Reality Is Broken–But Libraries Can Fix It

September 16, 2019

Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken is not nearly as bleak as it sounds. Rather than dwelling on how our modern world is broken, she devotes her energy toward explaining “fourteen ways we can use games to be happier in our everyday lives, to stay better connected to people we care about, to feel more rewarded for making our best effort, and to discover new ways to make a difference in the world.” She believes that games make reality more palatable, and that they can also serve a key role in organizing large groups of people.

McGonigal’s 14 “fixes” for reality take the structure behind games (and the lessons she’s learned through game development) and apply them to the real world. The push toward “gamification” of everything may have waned a bit since 2012, but McGonigal’s arguments (and optimism) still hold lessons that we can take to heart when establishing connections and community in our modern world (and in libraries more specifically).

Here is a brief outline of McGonigal’s 14 “fixes,” with the links I saw to library contexts appended in parentheses at the end of each:

  1. tackle unnecessary obstacles because unnecessary obstacles “increase self-motivation, provoke interest and creativity, and help us work at the very edge of our abilities” (constant evaluation of library services, challenging the status quo to ensure the library is serving its community as best as possible—the foundation for Library 2.0 according to Casey and Savastinuk)
  2. activate extreme positive emotions (a job well done should always activate these emotions; see the end of this post for my favorite classic-arcade-game example of “fiero”)
  3. do more satisfying work, entering a “flow” of “blissful productivity” toward clear goals that have vivid results (the most straightforward and classic link to librarianship would be the immediately-evident results of shelving and weeding, but modern hyperlinked libraries provide opportunities to create more imaginative satisfying work beyond physical books: building stories and creating with the community—as demonstrated with the next gen table at the Library Concept Center in the Netherlands, as well as through the various transformation labs presented at the 17th Halmstad conference in Aarhus)
  4. find better hope of success by making failure fun and focusing on attainable goals (again linking back to libraries’ constant evaluation of their services, taking to heart Brian Mathews’s advice to build a strategic culture and be willing to launch as many ideas as possible)
  5. strengthen social connectivity, building social stamina by mentoring/teasing one another in a safe context (the possibilities of linking libraries to other organizations, and of fostering opportunities for community members to mentor one another, are key facets of the modern hyperlinked library)
  6. immerse yourself in epic scale (the concept of “epic scale” didn’t quite land for me, but I see how libraries can facilitate making experiences meaningful with larger context, particularly when those libraries are focused on becoming participatory hubs)
  7. participate wholeheartedly wherever, whenever we can so we can enjoy the real world more (which libraries can facilitate with mobile pop-ups and collaborative efforts that bring the library’s reach beyond the single physical space with books we tend to think of)
  8. seek meaningful rewards for making a better effort, using points, levels, and achievements as motivation (but also just using more participatory environments within libraries, which allow for patrons to feel that they have an impact on the services and environment)
  9. have more fun with strangers, building social participation and serving as a springboard for community (a primary goal and function of a participatory, hyperlinked library)
  10. invent and adopt new happiness hacks, which McGonigal relates directly to scientific advice for how to be happy and live a good life (and which libraries can similarly draw on when designing their programming)
  11. contribute to a sustainable engagement economy (the first of several crowdsourcing ideas of McGonigal’s that again relates directly to the type of participatory engagement with community members that we’ve seen in transformation labs and similar library engagement with communities)
  12. seek out more epic wins with real-world heroic/satisfying tasks (which libraries can encourage with participatory opportunities)
  13. spend ten thousand hours collaborating: cooperating, coordinating, and creating something new together to become extraordinary (for most libraries, ten thousand hours should be the bare minimum—it simply shouldn’t be feasible that a library not encourage this level of collaboration)
  14. develop massively multiplayer foresight, turning individuals into “super-empowered hopeful individuals” who take long views, practice “ecosystems thinking,” and practice problem-solving on a large scale(a hyperlinked library is essentially a breeding ground for exactly this sort of thing)

In her introduction to Reality Is Broken, McGonigal writes that games are “bringing us together in ways that reality is not.” And modern libraries can serve exactly these community-building purposes. By attempting to “fix” reality and bring us together along the principles of game design, she provides us with some pointers for how we can build hyperlinked library models that foster creativity, build community, and generally make us happier and healthier.

McGonigal identifies four defining traits of games:

  1. a goal (the specific outcome, which focuses and orients gamers and provides them with a sense of purpose)
  2. rules (limitations that unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking)
  3. a feedback system (usually points, providing real-time feedback to motivate continued play and show progress toward the primary goal)
  4. voluntary participation (fundamental to gaming being safe and pleasurable, and an important link to participatory service in libraries)

In the fourteen fixes outlined at the beginning of this post, you can see these four defining traits popping up throughout. The focus on goals and feedback systems can be linked directly to the strategic planning fundamental to library organizations (and the agile, flattened teams of hyperlinked libraries). It was exciting to read McGonigal’s fixes, not just because she spoke to the gamer-nerd in my heart, but also because her hopes for games translated so directly to my hopes for what role libraries can have as organizations that facilitate this sort of “fixing” of our reality.

I don’t know about you, but I’m fired up.

An excerpt from a platformer video game, in which a chef walks across a giant burger patty, then raises his arms up in celebration.
Hopefully this gif from Burger Time works… It was an image that I couldn’t get out of my mind after McGonigal’s introduction to the term “fiero” (a term game designers use to describe an emotional high, which, according to McGonigal, we almost all express “in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell”).
*gif created using, extracting Burger Time gameplay from


Boekesteijn, E. (2011). DOK Delft takes user generated content to the next level. Retrieved from

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today.

Kanal tilhørende transformationlCab. (2007). Transformation Lab – Prototyping the Future. Retrieved from

Mathews, B. (2012). Think Like A Start Up. Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality Is Broken. New York: Penguin Random House.

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