Like a Boss

artsleadJane McGonigal explains how video games can improve the real world

Jane McGonigal started graduate school at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2001, intending to study how physicists collaborate. Then 9/11 happened, and a group of gamers with whom she’d spent the previous year playing an online game began to discuss ways they could use their game strengths—collaboration skills, collective intelligence, crowdsourced problem solving–to help victims and rescue workers. It was a light bulb moment for her. By the end of the year, she had changed her academic focus to investigate how gamers collaborate, and she’s been taking on big-picture issues through the eyes of a gamer ever since.

McGonigal has developed games for Fortune 500 companies, major nonprofits, and international organizations, but make no mistake, she aims even higher than that. Her bestselling book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, lays out a vision of gamers as humanitarians, and points to the transformative power games have to change lives. Her newest, SuperBetter, hits even closer to home. In fact, it all began when she hit her head. She spoke to me in advance of her event at Bookshop Santa Cruz and her appearance at the C2SV music and technology conference in San Jose Oct. 8-9 to explain how.

You created the online game ‘SuperBetter’ to deal with a concussion that didn’t heal properly. How were you able to draw upon your game skills in the midst of debilitating pain and depression to create something you felt was going to help you?

JANE MCGONIGAL: I had a flash of clarity that I should use my gameful mindset to solve this problem, but I didn’t know what that meant, so I made it up as I went along. The version of the game in the book is the codified, play-tested, validated one that came from half a million people playing it, but the early one was just me stumbling around saying “what can I do today that feels gameful?” Jane the Concussion Slayer became my avatar, and it helped me start thinking about myself as a new persona, someone who would have the strength and courage of a slayer.

In what ways has ‘SuperBetter’ surprised you?

I imagined that if you had a small problem or goal, SuperBetter would be great, but if you had a big one, even more serious than mine, maybe it wouldn’t be the right tool.  What we found was the opposite. The more extreme and even traumatizing the challenge, the more effective the game became. People facing huge problems have had tremendous success—some with terminal cancer, a young dad with ALS, survivors of rape and domestic abuse. I spent a lot of time researching why for the book. One thing we found is a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, which is how wrestling with a trauma that really changes your life, like illness or injury, often leads people to say that they feel happier, braver, and better understood by their friends and family. That’s what the game turned out to be doing.

How does this game help people achieve goals they have trouble with in real life?

When you’re playing a game, making a prediction or taking an action releases dopamine into the brain’s reward pathways, priming it to anticipate what will happen.  Every time you shoot a virtual weapon to hit a target, your brain is primed to learn – if you fail, to get better, if you succeed, to celebrate and lock in that strategy. At SuperBetter, we create opportunities to make predictions or take actions that will result in successful outcomes. On one level, we’re kind of hacking the brain, the same way Candy Crush Saga does when you fail a hundred times in a row but want to keep trying because that high dopamine says, don’t give up. If you can prime your brain to give you that feeling in real life situations where a goal really matters to you, then you’re getting hooked on striving for things you care about, even when it’s difficult.

Why are video games in particular so therapeutic for certain conditions, sometimes even more than medication?

Certain video games tap into the part of the brain associated with visual processing as well as anxiety, addiction and PTSD. If you’re craving something, you’re imagining it in your mind’s eye, which fuels the addiction. If you have anxiety, you’re picturing something bad happening in the future. With PTSD, your brain is replaying flashbacks of trauma. Scientists have found that you can block all three by monopolizing the visual processing center of the brain so that you can’t picture what you crave, imagine horrible things happening, or focus on flashbacks. That’s why video games can work so well for these conditions.

Let’s talk about the dark side. What about when we play too much?

If we’re in denial about how the games we play impact our bodies, brains, and relationships, it’s not a good thing. The number one predictor of people who become addicted to video games is when they play to avoid feelings like boredom, loneliness, or anger. People who experience the benefits of games play them with purpose, identifying real impacts that games are having on their daily lives, like allowing them to spend quality time with their family, improving how fast they process information, or re-energizing them after a hard day of work.

Are there lessons for parents in gaming?

Absolutely. Parents need to talk to their kids about the skills and abilities the games they play are building. Have kids identify game strengths like resilience and cooperation, and talk to them about why you think they might be useful, maybe at school, on the athletic field, or when an argument happens at home. Get kids used to thinking that the skills, abilities and strengths they show in video games are not limited to the game. They have those strengths in life.

What do you see emerging from your experience with SuperBetter?

I want to continue to do research to further explore our findings. We’ve done two randomized control trials, one for depression and one for traumatic brain injury. SuperBetter was shown to have really significant benefits in both cases. I want to expand the scientific literature so that people feel comfortable and supported in making the decision to play a game to help them get better.

Jane McGonigal will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 28, to discuss ‘Superbetter.’ She will also speak at the C2SV music and technology conference in San Jose Oct. 8-9; for more information, go to

VIRTUALLY SPEAKING Jane McGonigal will discuss how video games can change our lives at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Monday, Sept. 28, and at the C2SV conference in San Jose Oct. 8-9.

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