When was the last time you felt a sense of accomplishment so gratifying that you threw your hands above your head and shook your fists with pride and elation? This gesture has been identified by psychologists as a universal expression made by people of all ages all around the world when they feel a sense of personal triumph. Italians call this feeling fiero, and the term has been adopted by game-designers to describe one of the most essential feelings a good game should provide.
In Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal proposes that most people’s everyday lives are shockingly fiero-deficient, and I have to agree. Most of us don’t complete our workdays with a fist-shaking gesture or spontaneous dance as we revel in our daily achievements, and much of our leisure time is spent on escapist forms of entertainment. If you can remember the last time you experienced a true fiero moment, chances are it was vicarious (e.g., watching a football player score a last-minute touchdown) or of no use to anyone in the real world (e.g., defeating a challenging level in Angry Birds).
McGonigal wants to change all that. To make the case for the ambitious assertion found in her book’s subtitle, she focuses on three key points.
- Reality is filled with tedious obligations and overwhelming problems that leave human beings feeling bored, powerless, and isolated.
- Games are humanity’s most effective tools for fostering engagement, empowerment, motivation, human connection, and a sense of accomplishment.
- The same principles that make games so rewarding and addictive can be used to change how we feel about and tackle unpleasant and daunting tasks in the real world—from cleaning our toilets to reducing global energy consumption.
To provide specific strategies for translating the best qualities of a good game to the real world, McGonigal proposes fourteen “fixes” for reality. Almost all of these fixes can be applied to education, and I hope to eventually assemble a group of DePaul faculty to read the book and discuss them further. For now, however, I’d like to focus on one of my favorites: “Meaningful Rewards When We Need Them Most.”
To introduce this fix, McGonigal describes a talk she gave at a conference in which she lamented,
‘If I have one regret in life, it’s that my undead priest is smarter than I am.’ Technically speaking, it’s true: if you were to add up every A I’ve gotten in my real life, from junior high through graduate school, the total still wouldn’t come close to my World of Warcraft character’s intellect stat. Never mind the fact that there’s no score at all for getting smarter once you’re out of school.
McGonigal frequently refers to the motivational power of “leveling up”—a concept commonly found in role-playing games that provides players with progress milestones and encourages them to keep striving for higher levels of expertise. When a player levels up, it means his or her character has accumulated enough experience points to get improved strength, stamina, weapons, or other tools to help the player complete increasingly challenging missions.
In some games, completely leveling up a character can take hundreds of hours of gameplay. Yet players are rarely daunted by these lofty requirements because they are provided with a steady stream of smaller victories and positive feedback as they move closer to their next goal. During her conference talk, McGonigal mentioned that she wished some of this positive reinforcement could be extended to reality, allowing friends and strangers to give her experience points in recognition of her latest achievements. As a result, an audience member at the conference created plusoneme.com. The site bills itself as “gold stars for grownups,” and it provides a simple online tool that allows users to quickly recognize each other whenever someone demonstrates an admirable trait.
Initially, I thought, “What a great idea! Who doesn’t love to be recognized for their efforts? And wouldn’t it be great in an online course? This could make students feel more valued and connected without a big fuss or hokey bonding activities.” I even signed up for an account on plusoneme.com to try it out, but my blind adoration for the site was short-lived. Within a day or two, I opened my mailbox and pulled out the latest issue of The Atlantic. The headline, “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids,” practically leaped off the page.
The text and image on the cover were promoting an article by Lori Gottlieb titled, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Based on the headline and article title, it should come as no surprise that Gottlieb is one of many pundits blaming the indulgent parenting methods of the last few decades for creating a generation of entitled, neurotic, self-absorbed kids who are now entitled, neurotic, self-absorbed adults. It’s a backlash parade with Amy Chua serving as the Grand Marshal for 2011.
McGonigal seems to agree that most people born around 1980 or later are particularly frustrated and bored with reality. However, instead of blaming parenting trends, she points out that these younger generations have grown up with engaging, empowering games, and that these games have made the shortcomings of reality more obvious and stifling than they have ever felt before. Rather than try to put the genie back in the bottle through humiliation or forcing a toddler to play piano until her fingers bleed, scholars like McGonigal ask, “Is there a way to increase motivation, productivity, and fulfillment by turning the task at hand into a game?”
In McGonigal’s world, the answer is almost always yes. In one example, she notes that she and her husband have used the website Chore Wars to turn everyday household chores into competitive challenges. In the game, chores are assigned various point values, with the most unpleasant tasks receiving the highest number of points. By default, the points that players accumulate in Chore Wars have no material value. In McGonigal’s case, the current high-score holder has the right to choose the music whenever she and her husband drive somewhere together.
McGonigal claims this simple and free reward system has changed the way she and her husband view everyday housekeeping. She says the Chore Wars over-the-top fantasy world, in which users can collect experience points every time they “conjure clean clothes” or “rid the kingdom of toilet bowl stains,” has left her home cleaner than it has ever been. While I doubt that driving-music veto power would motivate me to clean my bathtub, McGonigal does provide more than her own household as a case study. Other users claim that Chore Wars’ has turned their children into an army of competitive cleaning machines, which I’m sure most parents would agree speaks volumes to the power of a little virtual encouragement.
That’s great for McGonigal, who could probably game her way through a root canal, and for kids, who aren’t embarrassed to think of a duster as a magic wand. But what about the rest of us? Can we really use game principles to make completing our grown-up, mundane obligations more gratifying?
At the risk of sounding like an over-indulged millennial, I wouldn¹t mind a little excitement and a virtual gold star once in a while for all my hard work. And I’m not ashamed if it takes a little imagination to get others to participate. After all, fiero is in short supply in these troubled times, particularly here in the land of Scholarshire, where the shadow of the evil Lord Profitus has cast a pall of terror across the land. If all it took was a kind word of praise in ye mystical comment box below for my blogger character to level up, wouldst thou aid me in my quest? Or wouldst thou side with the dark forces and leave me to rot in a cubicle, denied any reason to throw my hands above my head and shake my fists with pride and elation?
Let’s make a game of it and see.