Gamer, heal thyself

SuperbetterWhen Jane McGonigal suffered a serious brain injury in 2009, it inspired her to create a game called “SuperBetter” to help heal herself.

Recently I heard McGonigal speaking about the game and her journey on the radio, and I was intrigued. McGonigal has partnered with radio producer and  media-blogger Alex Goldman in a unique media campaign with the radio show “On the Media.”

Goldman, a producer at On the Media, was injured in a car accident last spring. He has been playing “SuperBetter” as a part of his recovery. I too had a severe bike accident earlier this year and have been dealing with the lingering effects of a serious concussion.

My brain has recovered from the accident, but it has taken months. Initially, I couldn’t imagine how a game could have sped up my healing process, but I wanted to take a closer look.

McGonigal is a game designer and games researcher at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. She says her focus is “games that are designed to improve real lives or solve real problems.”Superbetter screenshot

In September McGonigal released SuperBetter on a beta web site. I visited the web site and started clicking my way through the steps in the game.

The game’s principles follow many tenets of the science of positive psychology, which McGonigal says is the biggest influence on her game design. She wants her games to help people have more positive emotions, stronger relationships, greater resilience, more ambitious accomplishments and service to something bigger than themselves. She’s not a small thinker: Her #1 goal in life is to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize.

The game starts out by assigning you tasks to do like “engage your friends and family to help you get better.”  You give them names and write them emails asking them to help. Subsequently the game asks you to find out what is holding you back from getting better . You work to overcome these during the game. Alex Goldman named things like “not socializing, staying up super late and not really getting anything done.” Finally, the game asks you to consider what makes you feel better. According to the game, these will help you keep going when times are tough.

The game then asks you to set a goal an “epic win”–that might take you six weeks to achieve. You break down your epic win into quests, or daily goals and challenges: “A hero’s win is measured in steps.” The language throughout the “Hero’s Journey” is grandiose in a way that regular gamers would recognize; I’m not a gamer at all and I understood the concepts successfully.

One of the goals of SuperBetter is to encourage social interaction. Once you name your allies, they can assign you quests to help move you along your path to healing.

For example, one of Goldman’s allies assigned him a task to walk somewhere to buy something for his wife and something for his cat. McGonigal said that quest was “absolutely the coolest” because it tapped into Goldman’s motivations: He loves his wife and cat. Doing something for them provided a different motivation than just doing exercise.

Goldman agreed with McGonigal that the tasks his allies assigned were better, more motivating, than the ones he assigned himself. The ones he created seemed “pedestrian in comparison.”

I found the game appealing. I liked setting a daily goal; it gave me a sense of accomplishment when I checked it off. The game asked me to name “Future Boosts”—things I’m looking forward to. That got me excited. After a few days of logging into the game, I felt lighter and more positive.

Goldman tried SuperBetter for six weeks to help him heal from his serious bike accident. Blogging about his experience, Goldman said that logging into the game daily kept him mindful of things he needed to be working on. After a few weeks, people told him his disposition was “uncharacteristically sunny.”

When he finally achieved his “epic win” (riding his bike around Prospect Park), it was easier than expected. He was flattered that friends and co-workers came to show their support. He said it was a small but significant step that gave him more confidence to do more bike riding in the future.

I am intrigued by SuperBetter. While my brain is mostly healed now, sports injuries are part of my active life. Sometimes I’m reluctant to ask for help when I’m injured, and sometimes I have a hard time keeping my motivation to do things to heal the injury. Would using a game to set goals and engage my husband and friends speed up my progress? Would it also help make my relationships stronger? Next time I get hurt, I’ll try it and find out.