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SUPERBETTER: Using A Gameful Mindset to Get Better (with Jane McGonigal)

We’ve all heard this before: “Video Games are bad for you.”

It’s an ancient thought process that parents have conveyed tons of times to get their children. But, what you didn’t know is that all of those hours that you put into Metroid and Super Mario have actually improved the way you deal with issues that have or may arise in your life.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the incredibly intelligent Jane McGonigal about her recent book, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games to get a better understanding of this phenomenon.

It’s a fascinating book about using a gamer mindset to take on challenges in life. As you read through the book, you are tasked with things such as finding allies (friends or family members that will help you out), using power-ups (doing something you can do at anytime that will make you feel better/stronger/healthier/ or more connected like drinking water or going outside), and even going on quests (completing a large challenge that will help your overall goal). Eventually you go on epic quests, and you’ll be keeping score of everything, of course.

It’s a unique manner of taking on challenges for sure. It will help you become the hero of your own story, and enhance your ability to cope with any sort of issue. Best of all, all of it is backed by science.

Whether it’s coming back from a severe head injury,–which is what lead Jane to create this method– or if you want to get better at a certain skill, the SuperBetter method helps you utilize your approach on games to tackle real life issues.


Nerdist: What is the SuperBetter way, and what is getting SuperBetter about?

Jane McGonigal: I’ve been researching the psychology and neuroscience of games for 15 years now, and there’s just so much evidence that playing games changes how we respond to stress, to challenges, and to pain. What I wanted to do was round up all of that evidence, so that people who love games can use all of those changes to their benefit in their own life.

So, getting SuperBetter is really about understanding the way that your brain responds to to games or gameful challenges, and taking advantage of that so that you can better control your thoughts and feelings, and respond to tough challenges with more will power, more focus and attention, more creativity, and more resilience.

N: You have seven rules of being gameful, how did you come up with these and bring it down to just seven of them? (Challenge yourself, Collect and activate power-ups, find and battle the bad guys, seek out and complete quests, recruit your allies, adapt a secret identity, go for an epic win) 

JM: The SuperBetter method got started when I had my traumatic brain injury. I was just making up a game to help myself deal with the depression, anxiety, and social isolation during recovery. At that time there weren’t 7 rules, I was just making it up as I went along. It was structured like a role playing game. Literally I would wake up in the day, and be like “what does the game look today, let me design some quests, or look at my avatar today” and it was very ad-hoc.

When other people saw me making videos about this, and started playing themselves, they started to formalize “well this is my scoring system, or my leveling up system, it’s what I’m having my allies do.” So, I started to figure out a more concrete way of approaching it. I started a company to develop the app and a web platform to help people use the same method for an illness or injury, and make it concrete to help someone go from being really overwhelmed, or anxious, to feeling hopeful, and empowered.

Once the game started working really well for people, I needed to understand why. Even though it was clear to me that it was working, I needed to have a foundational theory for why. I wanted to understand how this kind of mindset change could help so effectively. To be quite honest, it sounds kind of silly. When a lot of people hear about this, they think it sounds ridiculous. I’ve read over a thousand different studies over a four year period to understand this. It just so happened that I was able to gain entry into the sort of game design elements, like the role of bad guys, quests and allies, that they all correlate with different aspects of really well validated psychological interventions, or even physiological interventions–things that have shown to have major benefits like meditation, or cognitive behavioral therapy. You can actually activate the brain in the same ways through this gameplay to get the same benefit, so that’s where the seven rules sort of come from.


N: There was an emphasis on finding out what skills you’re getting better at through games. Do you think there could be negative affects by using games as a form of escapism? How do we avoid that?

JM: If you look at the research, the content doesn’t really determine whether a game has benefits or negative impacts. A lot of the games that parents or media worry about, are showing all kinds of benefits. First person shooters have been proven more than other genres to improve cognitive skill sets like fast decision making, and the ability to process multiple streams of information effectively, and make more effective decisions faster; so the content is really not what makes the difference.

It really is that mindset of whether you are playing to suppress negative thoughts and feelings, or whether you’re playing to escape or avoid your life. When you do that, you tend to play more the worse you feel, or harder your life gets, and that takes you out of putting time and energy towards solving problems.

If you have an intention, it doesn’t matter what games you play, the violent content is really a red herring in that sense. There is one phenomenon, like testosterone poisoning, where you can get a little jacked up on testosterone, from always trying to beat anonymous strangers online, that seems to raise testosterone more than other kinds of games, and that can change some people’s personalities temporarily to be more aggressive, more hostile, or have less empathy and compassion.

It doesn’t make you violent, but may make you less compassionate, and a little bit of a jerk to people, including people you interact with hours after playing the game. So, I would say try to beat and destroy people you know in real life, or do team based play or co-op. But, don’t spend all your time trying to beat strangers, because you may get testosterone poisoning. It’ll make you into a jerk. Some people may want more testosterone–i.e. if they want to feel more assertive at work. It’s really more about understanding the affect the game has on you rather than someone like me telling you what to do.

N: When reading the book, one of your points really stood out to me. It was your emphasis on character creation. You state that gamers should create characters that look like themselves to feel more connected with the achievements in the game? Can this have negative effects?

JM: This is really interesting. Stanford research shows that if you’re trying to change someone’s rural behavior it works better if the avatars look like them. It could be kind of dangerous territory. If you’re playing the Sims for example, and you design Sims to look like yourself, people are more likely to go out and go back to their lives and say, “I want to take care of my needs today in the same way that I took care of the needs of my Sims.”

They [players] are more likely to do this if the Sims look like them. That’s a really good and harmless take. Maybe you’re doing a fitness video game and your avatar is getting fitter and fitter the harder you work, or fatter and fatter the lazier you are. Well, that’s a good case where you’re more likely not just to work harder while you’re playing. But, when you go back to your life, you’ll take the stairs instead of the elevator. You’ll walk a little bit farther, and are more likely to do physical activity after playing the game.

There are no studies that suggest we mimic negative behavior, like fighting, or shooting Zombies etc., but, I’m sure people will want to study that to make sure. My sense is that since there are no studies showing that we mimic violent behavior, there wouldn’t necessarily be a downside to have characters to customize like yourself because most gamers will focus not on the violent virtual actions, but they’ll focus more on the problem solving, the obstacle overcoming that sense of being effective and powerful–that’s what you would take back to real life, not the content. That would be my hypothesis. But, people will want to study that further.

In short: if you’re playing a heroic character, definitely.

I’m happy to also learn that video games are being taken more seriously in the scientific realm. I foolishly assumed they weren’t, and Jane vigorously corrected me by assuring that it’s a growing focus in the science world. And one clarification, Jane is not advocating playing video games non-stop, but to instead focus on the positive techniques in your spurts of gameplay.

I want to once again thank Jane for taking time to join me for the chat. If you want to get your hands on her book, you can find it on Amazon, or at a book vendor near you. You can also download the SuperBetter app here. I highly recommend reading the book, it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air.

Image Credit: SuperBetter

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