Jane McGonigal, PhD, is a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future and the author of The New York Times bestseller Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. McGonigal's newest book is titled SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games. Her work has been featured in The Economist, Wired, and The New York Times and on MTV, CNN, and NPR. She has been called one of the top ten innovators to watch (BusinessWeek), one of the one hundred most creative people in business (Fast Company), and one of the fifty most important people in the gaming industry (Game Developers Magazine). Her TED talks on games have been viewed more than ten million times.
Jane McGonigal: One of the questions that I’m asked a lot is – what is it about games that we love so much? What is it about games that makes us want to spend seven billion hours a week collectively playing them? And in all of my research, the really big idea that I think is true for pretty much every gamer is that we love to be challenged. We love to tackle these unnecessary obstacles that require us to be more creative, or be more strategic, or be more heroic. And these games really bring out those heroic qualities in us.
One of the things that games teach us to do really well is to hang in there with a tough challenge. Industry research shows that gamers actually spend 80 percent of the time failing when they’re playing their favorite games. So four out of five times they don’t finish the mission, they don’t level up, they don’t get the score they want – they have to keep trying. And having that resilience in the face of failure is definitely a gamer quality – that we are able to learn from our mistakes, that we are willing to try again. That kind of resilience is probably the number one thing that games cultivate in us when we play them.
I actually had an opportunity to put some of this research to the test in my own personal life about two years ago when I suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. I had a concussion, and it didn’t heal properly. And it was probably the toughest time in my life trying to recover – trying to get my skills back at reading and writing, which I wasn’t able to do, and to deal with the pain, and the headaches, and the nausea, and feeling really disconnected, from my friends and family. And I thought to myself, well, all the research shows that games promote positive emotions, and strengthen our social connections. Maybe I can turn my recovery into a game. And then I would be able to tap into those heroic qualities, but use them to face a very real problem.
So I invented a game called SuperBetter and I started trying to really live like a gamer as I recovered. I started looking for power-ups – so things in my real life that would help me feel stronger or get better and do them as many times a day as I could. I would identify the bad guys – so these are the things that I couldn’t do anymore that I was supposed to do less of while my brain was healing. And then I would report battles, and did I win or fail, and how tough was the battle today? And then I had allies. I invited my friends and family to play with me and gave them specific missions – ways that they could help me, calling me, checking in, giving me quests to undertake, giving me advice – and that was really useful because suddenly I felt like they could understand what I was going through better, that they had really specific ways to help, that they didn’t just have to worry about me or be anxious, but they could really get involved with my recovery.
So fast-forward two years later, and I’ve actually been able to make SuperBetter available to anybody else who might want to play it. We have a start-up company called SuperBetter Labs, and the game is now available for free. And what’s been fascinating to me, is watching people show up and play it – not just for concussions and brain injuries, but to play it for losing weight, and depression, and anxiety, and quitting smoking, and getting over a bad breakup, and all of these things that are tough and real challenges that we face, that maybe we can face better with that heroic optimism and curiosity that we have when we play our favorite games.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd