SuperBetter: How a Gameful Life Can Make You Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient

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9780008106331: SuperBetter: How a Gameful Life Can Make You Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient

An innovative guide to living gamefully, based on the program that has already helped nearly half a million people achieve remarkable personal growth

In 2009, internationally renowned game designer Jane McGonigal suffered a severe concussion. Unable to think clearly or work or even get out of bed, she became anxious and depressed, even suicidal. But rather than let herself sink further, she decided to get better by doing what she does best: she turned her recovery process into a resilience-building game. What started as a simple motivational exercise quickly became a set of rules for “post-traumatic growth” that she shared on her blog. These rules led to a digital game and a major research study with the National Institutes of Health. Today nearly half a million people have played SuperBetter to get stronger, happier, and healthier.

But the life-changing ideas behind SuperBetter are much bigger than just one game. In this book, McGonigal reveals a decade’s worth of scientific research into the ways all games—including videogames, sports, and puzzles—change how we respond to stress, challenge, and pain. She explains how we can cultivate new powers of recovery and resilience in everyday life simply by adopting a more “gameful” mind-set. Being gameful means bringing the same psychological strengths we naturally display when we play games—such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination—to real-world goals.

Drawing on hundreds of studies, McGonigal shows that getting superbetter is as simple as tapping into the three core psychological strengths that games help you build:

   · Your ability to control your attention, and therefore your thoughts and feelings
   · Your power to turn anyone into a potential ally, and to strengthen your existing relationships
   · Your natural capacity to motivate yourself and super-charge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination

SuperBetter contains nearly 100 playful challenges anyone can undertake in order to build these gameful strengths. It includes stories and data from people who have used the SuperBetter method to get stronger in the face of illness, injury, and other major setbacks, as well as to achieve goals like losing weight, running a marathon, and finding a new job.

As inspiring as it is down to earth, and grounded in rigorous research, SuperBetter is a proven game plan for a better life. You’ll never say that something is “just a game” again.


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

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. Her work has been featured in The EconomistWired, 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Before You Play, Here’s What You Need to Know

The SuperBetter method is designed to make you stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient.

It’s based on the science of games—and there’s a lot of evidence that it works.

A randomized, controlled study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that playing SuperBetter for thirty days significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and increases optimism, social support, and players’ belief in their own ability to succeed and achieve their goals. The study also found that people who followed the SuperBetter rules for one month were significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives.

A clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that the SuperBetter method improves mood, decreases anxiety and suffering, and strengthens family relationships during rehabilitation and recovery.

Meanwhile, data collected from more than 400,000 SuperBetter players has helped me improve the method, to make it easier to learn and more fun to use in everyday life.

Every single day for the past five years I’ve heard from someone who says that the SuperBetter method has changed their life. It is my greatest hope that SuperBetter will help you tackle your toughest challenges, and pursue your biggest dreams, with more courage, creativity, optimism, and support.

Please remember, the SuperBetter method is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Many successful SuperBetter players—including a majority of participants in the University of Pennsylvania study and all the participants in the clinical trial—followed the SuperBetter method alongside some form of continuing counseling, medication, or rehabilitation, or with a doctor’s supervision. The SuperBetter method is NOT an alternative to therapy, counseling, ongoing medical treatment, or medication—nor is any game recommended or discussed in this book.

Now that you know—let’s play!

Introduction

You are stronger than you know.

You are surrounded by potential allies.

You are the hero of your own story.

These three qualities are all it takes to become happier, braver, and more resilient in the face of any challenge.

Here’s the good news: You already have these qualities within you. You don’t have to change a thing. You are already more powerful than you realize.

You have the ability to control your attention—and therefore your thoughts and feelings.

You have the strength to find support in the most unexpected places, and deepen your existing relationships.

You have a natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination.

This book will help you understand the powers you already have—and show you that accessing these powers is as easy as playing a game.

And yet this book is not about playing games—at least, not exactly. It’s about learning how to be gameful in the face of extreme stress and personal challenge.

Being gameful means bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games—such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination—to your real life. It means having the curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up the resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success.

The best way I know to explain what it means to be gameful—and how being gameful can make you stronger, happier, and braver—is to tell you a story. It’s the story of how I invented the SuperBetter method—and the life-threatening challenge I had to overcome to be able to write this book.

In the summer of 2009, I hit my head and got a concussion. It didn’t heal properly, and after thirty days I still had constant headaches, nausea, and vertigo. I couldn’t read or write for more than a few minutes at a time. I had trouble remembering things. Most days I felt too sick to get out of bed. I was in a total mental fog. These symptoms left me more anxious and depressed than I had ever been in my life.

I had trouble communicating clearly to friends and family exactly what I was going through. I thought if I could write something down, it would help. I struggled and struggled to put together words that made sense, and this is what I came up with:

Everything is hard.

The iron fist is pushing against my thoughts.

My whole brain feels vacuum pressurized.

If I can’t think who am I?

Unfortunately, there is no real treatment for postconcussion syndrome. You just rest as much as you can and hope for the best. I was told I might not feel better for months or even a year or longer.

There was one thing I could do to try to heal faster. My doctor told me I should avoid everything that triggered my symptoms. That meant no reading, no writing, no running, no video games, no work, no email, no alcohol, and no caffeine. I joked to my doctor at the time: “In other words, no reason to live.”

There was quite a bit of truth in that joke. I didn’t know it then, but suicidal ideation is very common with traumatic brain injuries—even mild ones like mine.1 It happens to one in three, and it happened to me. My brain started telling me: Jane, you want to die. It said, You’re never going to get better. The pain will never end. You’ll be a burden to your husband.

These voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life.

And then something happened. I had one crystal-clear thought that changed everything. Thirty-four days after I hit my head—and I will never forget this moment—I said to myself, I am either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game.

Why a game? By the time I hit my head in 2009, I’d been researching the psychology of games for nearly a decade. In fact, I was the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers and how those strengths can translate to real-world problem solving. I knew from my years of research at the University of California at Berkeley that when we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, and more optimism. We’re also more likely to reach out to others for help. And I wanted to bring these gameful traits to my real-life challenge.

So I created a simple recovery game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” This became my new secret identity, a way to start feeling heroic and determined instead of hopeless.

The first thing I did as the concussion slayer was to call my twin sister, Kelly, and tell her, “I’m playing a game to heal my brain, and I want you to play with me.” This was an easy way to ask for help. She became my first ally in the game. My husband, Kiyash, joined next.

Together we identified and battled the bad guys. These were anything that could trigger my symptoms and therefore slow down the healing process—things like bright lights and crowded spaces.

We also collected and activated power-ups. These were anything I could do on even my worst day to feel just a little bit good or happy or powerful. Some of my favorite power-ups were cuddling my Shetland sheepdog for five minutes, eating walnuts (good for my brain), and walking around the block twice with my husband.

The game was that simple: adopt a secret identity, recruit allies, battle the bad guys, and activate power-ups. But even with a game so simple, within just a couple days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle to me. It wasn’t a miracle cure for the headaches or the cognitive symptoms—they lasted more than a year, and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering. I felt more in control of my own destiny. My friends and family knew exactly how to help and support me. And I started to see myself as a much stronger person.

What happened next with the game surprised me. After a few months, I put up a blog post and a short video online explaining how to play. Not everybody has a concussion, and not everyone wants to be “the slayer,” so I renamed the game SuperBetter.

Why SuperBetter? Everyone had told me to “get better soon” while I was recovering from the concussion, but I didn’t want just to get better, as in back to normal. I wanted to get superbetter: happier and healthier than I’d been before the injury.

Soon I started hearing from people all over the world who were adopting their own secret identities, recruiting their own allies, and fighting their own bad guys. They were getting “superbetter” at facing challenges like depression and anxiety, surgery and chronic pain, migraines and Crohn’s disease, healing a broken heart and finding a job after years of unemployment. People were even playing it for extremely serious, even terminal diagnoses, like stage-five cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). And I could tell from their messages and their videos that the game was helping them in the same ways that it helped me.

These players talked about feeling stronger and braver. They talked about feeling better understood by their friends and family. And they talked about feeling happier, even though they were in pain, even though they were tackling the toughest challenges of their lives.

At the time, I thought to myself, What on earth is going on here? How could a game so seemingly trivial, so admittedly simple, intervene so powerfully in such serious, in some cases life-and-death, circumstances? To be frank, if it hadn’t already worked for me, there’s no way I would have believed it was possible.

When I was recovered enough to do research, I dove into the scientific literature. And here’s what I learned: some people get stronger and happier after a traumatic event. And that’s what was happening to us. The game was helping us experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth, which is not something we usually hear about. More commonly, we hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, in which individuals experience ongoing anxiety and depression.

But research has shown that traumatic events don’t always lead to long-term difficulty. Instead, some individuals find that struggling with highly challenging life circumstances helps them unleash their best qualities and eventually lead happier lives.2

To give you a better idea of what post-traumatic growth looks like, here are the top five things that people with post-traumatic growth say:

1. My priorities have changed. I’m not afraid to do what makes me happy.

2. I feel closer to my friends and family.

3. I understand myself better. I know who I really am now.

4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life.

5. I’m better able to focus on my goals and dreams.3

Taken together, these five traits represent a powerful positive transformation. But it’s more than that. There’s actually something quite astonishing about the benefits of post-traumatic growth, something I noticed in the course of my research.

A few years ago an Australian hospice worker named Bronnie Ware published an article called “Regrets of the Dying.”4 Ware would know—she had spent a decade caring for patients at the end of their lives. She wrote that the same regrets were repeated again and again by her patients, year after year—and after she published her article, she heard from hundreds of hospice workers and caretakers all over the world who confirmed her findings. They had heard the same five regrets over the years. Apparently they are nearly universal. Not everyone has regrets on their deathbed—but if they do, they are likely to be one or more of the following:

1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

3. I wish I had let myself be happier.

4. I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.

5. I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

Think about this list for a moment. Are you having the same “aha!” moment that I had, two years ago, when I first encountered it?

Remarkably, the top five regrets of the dying are essentially the exact opposite of the top five experiences of post-traumatic growth. With post-traumatic growth, we find the strength and courage to do the things that make us happy, and to understand and express our true selves. We prioritize relationships and meaningful work that inspires us.

Post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress disorder, by the way. Many people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder also go on to experience post-traumatic growth. The two are not mutually exclusive by any means. In fact, one study found that symptoms of post-traumatic stress were actually predictive of eventual post-traumatic growth—possibly because transformative growth requires wrestling in a deep and sustained way with something very difficult. If we bounce back too quickly, we miss the growth.5

Extreme personal challenge—if we respond in the right way—unlocks our ability to lead a life truer to our dreams and free of regrets. Looked at this way, post-traumatic growth—or getting superbetter—seems like a pretty strong candidate for the single most desirable personal transformation anyone could hope to undertake.

But how do you get from extreme stress or trauma to these five benefits? Research shows that not everyone who experiences a trauma goes on to have post-traumatic growth. So what exactly is the right process?

More important, is there any way to experience these benefits without having a trauma? I’m pretty sure no one would ever choose to suffer a terrible loss, an injury, an illness, or any other kind of trauma just to get these benefits. But at the same time, who wouldn’t want to lead a life truer to their dreams and free of regret?

And so I set off on another two years of research. And here’s what I discovered: you can experience the benefits of post-traumatic growth without the trauma, if you are willing to undertake an extreme challenge in your life—such as running a marathon, writing a book, starting a business, becoming a parent, quitting smoking, or making a spiritual journey. Researchers call this post-ecstatic growth. Ann Marie Roepke, a practicing clinical psychologist who first identified the phenomenon as a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate, describes it as “gains without pains”—or at least, far fewer pains.6 It works the same way post-traumatic growth does, except you get to choose your own challenge. Instead of waiting for life to throw a terrible trauma at you, you can cultivate post-ecstatic growth at any time by intentionally undertaking a meaningful project or mission that creates significant stress and challenge for you. This stressful adventure you’ve chosen for yourself creates the necessary conditions for you...

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