The Logical Issues of McGonigal’s Definition and Criteria of Games

McGonigal begins Reality is Broken with separate understandings of “game” and “player”.  According to McGonigal, the idea of game relates to the phrases “gaming the system” and  “you’d better start playing the game”; she relates these two phrases to mean that people are on the brink of “abandoning” morals/ethics in order to “get ahead” (19).  McGonigal transcribes the idea of player as a person “who manipulates others to get what [he/she] wants” (19).  McGonigal’s definitions of “game” and “player” can be seen as highly negative descriptions.  In fact, she argues that “when you start to pay attention, you realize how collectively suspicious we are of games” (20; italics mine).

Although McGonigal’s understanding of these concepts can make sense, these definitions cannot represent the entirety of words “game” and “player” for all people.  When McGonigal claims that these metaphors are “our worst fears about games”, she uses this fear to purpose a new definition of games[1]. She places fear before readers, regardless of readers not possibly attaching this emotion to these words.  There is a possibility that people attach positive emotions to game or player.  By starting her book with this logical issue, readers can look for other logical issues or distrust McGonigal’s assertions.

McGonigal’s calls for a “good definition of game”, but only gives a set of very loose criteria: goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (21).  In fact, anything can fit this definition even if it is not a traditional game.  For example, in many U.S. companies, workers have goals [complete an assignment], follow an employer’s set of rules [maintaining performance], rely on a feedback system [raise evaluation systems], and use voluntary participation [workers can always quit].  If McGonigal means that anything can be a game therefore the definition is good, she could be correct.  If she means that quality games have these criteria, then she needs to define exactly what a game can and cannot be (some people can consider a definition as something that clearly separates things or brings explicit classifications).

McGonigal’s definition of games allows her to make this claim: “Gamers don’t want to game the system. Gamers want to play the game.  They want to explore and learn and improve” (27).  Again, McGonigal assumes that all gamers share these common attitudes and definitions of themselves.  Her idealistic assumptions are not supported with empirical evidence or historical examples.  There is no doubt that there are some altruistic gamers.  But, if “3 billion hours a week” are spent playing video games, gamers could be more concerned with reaching the next level than  learning and improving themselves as humans.

In the end, McGonigal opens up a conversation about a definition of “game”, but having a few logical issues (within the first two pages of chapter one) could undermine her key points.  Her error could be fixed with a few verb phrase changes (“could be” instead of “are”).  Throughout her book, she cites herself in footnotes and draws a bridge among games, reality, benefits, disadvantages and new ideas over a narrow pool of resources.  Even for a person with a Ph.D., McGonigal is not the definitive expert given that her points can be broken down easily.  In fact, some readers could be shocked that she purposes these definitions as the starting point for fixing the world’s problems.


[1] Also the noun “game” is slightly removed from the verb phrase “gaming the system” and the complete clause “you’d better start playing the game”.  A noun as a metaphor can operate under different reader up-takes than a phrase or a sentence.


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