Home » Blog » Reality is Broken: Why Game Design Matters

Reality is Broken: Why Game Design Matters

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal analyses the phenomenon of the mass exodus from the real world to the virtual space of gaming in the past few decades. With hundreds of millions of people devoting more and more time and effort into digital games, her argument is that in today’s society, video games are able to fulfil genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy — that is, that reality is broken when compared to the digital world. The reason behind is rather simple — games are inherently designed to trigger the reward system in the human brain. This is done by promoting intrinsic motivation, which comes from “within” the player (usually a psychological need for competence or social connection) and extrinsic motivators, in the form of levels, points, leaderboards, etc.

Amazon associate disclaimer — if you end up making a valid purchase through a link on this article I will earn a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

Game Design and UX

How videogames and gamification have the potential to change the world for the better

Whilst games have not been held in high repute by scholars up until recently, more and more people are recognising them as an opportunity for pedagogical development as opposite to mere leisure activities. So-called serious games have gained much popularity, defining a genre of game design in which the purposes other than mere entertainment, such as education, scientific exploration, simulation and social impact. Well-designed games provide both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for the players. They are inherently engaging, satisfying, and allow for constant feedback and gratification for the accomplishment of tasks and for following the game’s rules. Furthermore, games benefit from the added value of interactivity which significantly enriches the experience and contributes to a feeling of immersion, whereas the option for ubiquitous networking and mobile connectivity allows games to include a social component in which players have to cooperate towards a shared goal — or compete against each other — in real time.

Examples of serious games range from virtual spaces and historical simulations to the crowd-sourcing of scholarly tasks. The Hamilton College started the Soweto Historical GIS Project which aims at virtually reconstructing the South African township of Soweto in 1976, in order to explore the social, economic and political dimensions of urban development during apartheid regimes. Dartmouth College’s game design laboratory launched Metadata Games, a digital gaming platform that allows players to explore archives while competing with each other to tag artefacts, thus actively contributing to them. Jane McGonigal herself contributed to the design of a serious game which she describes in Reality is Broken. In World Without Oil, players are invited to immerse themselves in a future in which he Earth has run out of oil. For 32-weeks, participants were asked to document their life during a “what-if” scenario of global oil crisis through blog entries, videos, voicemails and images to be added to a digital archive. Over 1500 in-game player stories were shared up until June 1, 2007, when the game ended.

Image for post

Properties of game design are more and more often applied to non-game products and services, in order to improve productivity and enhance motivation. Gamification is what led to the success of Duolingo, making it stand out compared to other language learning apps with the aid of a score system, badges for each completed lesson, and a leaderboard that allows to compare one’s own achievements with those of friends. Loyalty points used by stores and restaurants, grades and credits in the school system, and salary bonuses given out by companies are all examples of gamification. McGonigal made effective use of gamification when she had to “fight” with a head concussion in the real-life game she titled “Jane the Concusion Slayer”, in which she recruited her husband and friends to assign her “missions” (e.g. eating vegetables for dinner instead of cookies and ice cream) and reward her with the unlockment of achievements (which were named after episodes of the most popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer) in order to keep her motivated to keep a healthy lifestyle and recover faster.

Reality is Broken might not be your typical design book, but I cannot recommend enough to anyone with an interest in game design, UX, or to anyone who may appreciate to look at the world through the lens of playfulness and gamification. Jane McGonigal’s vision is that digital and real-life games can enhance the quality of life and increase happiness for both individuals and society, while promoting motivation and resilience. Her life goal? To see a game designer win a Nobel Prize. Let’s soon make this happen.

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

Image for post

A visionary game designer reveals how we can harness the power of games to boost global happiness.

With 174 million gamers in the United States alone, we now live in a world where every generation will be a gamer generation. But why, Jane McGonigal asks, should games be used for escapist entertainment alone? In this groundbreaking book, she shows how we can leverage the power of games to fix what is wrong with the real world-from social problems like depression and obesity to global issues like poverty and climate change-and introduces us to cutting-edge games that are already changing the business, education, and nonprofit worlds. Written for gamers and non-gamers alike, Reality Is Broken shows that the future will belong to those who can understand, design, and play games.


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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *