SXSW Notes: Day 2 – On Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’

This was originally written as a guest post on the UK Creative Producers Blog, while I was part of an Arts Council England delegation to SXSW.

Jane McGonigal’s talk today was allegedly about how the network effects of gaming can change the world, but it was also about mindfulness and intention – how you can play your life like a game and level-up through different stages of effectiveness.

Mindfulness is a theme I’m seeing recur a lot at the moment, a retreat from the Twitterful way of thinking about things and a desire for immersive experience. McGonigal’s contention is that you can hack your life by knowing a little about the rules that govern your behaviour – manipulating your own triggers and influencing the behaviour of those around you.

Talk like this is obviously going to be a crowd pleaser: telling a room full of people who almost definitely love gaming that the time you spend with your PS3 is making you into a better, more effective and collaborative individual is like telling a room full of cows that drinking milk makes people nicer. Or at least, it would be if cows had a sneaking suspicion that the time they spent creating all that milk might actually be a bit wasted.

McGonigal is very influenced by the thinking of Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. If you’re even a little bit inclined towards cynicism, there’s a way that Seligman’s pursuit of Authentic Happiness might seem a little bit creepy – reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s motivational coach in Magnolia:

[Seligman’s] research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms … Authentic Happiness has almost 1,865,000 registered users around the world.

So you can be a user of your own emotions, addicted to ‘flourishing‘ – an achievement junkie who is spreading their goodness around the world.

Obviously, this is brilliant. We can have fun, play games, achieve great things and influence other people. But at its heart I find this idea quite unsettling: if everyone is mindfully hacking their behaviour so that they’re happier and have “higher hopes”, what happens to despair and loneliness and heartbreak? And then what of reflection and art?

McGonigal says that the ideal balance is to have three positive emotions for every negative one, and that – intriguingly – you need to know when to put a lid on it: if you get to a point where you’re having 12 positive emotions for every one negative, everyone will hate you and you’ll  be divorced from reality.

At it’s heart, this seems troubling because it’s putting a framework of success (even, agh!, a layer of gamification) on being good at life. I bet Strindberg didn’t live in a world governed by this rule of “at least 3 postives to one negative but no more than 12″, and there doesn’t seem to be space for exploration – what’s the value of traversing the depths of emotion if hitting the top or the bottom is failure, but steering an upper-to-middling path is success?

McGonigal is undoubtedly right about lots of things: the power of collaboration, the usefulness of collective good, the power of being mindfully productive and not just stumbling through life. But her codification of achievement seems quite terrifying. If everyone’s happy and powering up their personal value all of the time, then artistic creation, human relationships and authenticity will inevitably suffer. At it’s logical conclusion, things won’t be funny or sad anymore, only challenging and useful. And if we’re all full of PERMA (Positive Emotions, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment), then what happens to pathos? If reality is broken, I think I quite like it that way.

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