In “SuperBetter” Jane McGonigal shows how game play gives us the power to be healthy and happy.
When game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal was writing her first book, “Reality Is Broken” — an exploration of game behavior as a model for better problem solving — she suffered a traumatic brain injury that had her bedridden for months.
Doctors told her she would recover — but might not return to what she had regarded as “normal.” And so began a slow healing process that made simple conversations a challenge and a sensation of brain fog seem permanent.
Now director of game design at the renowned Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, McGonigal shares how her professional training and personal recovery fueled each other, catapulting her into the spotlight and igniting her groundbreaking career in game theory and design as a means of solving large-scale problems.
Problem solving through play
“Most people think about video games as a distraction or as a way to escape our real lives,” says McGonigal, sitting at one end of a massive wooden dining table in her Berkeley, California home, which seems perfect for warm, happy gatherings. “My research shows that video games actually change how we think and feel and act in our real lives — for days after we play them.”
Jane McGonigal was first inspired to turn her focus to gaming as a means of collaborating to solve problems during the aftermath of 9/11. She was captivated by the way fellow video gamers came together online to figure out how to apply their skills to help in the midst of tragedy.
As she saw from her video game community’s response, game play can be empowering. Her fellow players had developed incredible collective intelligence through game play and viewed themselves as a community, as a force for good. “They didn’t want to just have those powers go to waste in the virtual world. They wanted to use them in the real world, to organize relief efforts.”
Their response made McGonigal curious to find out whether gamers had skills that could be used to impact the real world in positive ways, “and if they do, what kind of game design could bridge the disconnect between the virtual world and the real world.”
To that end, McGonigal began designing games in order to solve problems, and still does. “My process always starts with identifying some aspect of reality that isn’t working and trying to figure out how game design can come up with a more empowering version of that reality.”
The hallmarks of game design include challenge, obstacles, rules and constraints specifically designed to require creativity and strategy. “Achieving the goal becomes a process of discovery, and curiosity, and invention, and collaboration,” McGonigal says. She uses golf as an example: if we only wanted to achieve the end goal, we would simply carry the ball to the hole and drop it in. But the game has been designed to build in challenge, requiring players to hit the tiny ball with a club over long distances, as well as obstacles, such as sand traps and water.
“It’s the experience of game play that brings us pleasure, and a sense of purpose,” McGonigal says.
Collective healing through collaborative play
When McGonigal suffered her brain injury, her painstaking recovery left her feeling socially isolated and deeply depressed and eventually, she became suicidal. But she found hope by engaging her gaming community.
“I knew from my research and from my experience as a game designer that those types of feelings tend to reverse when we play games,” says McGonigal. “We tend to feel more optimistic about our chances for success; we feel more determined and we can persevere; we have an easier time reaching out to others for help; and we take a more creative approach to problem solving.”
She continues, “I decided to use my skills as a game designer, and my research from looking into the psychology and neuroscience of video games, to try to hack my brain to help it heal — specifically by helping my brain remember how to be optimistic, how to feel motivated and how to reach out to others.” The first aspect of the game McGonigal devised was a secret identity that would allow her to move from feeling victimized to empowered, and so “Jane the Concussion Slayer” was born.
Joining forces for our own good
As Jane the Concussion Slayer, McGonigal invited people to play with her; she continued to develop new rules, quests and challenges and scoring systems as she continued to recover. The game evolved naturally into SuperBetter, named for McGonigal’s decision to become better than normal — super better! — in response to her doctors’ inability to predict her post-brain injury recovery.
This type of collaborative game play is actually more popular — and more healing — than solo or competitive play. According to McGonigal, “Three out of four gaming hours and gaming dollars are spent playing collaborative or social games. Most of us prefer to join forces and work towards the same goal, instead of constantly trying to defeat an opponent or compare ourselves against somebody else’s progress.”
Game play changes our perception of our own abilities — for the better. McGonigal elaborates: “It reminds us that we are capable of making progress, unlocking new skills and abilities and achieving things over time that would have seemed completely, unbelievably outside of our realm of ability or expertise. That’s the process of becoming what I call a super-empowered, hopeful individual.”
Over several years of watching other people play SuperBetter, McGonigal refined the rules, designed better quests and improved the challenges, and ultimately wrote “SuperBetter,” a best-selling book about the phenomenon that’s just come out in paperback.
“People are playing SuperBetter to cope with terminal illness, to get over bad breakups, to try to lose weight, to find a new job or to change their lives in some way.”
True to her view of game play as a social undertaking, McGonigal points out, “SuperBetter was [and is] really a multi-year collaboration with — eventually — more than half a million players.” Her widely popular TED talks have been viewed globally by millions more, and through her book, Jane inspires people to consider that “reality is broken, and we need to make it work more like a game.”
Start your game
In “SuperBetter,” Jane McGonigal offers many ideas for living gamefully. Here are three examples:
1. Define your Epic Win
Fill in the answer to this phrase: “I am getting SuperBetter because….” Getting SuperBetter means accomplishing the goals that really matter to you. These goals are called “Epic Wins” — because they can only be achieved by tackling a tough challenge. What is your Epic Win? What does it look like, feel like, taste like to be on the other side of it? Defining what success is for you is very personal, but feel free to look around the world for inspiration from others who have achieved things that make you say, “wow.” It has to have energy for you. Tap here for more brainstorming questions to help you decide.
2. Establish Meaningful Quests
A quest is anything you can do to get closer to your Epic Win. You determine the quest and the meaning, but be sure to make them rich and tangible. This is a secret backed by science: if you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion over the course of an hour, a day, even a week, you dramatically improve your health and your ability to tackle problems. It’s called the three-to-one positive emotion ratio. It turns out that people who regularly boost four types of resilience — physical, mental, emotional and social — live 10 years longer.
It’s a SuperBetter trick, and easy to start. Set up daily quests — small goals to achieve the three-to-one positive emotion ratio; for example, don’t sit still for more than an hour at a time, reach out to one person you care about every single day, drink water at the top of every hour, and beat your bedtime deadline.
3. Grab a Game
Games remind you that you are someone who can get better at difficult challenges, that you have the capacity to learn and improve and achieve things that are beyond your ability today. There are game options available on just about any platform and for every possible interest, skill or passion. Pick one or pick a bunch; play on your own or grab a group to play. Every time you learn to play a new game, you’re building the capacity to handle challenge.
Choose Your Challenge
How do you know how much challenge to choose for yourself?
Jane McGonigal offers the answer by way of example. “Right now, I’m in this ultra half-marathon race series, and I’m competing at a level that I would not have guessed was possible when I first started running. I’m not that fast when I participate in typical road races, and when I became a mom [to twins], my ability to train the way I usually did went out the window.”
“I still wanted that sense of being challenged and improving and being a part of the racing community. So I decided to pick something absurdly difficult … because I wanted the experience of getting better. And I knew if I started something that I was going to be very bad at, that I would definitely have that experience [of getting better]!”
As it turns out, McGonigal’s “crazy-hard” challenge led to discovery. “I have the super power I didn’t know about, which is that I am totally cool with feeling uncomfortable, and so I can just keep on chugging up the mountain.” The pain just doesn’t bother her as much as it might bother other people.
McGonigal adds, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a goal that’s too crazy, as long as you’re comfortable with failure. That’s really the gameful mindset — a mindset in which you would rather learn and improve and develop strengths that are important to you, than to win.”
The research is conclusive that consistent exposure to challenges transfers benefits to other parts of our lives. From kids to adults, McGonigal says, “We learn from playing games that failure does not mean we have to stop or look for a different direction, that we can live with that discomfort.”