Mindfulness in gaming series 1: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

Reality is Broken: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

Reality is Broken: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

…I’m healthy enough to get back to my ponderings.

I’ve been mulling this over for a while and I’m like to have a multi-part series on mindfulness and gaming (digital and non-ditigal). For the first part I’d like to share a book I read soon after my seizure called Reality is Broken (why games make us better and how they can change the worldby Jane Mccgonigal).

Cover of Reality is Broken by Jane McConigal (Why games make us Better and how they can Change the World)


For me, the title alone caused me to gravitate to it. As I’ve shared previously, the concept of my life (and death) went through a heavy overhaul after the seizure.

Why go into a topic like mindfulness and games– two subjects that seem at odds with one another? For me personally, I’d really like to reconcile my own gravitation to both. I think each is can be immensely helpful and both have helped me significantly in my own journey of healing, thus far.
On one hand, I have my love of nature through historical figures and some of my own mystical experiences. I’ve written before about how St. Francis and his unique bond with nature and how there is something mystical about dying slowly outside (St. Francis, Christ, and Marcus Aurelius are good examples) On the other hand, I still really enjoy games (digital and non-digital) and, the environment, the challenge, and the happiness they bring me– how do those fit together? For one thing, when you’re playing a game you are never alone. I’ve heard a game defined as

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Bernard Suits

When you’re playing a game (even solo) you’re engaging with the designer of the game, people who have played the game before you, and in a way people who will play after you (think about high scores and leader boards.) This helps with the problem of the paradox of self-help (which I’ll get into later). After a lot of thought and reading, I have my own ideas but it’ll take a few posts to hash it all out. Not all of these posts will be easy to read, but some (like this one) will.

Part of my interest also came from a podcast I’d heard here as a guest on. If interested, I believe it was the Tim Ferriss podcast, link here.

Here in this 6 minute TED talk Jane describes how to heal your brain with video games, including how a simple VR game about snowmen is more effective than morphine for pain-relief for severe burn victims, how playing tetris or candycrush saga helps relieve PTSD in veterans after experiencing trauma, and how her own game, Superbetter, is helping others deal with depression and traumatic brain injuries while undergoing clinical studies and receiving funding from the NIH.
Screenshot from the game Cities Skylines: my creation of a town called Mountain View. Cities Skylines is a “sandbox game” with no real ending. It’s the process of iteration and creation. Jane McConigal encourages this typing of gaming for “building up players’ sense of creative agency.” “Noting that creative games have special positive impacts.”Games like these include Spore, Little Big Planet, Minecraft, the Halo level designed and the Guitar Hero Song creator.”
Another screenshot of mountain View’s developing tech sector. Trying to incorporate bike lanes (see the green painted streets)
Mountain View’s university area– work in progress
It’s not a pretty way to get into the city but trying to keep traffic flowing with a large roundabout to get folks where they need to go. I could use an urban planner’s help to clean this up.
Another game I’m enjoying that is really helping in my recovery is called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s another “sandbox” game. My daughter started this island, named it Sun and Moon (a nod to Pokemon) and we’ve been working on developing the island together since. This is the music room in my house, still working on gathering all the gear I’d like (missing a drum set).
Here is the front of my daughter’s home– she likes focusing on flowers and outfits. I like to gather fossils and harvest fruit.
After gathering lots of fossils, Mina and I have filled the museum will all of the dinosaur fossils available in the game
October introduced pumpkins and pumpkin harvesting– now one of my favorite plants to cultivate, harvest and sell.
The entrance to my home which includes a small pumpkin patch, a blubber, and some (snow covered) hydrangea bushes to the right. The hydrangea bushes sold in the game actually inspired me to plan real hydrangea bushes in our yard for Paige’s birthday (she’s always wanted them– I hope they survive this winter, and if they don’t– I know how to plant and care for them now!). So that’s a small digital object inspiring something real and alive in our backyard. When I started digging the holes for the hydrangeas in our backyard I got the kids to help and told them, “Look it’s like animal crossing but real life!” They helped for thirty seconds and then shrugged and were done helping.

McConigal opens her book about games by providing an ancient example of games helping a society facing a crisis. The Lydians were in the midst of a famine and starving. In order to provide some distraction and ration more food, they decided to start a series of athletic games to tide the time over– once they started the games they realized they consumed less.

Finally, as the Lydians were so quick to realize, games don’t rely on scare of finite resources. We can play games endlessly, no matter how limited our resources, move over, when we play games, we consume less.

Reality is Broken, pg 350 Jane McGonigal

In the first half of her book McGonigal defines and defends games, while citing what’s failing with our current state of reality at the moment.

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games and fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways reality is not.

Reality is Broken, pg. 4 Jane McGonigal

McGonigal classifies herself as a futurologist and says that in order to develop fore-site you need to practice hindsight. “To understand the future you have to look back at least twice as far as you’re looking ahead, ” she claims. She will go on to use this futurology to expand her thesis that games and living gamefully will be needed in order to improve society and bring more meaning to our lives.

McGonigal explores and offers some profound takes on work, happiness and depression.

…nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 28

And quoting another writer:

“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

Brian Sutton-Smith

A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direction emotional opposite of depression.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 28 (emphasis mine)

McGonigal classifies gamers as folks unafraid to really pursue intrinsic happiness and what that means to them, and she encourages this for all of us.

We have to make our own happiness– by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 45

If we don’t actively pursue intrinsic happiness we can easily fall into vicious cycles that sabotage our own happiness through what’s known as hedonic adaption.

The more we consume, squire, and elevate our status, the harder it is to stay happy. Whether it’s money, grade, promotions, popularity, attention or just plain material things we want, scientists agree: seeking out external rewards is a sure path to sabotaging our own happiness.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 45

McGonigal does on to describe that what we think is “fun” is actually mildly depressing.

Virtually every activity that we would describe as a “relaxing” find of fun– watching television, eating chocolate, window-shopping, or just chilling out– doesn’t make us feel better. In fact, we consistently report feeling worse afterward when we started, “having fun”: less motivated, less confident, less engaged overall. But how how can so many of us be so wrong about what’s fun? Shouldn’t we have a better intuitive sense of what actually makes us feel better?

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 31

McGonigal goes to to quote Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort…you have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.”

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 48

McGonigal defines three gamer crucial gamer terms that help advance her belief that reality should reflect games more than the opposite.

Epic wins: a gamer term used to describe big and usually surprising success: a come-from behind victory, an unorthodox strategy that works out spectacularly well, a team effort that goes much better than planned, a heroic effort from the most unlikely player (Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 247)

naches– a Yiddish word for the busting pride we feel when someone we’ve mentored or taught succeeds.

fiero– Italian for pride, emotional high we experience after overcoming adversity.

These are not just gamer feelings or emotions. We experience these in reality. However, McConigal’s assertion is that these dopamine releasing feelings are found much more commonly and easily in games (digital and non-digital) than in our current state of reality.

One thing that especially digital games allow us to do is to engage in something called ambient sociability (something a lot of us are missing now during this pandemic).

It’s the experience of playing alone together, and it’s a kind of social interaction that even the most introverted among us can enjoy.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 89

Ambient sociability is important when we go about our live– smiling at folks in a grocery store, asking how things are going– these little inquires add up and science shows they improve mood and bring a sort of social reward.

One of the most insightful observations McGonigal makes in this book for me was the distinguishing the difference between value and meaning.

There is no value to a [Halo, video game] kill…But on the other hand, just because the kills don’t have value doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning.

Meaning is the feeling we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s the belief that our action matter beyond our own individual lives. When something is meaningful it has significance and worth not just to ourselves, or even to our closest friends and family, but to a much larger group: to a community, an organization, or even the entire human species.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 97

McGonigal plainly lays out here thesis in the middle of her book:

Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, strong social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 114

Moving forward, McGonigal does not just rail against the system and call it a day. In the second half of her book she dives into suggestions and case-studies to show what a living gamefully or a society that chooses to live “gamefully” can do.

Instead of fixing reality, we’re simply created more and more attractive alternatives to the bordeom, anxiety, alientation, and meaninglessness we’re run up against so often in everyday life. It’s high time we start applying the lessons of games to design our everyday lives.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 115

One of her case studies cites the Quest to Learn public charter school found in New York City. Starting as a middle school, it’s now expanded to high school as well and makes use of many of the gaming concepts McGonigal pushes for. A notable example is the use of “leveling up” versus “grades.”

Leveling up is a much more egalitarian model than a traditional letter grading system based on the bell curve. every can level up as long as they keep working hard. Leveling up can replace or complement traditional letter grades that students have just one shot at earning. And if you fail a quest, there’s no permanent damage done to your report cards, You just have to try more quests to earn enough points to get the score you want. This system of “grading” replaces negative stress, helping students focus more on learning and less on performing.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 130

McGonigal also has a game system called Superbetter that she’s used to overcome her own life challenges from a severe concussion that resulted in a brain injury. She developed that system and wrote another book about it (I’ll be covering that one later). But she talks about identifying triggers and pain as an important part of “winning the game.”

The better you can identify triggers of your symptoms, the more pain and suffering, you’ll avoid…I succeeded in recognizing a trigger and vanquished it before it did too much damage.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 138

Now we get to the “self-help paradox” mentioned early. This isn’t something I’ve encountered from only McGonigal. I’ve read spiritual teachers tout this idea as well. We live in a culture that promotes self-help everywhere we look. Daily habit emails, personality tests, thousands of books on habits and spiritual practices, and yet these alone cannot do the job. I believe they can be useful. But as McGonigal puts it:

“Self-help paradox” typically a personal private activity. When it comes to some activities– overcoming fears, identifying career goals, coping with chronic pain, starting a fitness routine…shelf-help can work. But when it comes to everyday happiness, there’s no way personal, private activity can work because there are almost no good way to be happy alone for long.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 186

The importance of self-help in community can be found in Bill Wilson’s (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) approach to therapy in the forms of groups and not individual private sessions. Community is a critical aspect of self-help.

As for being unhappy– that’s easy:

There is one easy step to unhappiness…doing nothing.

Ben Sharar, Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 187

McGonigal goes on to advocate a practice she calls, “happiness hacking.”

Translating positive psychology research into game mechanics.

Compared to game, reality if hard to swallow. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 188, 189

Easy happiness hacks include expressing gratitude and practicing acts of kindness. The positive relationships we have with strangers sociologist call “transitory public sociality.” (again, something we’re very much missing in the pandemic).

This make us more optimistic, improves self-esteem, makes us feel safer and more connected to our environment and helps us enjoy our lives more.”

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 188, 189

While McGoginal’s work (especially as developed in her Superbetter game and book) has a large focus on PTSD and how living gamefully can overcome many of those harmful effects in daily life. She also describes something I’ve experienced myself and can be cultivated in others: post traumatic bliss. Following my first craniotomy, I remember walking around my house, surprised at being home and experiencing what I called little “epiphanies of happiness.” For me, that’s what post traumatic bliss felt like.

[the] Realignment of priority and attention: post traumatic bliss. There are feelings in this life– good and bad– that cannot be conquered by intellect or force of will. Almost dying can realign you in a way that is the positive incarnation of trauma: post traumatic bliss.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 203

McGonigal will go on to develop this further in her book, Superbetter.

Still happiness can remain elusive, even with the direct assaults of happiness hacks and a determination to hunt down intrinsic happiness whenever you identify what what is. McGonigal pulls out this quote from John Stuart Mill about approaching happiness “sideways,” and using her strategies for coaxing happiness out.

Two hundred years ago John Stuart Mill argued that while happiness might be our primary goal, we can’t pursue it directly. It’s too tricky, too hard to pin down, to easy to scare off. We we have to set other more concrete goals, and in the pursuit of these goals, we capture happiness as a kind of by-product. He called this approach happiness “sideways, like a crab”…that’s what happiness hacks are designed to help us do: approach happiness sideways and as a group.”

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 214,215

But games cost money? Would people really pay to work? They do all the time. And McGonigal argues we should invest more to pay-to-work.

People are happy to play money- buying and subscribing to games- for the opportunity to do hard work that is intensely rewarding. And a truly sustainable economy of real-work engagement should strive to harness this market for better, more rewarding work.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 259,260

Is society ready to try to live more “gamefully?” Are children growing up gaming?

By the age of 21, the average young American has spent somewhere between 2and 3 thousand hours reading books and more than ten thousand hours playing computer and video games. With each year after 1980 you’re born, these statistics are increasingly likely to be true.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 266

McGonigal closes her book with a couple of observations about games and human behavior.

In fact, the ability to make a game together has recently been indentified by reseachers as a distictive human capability indeed, perhaps the districitive human capability.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 270

She explores this quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

Games are the most elevated form of investigation.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 313

McGonigal does not just hang this quote out there. Why would Einstein say this? Why not science? Is it a misattribution? In her exploration McGonigal found that Einstein was avid player of chess growing up but stepped away from the game as science took up all of the time and thought in his life. Chess can be a complex and and demanding game, so I can see why Einstein would not have time for it in his adult life but still be very attracted to it.

The first half of this book is very strong and I highly recommend it. Our reality is broken. I don’t know if we can redirect our entire society to live gamefully but I do think we can all use some of these happiness hacks and watch other pursue their intrinsic happiness with pride and encouragement, as opposed to scorn, contempt or resentment at folks wasting their lives playing “games.” It’s nearly impossible to play a game and not be in the moment. Playing games, in the right way, is a form of mindfulness.

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