Posted inEditor's Pick

How to Get SuperBetter

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 17, 2015 | 4,658 words

Game designer Jane McGonigal argues that playing games can help us develop skills for life.

Posted inNonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

How to Get SuperBetter

Game designer Jane McGonigal argues that playing games can help us develop skills for life.
Photo: Kiyash Monsef

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2015 | 18 minutes (4,658 words)

In 2009, while game designer Jane McGonigal was writing her first book, Reality Is Broken, she hit her head. The concussion didn’t heal. A month later, she was still plagued by intense physical discomfort and was told to avoid reading, writing, video games, alcohol, and caffeine. She became depressed and anxious, and had suicidal thoughts for the first time in her life.

By then, McGonigal had been researching games, and how the skills they build can help improve our real lives, for nearly a decade. She realized she ought to put her findings into practice. She designed a recovery game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which involved recruiting allies (her sister and her husband) and identifying “bad guys” (symptom triggers) to avoid, “power-ups” (little boosts, like eating walnuts) to seek out, and quests to complete. That game became SuperBetter, which invites players to choose a specific challenge to overcome and, in the process, develop “gameful” abilities.

McGonigal’s new book, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient, takes readers through the game, as well as research supporting its efficacy and the theory behind it. We spoke by phone about games’ benefits and limitations, how playing games affects the brain, and what she’s using SuperBetter to tackle now.

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You cite some fascinating studies in this book. One that I found particularly surprising, from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, was that watching an avatar who looks like you work out and show physical improvement makes you more likely to go exercise yourself. Was that surprising to you?

It wasn’t surprising. By the time that study came out of the Stanford Lab, they had done many studies of avatars and how they impact how we think and act in real life. There was, for example, a finding that if you play with an avatar that is highly attractive, you are more confident flirting afterward. The only thing that does surprise me is that this hasn’t been commercialized more quickly, because everybody is looking for that extra motivation to do the things we want to do, like exercise more.

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