Is ‘Reality Broken’? How One Game Can Change Education For the Better

Games lubricate the body and the mind.” Benjamin Franklin

screen-shot-2010-11-07-at-1-45-21-pm1-1If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, what kind of gamer would he be?  An author, inventor, scientist, civic activist, Franklin was also an avid player of chess and checkers as described in the Journal of Occurrences in my Voyage to Philadelphia (1726). Franklin believed that engaging in strategic games sharpened the mind, and provided insight into mans moral behaviour. Fast-forward to the 21st century meet another avid lover of games, author, speaker and activist of sorts, who wants to change the world— Jane McGonigal, Ph.D and author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Can games be used in higher education? Can they be part of a solution to fix what some consider ‘broken’?  McGonigal’s answer is yes. Though the book is not specific to higher education, it speaks philosophically and practically about the role that games play, and the potential they have as a vehicle to improve real lives and solve real problems.

Reality may indeed be broken, and if games can change the world as the title suggests, I considered this a worthwhile read. And worthy it was; I discovered a unique, collaborative game, Superstruct  that appears to have great potential to develop solutions to at least some of the educational challenges we face today. In this post I’ll review the book briefly, share examples of socially conscious games that aim to have a positive impact, and details of the game Superstruct mentioned already.

I’ll admit that I didn’t hold computer or video games in high regard before I read the book, which is why I did not consider games as a viable vehicle for instruction. In a K-12 setting maybe, but higher education? Certainly not. Narrow minded thinking on my part I admit. McGonigal’s admits there is a stigma associated with video games, but she did change how I view video games and gamers by explaining the why, before the how.

Why Games Make Us Happy
McGonigal outlines the physical and emotional responses players feel when they play computer and video games; the why, before she tells the reader how games can change the world.  Why do people play computer games for several hours each week or even each day? There is a neurochemical reaction triggered in when we play a well-designed computer game. This physical response gives the player focus, motivation and creates a sense of flow, which is described by McGonigal as intense engagement.

Book Highlights

  • Hard and meaningful work is something that all humans want [and need], and our reality, our everyday lives of work and social interaction fall short.
  • That’s exactly what the game industry is doing today. It’s fulfilling our need for better hard work… “(McGonigal, p 29).
  • Which is why, according to McGonigal gamers seek alternate realities in online games that provide numerous benefits that:
    • build collaborative and networking skills in players via online teams of gamers that compete with other teams around the globe.
    • enhance real life experiences by engaging family members and friends in everyday challenges. McGonigal has created numerous successful games that are changing the lives of thousands of individuals; one is the Super Better game [I wrote about his game in my running blog] another Chore Wars to help family members build relationships through household chores, or Lost Joules making a social game of saving energy and living ‘green’.  One worthy game,  an alternate reality game, world without oil, challenges players to survive and create alternative life skills in the face of a global oil crisis.

Superstruct for Higher Education
I was looking for a solution in the book specific to higher ed. McGonigal provided one example of a K-12 school using a game based environment, but no reference was made to higher education. Yet there is an answer within the book. It’s through a game called Superstruct that is designed to encourage individuals from different organizations and backgrounds to team up online to tackle a significant issue or threat to society.

Superstructuring isn’t about just making something bigger. It’s about working with an existing foundation and taking it in new directions, to reach beyond present limits. It means creating flexible connections to other structures, to mutually reinforce each other. Superstrucuting means growing in strategic and inventive ways so that you can create new and more powerful structures that would have been previously unimaginable. (McGonigal, p 318)

Superstruct created by the Institute for the Future, was implemented on a grand scale in 2008 and played as a massively multi-player forecasting game with more than 8000 citizen future-forecasters from September to November 2008. Players could pick any of the five Superthreats, and start investigating the future by visiting one of the five Superthreat hubs. What happened afterwards was collaboration extraordinaire, results included online discussions, blog posts, group work, wiki collaboration. You can read more about the projects at

McGonigal outlines how to play Superstruct in chapter fourteen, and highlights a critical element, “The most important rule for inventing a superstructure was that it should be unlike any existing organization. It should be a fundamentally new combination of people, skills and scales of work.”

The Potential
Think of the potential of people coming together to address a significant and complex problem such as the future of higher education. Superstruct is not just a game in this context, but can be applied to a real problem, with real people, professionals, and individuals coming together from different sectors to come up with real solutions. It is  possible. I suggest the players could include, business people, high school educators, students of higher education, recent graduates, faculty from community colleges, public and private colleges and a representative of government and parents.

At the end of a specified period of collaboration, a small group of the ‘players’ would work together virtually, to synthesize the ideas generated and identify the viable and potential solutions. The next steps would need to be actionable, not simply a new policy or recommendation. The key to change is action. Though how these actionable steps would or could be carried out is beyond my expertise. Though could this work?  I believe so. The strength of this approach is the inclusion of diverse group of players, and the multitude of participants that could contribute.  What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Is ‘Reality Broken’? How One Game Can Change Education For the Better

  1. Very interesting idea. I am impressed that the technology is not really so great as is the engaging concept. It seems that the model for such a “game” could be developed through a wiki type experience. What seems to be the critical component is to identify the folks who are willing to commit the time to “playing” in the development.

    My students primary problem with the book was McGonigal’s dichotomous treatment of game vs. reality – and certainly by the end of the book, games are best seen as a way of playing in reality.

    Superstruct certainly seems like an appropriate model for looking at the future of education as it will look like something that has never existed before.


    1. Hi Robert,
      I had the same impression as your students, McGonigal’s concept about playing alternate reality games to solve real world problems (i.e. older people connecting with younger people, chore wars, etc) appear to run parallel to real life. They don’t seem to intersect, there is an insular bubble of a reality game, being played in real life, not quite connecting. However there are some valid games she presents that appear to be ways to break down barriers.

      But, the Superstruct game seems to approach a real problem with a concept of teams, where teams solve a problem collaboratively. Again some kind of platform that is conducive to this concept is critical.

      Thanks for sharing Robert! Debbie


  2. Nice review thanks. I’ve been interested in the application of game dynamics to non-gaming industries for a while (and posted some interesting examples below), and it’s clear there are many lessons we can learn from video games about engaging / entertaining, motivating, quantifying progress, rewarding skill development and mastery, clanning/ friending, etc.

    In non-“lower” ed, gaming dynamics have successfully been applied to aggregation of course materials (, learning to code (, taking and engaging in courses (coursera, ivybridge, udacity), etc.

    I think it’s very early days though and the overlaps of game mechanics and higher ed will continue to expand as tech and platforms get more sophisticated.

    Read Quote of Ilan Elson-Schwab’s answer to Gamification: What are good/bad examples of gamification design? on Quora


    1. Hi Ilanes,
      Thanks for sharing your examples of novel games applied to everyday life. I agree, that we are in the very early days of the gaming concept in higher ed. Though I think you are right as ed tech platforms and applications become more sophisticated, gaming concepts will likely be incorporated (the reward cycle, feedback loop etc), without most people realizing that the concepts are rooted in gaming development. I can think of one company, Knewton, that has an adaptive learning platform; I believe the principles are similar to video games where the program adapts to the user, pushing him or her to the very edge of their skill level. Thanks for the comment. Thought provoking.


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