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On the Achievability of Goals in Games

February 4, 2012

Lately I’ve been reading Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal—my brother gave it to me for Christmas, for which I thank him. It’s a popular book in the game community, I believe. In the book, McGonigal, who is a game researcher at the Institute for the Future, aims to justify why gamers spend so much time playing video games, and, in turn, what we can learn from the allure video games to make life more compelling. She promotes what’s often called the “gamification” of reality, and the book’s thesis is that those elements of games that draw gamers in for dozens of hours each week can be used to “fix” the real world.

But I don’t want to speak about reality so much—I’m only halfway through the book anyway, so I wouldn’t be able to speak to it as a whole. Instead, I want to focus on the first of the book’s three parts, which attempts to break down the compelling features of games (to exploit in the “repair” of reality, as explored in parts 2 and 3). And whereas I have yet to object to what McGonigal proposes in the second part of the book, I disagree with many of her generalizations about games in the first. In particular, I wish to discuss the ease of games.

McGonigal states that games encourage us by making its goals attainable to everyone:

By design, every computer and video game puzzle is meant to be solvable, every mission accomplishable, and every level passable by a gamer with enough time and motivation.

and

Games are designed for us to…eventually be successful.

Contrast McGonigal’s views with Jonathan Blow’s: in an interview on the Brainy Gamer podcast (episode 35, part 3), he says:

But the thing I want to preserve…is something that I feel is being lost a lot in modern games. And that is having puzzles that are actually puzzles. And what I mean by that is that a legitimate puzzle is something that you might never figure out unless you do a good job. Because if you’re guaranteed to figure it out, then it’s kind of…um…I don’t know what it is at that point. It’s more like an exercise, I guess? Or at least, “exercise” isn’t the right word in general, but it’s the right word for what I feel like most people call “puzzles” in modern games. … There just aren’t many games that are made that are legitimate puzzle games anymore.

With some good research to back herself up, McGonigal argues that the benefit of surmountable challenges is that they boost the self-esteem of players, since “to truly flourish, we have to be optimistic about our own abilities and opportunities for success.” Certainly, being reinforced in this way is a positive thing, but I worry that it might only reinforce the idea that “you can do anything you set your mind to”. Right at this moment, somebody somewhere is solving a problem that you could never solve, or painting a picture that you could never paint. But that’s okay. Your strengths perhaps lie elsewhere, and knowing exactly what they are is valuable knowledge. Likewise, knowing what they aren’t is equally valuable.

So maybe instead of games showing us that we’re good at everything, they should show us that we’re not good at some things. Then games provide a real benefit to our lives, making us aware of who we are and what we can and cannot do, thus giving us the freedom to quit pursuing goals which are impossible for us, and focus instead on building and using our strengths. That is, in contradiction to what McGonigal believes, I think that the more games start to reflect reality, the better we’ll be for playing them.

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