Leap Motion (links below) with students grades 8-10 through one of our community outreach programs at my university. We let each student try on the virtual reality headsets and play a space simulation game. One of the unique things about the game is the physics of weightlessness and how people interact with objects in a weightless environment (and with such precision). One student reached out and tapped a pair of scissors (causing them to spin in zero gravity). The student absolutely lost their mind! They thought it was the coolest thing they ever saw.

      I know it might be cliche to say this, but it was so awe inspiring to see such excitement in a service that we offer at the library. I hope the experience was one that students take with them well into their academic career and have some excitement about what the future holds.

      Yay for the power of games!

      Oculus Rift:

      Leap Motion:

      Carleton Enriched Mini-Course Program (EMCP) Session:

      Space game with Oculus Rift and Leap Motion:

      • @ryantucci, thanks for those links, I’ll check them out — I’ve heard so much about Oculus Rift. Being of a geeky inclination and requiring vision correction, I dream of having something similar, or at least an augmented reality overlay, being seamlessly built into my contact lenses (or specs, when I wear them)!

        Speaking of gaming, gender, and feminism, are you familiar with Anita Sarkeesian and her vlog series Feminist Frequency? Very engaging, very well researched. 🙂

        • @sairuh

          I haven’t seen that vlog. Thank you for sharing!

          Have you seen the HoloLens by Microsoft? Very cool augmented reality device. Too bulky for everyday use but I think it is good to see new technology being developed.

          I proposed getting one (once they become available) for our library. I like to think of ways that non-traditional faculties could use emerging technology and I thought the HoloLens would be great for Art History or Museum Studies programs. The ability to create ‘virtual’ exhibits would be great without needing to dedicate countless physical space (which just isn’t available) to each student. The HoloLens would essentially allow a class of 25-30 students create a virtual exhibit shared by all students.

          Microsoft HoloLens:

          • @ryantucci, I’m curious with how these VR tools compare. For instance, why would you prefer the HoloLens over Oculus Rift or Leap Motion? More developed (i.e., less beta-ish), lower cost, better feature set for your audience? Then again, am sure there are review articles a-plenty! I’m interested in how each would be appropriate, depending on users, budget, dependability, joy and helpfulness during usage, etc. 🙂

          • @sairuh

            Each of these tools: Oculus Rift, Leap Motion, and HoloLens have different roles.

            Leap Motion is used for registering hand movement and gestures, I actually showed my partner this video to show what the Leap Motion ‘sees’.

            Oculus Rift is really a true virtual reality headset in terms of the traditional VR. Allowing people to look around in full 360 degree viewing range.

            Leap Motion works really well with the Oculus Rift in that you can interact with objects that you see with the headset. Without Leap Motion you would have to either use a mouse and keyboard or a controller of some kind.

            HoloLens is really cool since it just augments reality. You can essentially control what you are seeing by pinch zooming, etc. I wouldn’t really consider HoloLens a virtual reality head set.

            Hopefully this makes sense. I apologize for my excessive use of YouTube links. I feel like they allow a better visualization of the concepts than I can describe.

      • I hadn’t heard much about Leap Motion, then I watched the video you linked to, and…Whoa, how very cool! And available for both Mac and PC platforms. Thanks for another fascinating resource, @ryantucci!

        • @ryantucci, thanks very much for explaining the differences among those three technologies — and I do enjoy the references you provide, videos and otherwise, so no worries there. 😀

  4. I remember going on a family vacation along with another family when I was a young girl – perhaps 8 years old. There were six adults and six kids staying in a house on a lake in Idaho. I was the youngest, but not by much. I remember a sense of isolation, being in an unfamiliar and distant place. I clung to the comfortable familiarity of my immediate family, yet felt a certain edge in the presence of the other adults. somewhat mysterious to my inexperienced and young mind. This moment in time registered with me because of the evening we all gathered to play Trivial Pursuit. The kids and the adults played together, despite the fact that the game was primarily intended for an adult audience.

    My parents and their friends were all educated and worldly, and truth be told we children were no match for their experience and knowledge. But my joy was in the gathering and being included. I felt a sort of guilt that I could not adequately respond to all the questions directed for me to answer, but I was tremendously thrilled with the answers I was able to provide.

    I listened intently to the bountiful discussions and anecdotes circulating about the room. I delighted in seeing my parents socialize with other adults, with jocular amiability. I loved being included, and being able to participate.

    The game is much like a contract, a commitment each player makes to amicably gather for at least the duration of the game. But it is the participatory element, and what we learn about each other in the process of playing the game, that is fundamental outcome.

    • @janemhoff

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us! Games can offer us such great memories!

      Trivial Pursuit is such a great game (I’m horrible at it though). At the Ontario Library Association Super Conference 2015 we (my library) took a handful or board games with us and had a 2-3 hour game booth set up on the final day. One of the most popular games we had with us was Wits and Wagers, which is a fun take on the traditional ‘question and answer’ type board game. In Wits and Wagers all players answer number related questions on a dry erase card and put their answers on the game board in numeric order. Players then place bets on which answer is closest to the correct answer without going over (think Price is Right).

      It is a very fun game to play!

      Wits and Wagers:

    • Jane – it is interesting that you had this experience. Last summer when I was back in Canada I went to Toronto to visit my friend. We ended going to a board gaming meet up. It was so much fun playing board games with her and her friends. I think that board games are a way for many people come together and connect on a fun level.


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