Jane McGonigal shows how games make us resilient

<b style="color:#900;">Q&A</b> With SuperBetter, the famous game designer has built a tool that is helping thousands of people overcome a wide variety of problems. It just goes to show how games can make us stronger.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
At SXSW this week, Jane McGonigal formally unveiled her new game, SuperBetter. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--If you want to lose weight or overcome the effects of asthma, Jane McGonigal thinks she has a solution you might not have considered: a game.

At the South by Southwest festival here this week, the world-famous game designer formally launched her latest project, SuperBetter, a project that is designed to help players attack any of a wide variety of personal challenges.

It's not a quick fix. McGonigal and her team built the game with a sense of reality: nothing important happens overnight. But commit to taking on challenges, and a game like SuperBetter can help just about anyone tackle issues that have cowed them for years.

For McGonigal, SuperBetter is not just an intellectual exercise. She created it after suffering a severe concussion and finding herself deep in depression at not being able to heal properly. Deciding that coming up with a game to tackle her struggles was a better alternative than succumbing to the injury, she soon came up with a framework for what she called Jane the Concussion Slayer.

And return from the injury she did, not only to her blossoming career as a leading designer of intricate social, multiplayer games but to writing--she penned the bestseller "Reality is Broken"--and to launching a startup built around her new creation.

The game, now called SuperBetter, has been in private beta for six months, and now, the general public can take part. The only question is, how many people's lives will be better off for having played a game?

Q: How different is SuperBetter today than when it was Jane the Concussion Slayer?
Jane McGonigal: The main thing is when I started playing, I was just making it up as I went along. There was no game. I'd wake up the next day and say What do I need more of today? And now it's a fully designed experience that you can come to and you don't have to know what you're doing. And you can download power packs that have all the quests designed for you by scientists or doctors and experts.

How much of the science you talk about did you have to learn, and was that exciting?
McGonigal: We've probably spent as much time on research as we have the actual design and development of the game. I've been able to go to scientific meetings and conferences and sit and absorb the new science and meet all these allies who are sending us their research even before their scientific paper comes out. And then we can play with it and work with it, and figure out what the best way is to work it into the game. And that's exciting for me because I came from a research background. I worked in a lab and to be able to bring that into the game design practice is great.

What are a couple of examples of that, and what have you learned from it?
McGonigal: We look at what people want to play the game for and try to find research that will support that effort. When we first opened up our closed beta about six months ago, the number one personal health goal people had was losing weight. And people talked about needing more will power. So we reached out to the top researchers in will power and were able to learn thing like will power is actually like a muscle. It gets fatigued, and you have to build it up over time. You can't just go and lift 500 pounds your first time at the gym, you have to work your way up to will power. So in the game we give you graduated will power challenges. Instead of quitting smoking on day one, or going cold turkey on all your favorite foods on day one, you're actually building up the will power muscle first, so that when you do make that decision and make that effort, you're more likely to be successful. Which is how a good game should be, with escalating challenges, and not giving you something too hard until you're ready for it.

Is it hard for a lot of players to get past the idea that it's not going to be a quick fix?
McGonigal: We've been working with a few thousands players and getting a lot of feedback, but I think we're going to learn a lot more now that it's in the open public beta. Our experience has been that the players seem to be extremely receptive to and grateful to the science, because they're coming to the game either with a challenge they've tried and failed at--so they're looking for something different because they have that intuition that what they're trying doesn't work. Or they've dealing with something really, really hard, like a new diagnosis of asthma or they're going through chemotherapy, whatever it is. And they already feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, and to have this as a resource, there's a sense of gratitude and receptiveness that makes me really happy to see people just grateful for something that gives them more power.

Have you gotten feedback from people whose situations have improved because of the game?
McGonigal: For sure. Whenever you achieve an epic win in the game, we get an alert in the office telling us. One of the first epic win alerts we got was from a guy in his 20s with asthma, and he wrote that he'd used his inhaler every day for years. His epic win was to go three days without using his inhaler. Two weeks into the game, he achieved his epic win. He wrote, "This is super crazy, if you had asked me if this was possible, I would have said no....I'm trying to figure out what happened. It seems to me like I finally have some control over my body and my reactions, and that's helped me break free of this instinctive habit of reaching for the inhaler, and it turns out I was maybe healthier than I realized."

That's really cool. We had another very typical type of epic win: A woman in her 30s who was playing to lose weight. With the ninja weight loss power pack, you can't just try to lose weight. You have to sneak up on it. You're not allowed to diet when you're on this power pack, and you're not allowed to weigh yourself for two weeks. The research we're working with shows that if you can get people to focus on something other than losing weight, like having more energy, that's actually effective. Her first epic win had been to lose 10 pounds, but she changed her epic win to running a 5K. She's never been an exerciser, but she said, I'm feeling great and I'm more focused on being able to do something than weighing a certain number. And that's very typical of what we're seeing. It's really a shift that you take away, changing what you think what your goals are.

Because there's different terms you can use to get to the same goal?
McGonigal: Yeah, but more focused on the positive challenges for yourself rather than beating up yourself up or punishing yourself.

You talked about the number one smartass comment, "Are you going to regret all those hours you spent playing video games when you're on your death bed?" Is that going to change?
McGonigal: I don't know if people will change their opinions on that during this decade. It's certainly possible because of the research that's coming out. There's a Michigan State study that shows that kids who play games are more creative. It doesn't even matter what kind of game it is. If you're playing violent games, it's still increasing your creativity. So I think that the burden of evidence ultimately will certainly make games seem a worthwhile way of spending time. I don't think we just have to be entertainment. But if there's something better going on here that's having more benefits in terms of building our social relationships and our creativity and our resilience than just, say, reading a book or watching TV, I think it's worth getting behind that.

What does it say about our society that there's now a whole group of companies working on games and projects like or related to SuperBetter?
McGonigal: I think there's some sort of a shift going in general about people wanting to fix what's broken about our social constructs of how hard we work and how difficult it is to do the things that we intrinsically want to do--spending time with friends and family or giving time to things that make us healthy, and there's kind of a desperation to fix that, and so people are looking for breakthrough tools, because there's no good reason not to do these things, unless it's really hard. I think games are a really good fit for it, because they're such a time suck. We spend so much time on it, if we can just leverage that time for things that are also what we truly want most out of life, then there's no problem at all. I think there's more people seeing that there's a win-win kind of thing going on here.

Where do you come down on the use of the term "gamification?"
McGonigal: I'm often asked to come talk to companies about gamification. I say, sure, I'll come. One of the first things I say is I don't think it's the most useful term for talking about it. One of the terms I like is one Ben Sawyer helped introduce: Game IT, or game information technology, basically building infrastructure, building technology that has game software or game technology in it, but which can be used for other purposes. I think leveraging game technology is a more useful way than talking about leveraging game mechanics, like points or leaderboards or team badges because as everybody said a million times already, that's not what creates the real feel of a game and it doesn't really motivate players. And, game designers don't want to work in gamification. Real game designers want to make real games. Which is why I talk about positive impact games. Make a game that's a game and is a holistic experience of playing a game but that has a real impact at the same time.

In your talk you mentioned the Gambrian explosion. Can you explain that?
McGonigal: [SimCity and Sims designer] Will Wright originally said that we're undergoing a Cambrian explosion of games, and what he was talking about was that games are taking on new forms and being played on new platforms, or games that don't even look like games, games that look like stories, or games that look like real life. They're almost unrecognizable as games, the same way in the evolutionary period, in the Cambrian explosion, suddenly you had all these life forms that were all weird and creepy and didn't look like anything you'd seen before, but they were alive, and they were crawling all over the planet. And right now what we're seeing, partly with gamification and partly with all the new platforms people are playing on, is that games don't look like the games of ten years ago. You don't have to sit in front of a screen, and you don't have to be in a virtual space. It's more like games throughout history, games played in real spaces, or played at certain times of the year as rituals. So we're uncontaining games from the screen, and I think that's a good thing.