When game designer Jane McGonigal sustained a concussion in 2009, she assumed the effects would be temporary. They weren’t. Severe headaches and memory loss, accompanied by extreme suicidal thoughts, put McGonigal on bed rest for months. She describes it as the most difficult time of her life in her July 2012 TED Talk, The game that can give you 10 extra years of life. “After 34 days, I said I am either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game,” she remembers. What happened next has since launched a revolution in the game industry, spurred by McGonigal’s observation that gamifying life’s challenges–from sickness to exercise–helps humans excel.
McGonigal’s brain-healing “game” was called Jane the Concussion Slayer, and it involved finding her allies (her sister and husband), battling bad guys (bright lights and crowds) and powering up (cuddling her dog, for example). “Within just a few days, that fog of depression and anxiety went away,” she says. She put the game’s “rules” online, and within a few weeks, other people battling chronic illness were using it to help themselves set goals and stay positive.
After McGonigal raised more than a million dollars in funding, Jane the Concussion Slayer became Superbetter!,, which launched in beta on iTunes this spring. From nudging people lose weight, to helping people with terminal illness stay positive, Superbetter! has attracted boatloads of attention (McGonigal has given several talks at TED, as well as SXSW). By applying well-worn gamer traits to everyday life, McGonigal believes humans are more prepared to tackle challenges and, quite simply, live better. Users sign up, select an avatar, and start setting up challenges–or “epic wins”–and tracking their progress. A community forum lets you confer with others struggling to win.
McGonigal does a great job of explaining the scientific proof of her game in the video above, so check it out. But to give a brief synopsis, Superbetter! encourages four types of resilience (physical, mental, emotional, and social) that scientists associate with a condition called Posttraumatic Growth. In opposition to Posttraumatic Stress, the term refers to patients who experience positive growth after severe traumas. “A traumatic event doesn’t doom us to suffer indefinitely,” says McGonigal. Superbetter! lets users set simple goals, helping them bulk up on one of the four traits linked with PTG.
Even more interesting, McGonigal explains that the four types of resilience can help anyone–sick or not–improve their health (she used it to train for a marathon in January). During her TED talk, she runs the audience through four simple resilience challenges, explaining that completing the exercises–which include looking at pictures of baby elephants–has extended their lifespan by roughly seven minutes.
Somehow, when we think of a life challenge as though it’s a game–get allies! Be a hero! Set goals! Vanquish enemies!–our human brains have an easier time dealing. It’s a fascinating insight, and McGonigal plans to keep exploring how games can improve our lives through her umbrella company, Superbetter Labs. Of course, like any gamer, she’s quick to point out her objectives: “my goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.”
You can download Superbetter! on iTunes.