Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reality Unbroken?

“I realized that compared to games, reality feels broken: it doesn't engage us or motivate us or inspire us or connect us as effectively and reliably as our best games do.” Jane McGonigal

During a rest day in Vegas, I spent some time with Jane McGonigal’s recent book “Reality is Broken.” It describes her research on computer games, what makes a good game, the positive affects games can have on those who play them, and the characteristics that the best games share.

In my opinion, her ideas apply to climbing to an even greater extent than they do to the computer games she writes about. Here are a few main ideas I jotted down from the book, and a some concluding thoughts.

A short definition for all games is “The voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Could just as easily be a definition for climbing.

Games have four defining traits that make them engaging and satisfying:
-a defined goal
-rules that usually make things more challenging
-a feedback system
-voluntary participation.
The defining traits apply to climbing perfectly, and explain the persistence of grading systems as a part of the game. Grades provide the feedback players crave.

The book goes on to explain that games can be put into two categories. Finite games which are played to win, and infinite games. In an infinite game, being intensely engaged is more pleasurable than winning, and the goal is to keep playing as long as possible.
For most climbers, I’d say, climbing is played as an “infinite game.”

Through the creation of computer games, designers have hit on some core truths about what makes us happy. Surprisingly to me at the end of the school year, she says one of the keys to happiness is hard work. Depression is characterized as a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a lack of activity, and good hard work is shown to be depression’s opposite. With good hard work, you have an optimistic sense of your capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. Whether games have any outside purpose or not, they provide this “good hard work” leaving us more fulfilled, confident and happy as a result.

And there are some other things people seek out that games, such as climbing, can provide.
-the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful
-social connection
-to be part of something larger than ourselves
-curiosity, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales
-to belong and contribute to something that has lasting significance beyond our own individual lives

Climbing can push all the buttons. And at least to me, it has the added value of having a more substantial reality than the computer games that McGonigal writes about. The cliffs and boulders will still be out there long after World of Warcraft has been forgotten. Once you’ve unlocked a boulder problem it is repeatable and feels like a new skill, unlike a golfer’s hole in one for example. You learn about the world as you climb, in order to climb, and you must apply some measure of strategy to your life to be able to keep climbing. The life of a climber begins to take on some positive game-like qualities, it becomes more engaging, and for climbers, maybe reality isn’t so broken.

Check out “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal for a much more complete explanation of her ideas and the research that supports them.