“Reality is Broken” and Pokémon Go

Last week I was in Fresno working with students from California and the Philippines to create new inventions then build businesses around those products. Several of the students were excitedly playing Pokémon during their lunch break, especially those from the Philippines where the game had not yet been released. Once I knew what to look for, I quickly spotted other people playing the game everywhere.

One night, I went out for a run around the CSU Fresno campus. I assumed that at 10:30pm, the place would be empty and I’d have the well lit paths to myself. When I arrived, there were scores of people wandering around staring at their phones and quickly swiping up every few seconds. Apparently, Fresno State was a great place to go Poke hunting and hundreds of people of all ages would leave their homes every night to go walk around campus. We always hear about video games encouraging people to stay at home and not talk to each other, but here people gathered to get exercise and socialize with strangers.

The second and third night I ran through campus dodging players, I was reminded of a book I read several years ago called “Reality is Broken”. The premise was that we can use video games to help us solve massive, real-world problems. I’d heard an interview with the author, Jane McGonigal, where she explained her thinking and it sounded ridiculous to me. I picked up the book with the intent of debunking it in the first chapter. As is often the case, I came away a convert.

Below are my notes from the book which I’ve continued to turn to since reading it. There are some big lessons here and I think games like Pokémon Go show some of the potential games have to positively impact society. Think of how many miles Americans have walked since the game was released. Without it, most of those people would likely have spent that time at home passively watching TV or clicking around Facebook.

The biggest lesson I took away from Jane’s work was the idea that we don’t need extrinsic rewards to motivate people. When one of the panelists on “Wait… Wait… Don’t Tell Me” asked what you get if you win Pokémon, the others who had played made it clear that they had never even thought about it. The goal was not to win, just to play. When the student inventors were trying to solve their engineering challenges last week, I would often proclaim that the first team to finish would get 10 bonus points. We didn’t grade their work in any way, yet only one student ever asked what the bonus points were for. They aren’t for anything, they’re just bonus points.

This won’t completely solve the problem of Americans’ sedentary lifestyles but hopefully it will help. What other societal ills could be tackled with video games?

Lessons for game building

  • Extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation
  • Positive-psychology shows  intrinsic rewards fall into four main categories
    • Satisfying work – being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see direct impact of our efforts
    • Experience (or hope) of being successful – we want to feel powerful in our lives, show off what we’re good at, be optimistic of our chances for success and feel like we’re improving over time
    • Social connection – share experiences and build bonds by accomplishing together things that matter
    • Meaning – be part of something bigger than ourselves.
  • Naches – Yiddish word for vicarious pride or bursting with pride we feel when someone we’ve taught or mentored succeeds
  • Fiero – Italian word that has come to mean the emotional high we feel after triumphing over adversity

Fixes for Reality

  1. Unnecessary Obstacles
    • Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use
  2. Emotional Activation
    • Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy
  3. More Satisfying Work
    • Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work
  4. Better Hope of Success
    • Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success
  5. Stronger Social Connectivity
    • Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social 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”
  6. Epic Scale
    • Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions
  7. Wholehearted Participation
    • Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing
  8. Meaningful Rewards When We Need Them Most
    • Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best efforts
  9. More Fun with Strangers
    • Compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch
  10. Happiness Hacks
    • Compared with games, reality is hard to swallow. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits
  11. A Sustainable Engagement Economy
    • Compared with games, reality is unsustainable. The gratifications we get from playing games are an infinitely renewable resource
  12. More Epic Wins
    • Compared with games, reality is unambitious. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together
  13. Ten Thousand Hours Collaborating
    • Compared with games, reality is disorganized and divided. Games help us make a more concerted effort – and over time, they give us collaboration superpowers
  14. Massive Multiplayer Foresight
    • Reality is stuck in the present. Games help us imagine and invent the future together

Important skills for solving large problems

  • Take a long view – look at scales far larger than we normally perceive
  • Ecosystem thinking – look at the problem as a complex web of interconnected and interdependent parts. Learn to perceive and anticipate how changes odd one aspect impact others.
  • Pilot experiments – design and run many small experiments to determine the best possible solutions.
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