In 2009, Jane McGonigal hit her head and got a concussion. The concussion left her struggling to read, write, or focus on any task for more than a few minutes without getting headaches and nausea. She suffered from anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts as a result. Jane received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from University of California, Berkeley, a few years prior, where she studied the psychological strengths of gamers. Her studies, experience as a game designer, and then current circumstances led her to develop SuperBetter, a gaming solution that helped her build mental resilience and overcome her situation. Once recovered she formalized SuperBetter and has been studying players as well as documenting the research that uncovers why it works. Much of her research is shared in her book, Super Better, A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient.
McGonigal found research on post-traumatic growth, which shows people learn and grow from traumatic experiences. Struggling with difficult life circumstances can unleash one’s best qualities. Often people realign their priorities or find a new purpose to their lives after a traumatic experience. She also found you could have these post-traumatic epiphanies without the trauma, referred to as post-ecstatic growth. Post-ecstatic growth is born from breakthrough type life events such as running a marathon, writing a book, quitting smoking or drinking. Jane synthesized several years of research to find there are 7 ways of thinking and acting that contribute to both post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. They are:
- Adopt a challenge mindset. Look at obstacles and stressful life events as challenges.
- Seek out whatever makes you stronger and happier. Meaning take the time to do what you enjoy and what makes you healthier and happier. An example would be exercise or connecting with Nature.
- Strive for psychological flexibility. Understand and accept bad things happen but have the mindset that they help us grow.
- Take committed action. Take daily measurable steps toward progress.
- Cultivate connectedness. Connect with people who can help.
- Find the heroic story. Find the heroic moments and strength in your own life.
- Learn the skill of benefit finding. Be aware of the good outcomes that can come from difficult circumstances, learn to identify them.
She then spun these into the SuperBetter method, applying a gaming mindset when creating the following SuperBetter rules.
- Challenge yourself.
- Collect and activate power-ups.
- Find and battle the bad guys.
- Seek out and complete quests.
- Recruit your allies.
- Adopt a secret identity.
- Go for an epic win.
Throughout the book, Jane provides example quests that help build resilience in 4 key areas identified as necessary to craft a better life: physical, mental, emotional, and social. Physical resilience is your body’s ability to withstand stress and heal itself. The best thing we can do is not sit still. Movement is key to optimum health. Mental resilience deals with one’s motivation and willpower. If we exercise our willpower, through small challenges, we become stronger and better equipped to tackle tougher obstacles. Emotional resilience is the ability to access positive emotion when ever you want. Being able to do so gives you the tools to combat negative emotions that surface when stressed, anxious, or depressed. Social resilience is the ability to connect with others and get support — asking for help.
I’ve never been into video games personally, but Jane’s research and the ideas behind SuperBetter are intriguing and backed by science. She does stress that it is purposeful gaming that leads to improved resilience and life skills. Using games to escape reality isn’t helpful as it leads to avoidance, while playing games with purpose, and connecting with others playing with purpose (think CandyCrush and multiplayer games) can add skills for improving life. According to Jane, playing with purpose taps into 3 core psychological strengths:
- your ability to control your attention
- your power to turn anyone into an ally
- your natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities.
Playing games together links people together, often causing mirroring which can then create empathy and improved social bonding. It’s important, however, to play with people you know, playing competitive games with strangers does not improve our social connections.
A study out of East Carolina University of participants who all suffered from anxiety, depression, or both, showed significant reduction in depression and anxiety after one month of playing video games for thirty minutes, three times a week.
The Dopamine Connection
Researchers have found that frequent video gamers do indeed put more effort into difficult problem solving outside their favorite games.
Studies show gamers having higher levels of persistence and perseverance. Gaming essentially creates a thirst for challenges and a desire to succeed. This desire for success flows into everyday life. Working toward and achieving goals triggers dopamine, which in turn loops back to working harder. As a result some scientists now believe increased dopamine levels may be the best predictor to a solid work ethic. Essentially increase your levels of dopamine and increase your desire to work. Games trigger dopamine release.
This is why nothing builds a success mindset faster and more effectively than video games. When you have constant opportunities to try different strategies and get feedback, you get more frequent and more intense bursts of dopamine. Not only do you get minute-to-minute pleasure, but the mindset starts changing in long term ways. Your brain starts looking at things that weren’t achievable before and starts to think they might be achievable with a little effort. It expects to learn and improve and eventually succeed, because that’s what it’s used to doing.
When you’re constantly experiencing successful goal achievement your brain’s cost-benefit analysis changes entirely. You can overrule your brain’s default mode that wants you to avoid wasting energy on difficult tasks or challenging goals. Your brain adapts to seek out more challenge, to be less afraid of failure, and to be more resilient in the face of setbacks.
— Neuroscientist, Judy Willis, M.D.
Self-efficacy has also been shown to be more important in the accomplishment of tasks and goals than motivation. Studies are showing that gaming, via the quests, challenges, and reward, builds one’s skillset within the game, but more importantly transfers to building one’s self-efficacy. Through gaming individuals can increase their confidence and belief in their ability to develop necessary skills to achieve their goals.
Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments. Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.
Escapist Versus Self Expansive Mindset
There is a downside to game playing. For every study showing the benefit of gaming there is a report showing the risks of video games on players academic, social, physical, and mental health. The difference between those that build self-efficacy and resilience versus those that experience the negative impact of gaming comes down to why one plays.
Do you play to escape your real life, or do you play to make your real life better?
The escapist approach to playing games carries the risk of increased depression and decreased social engagement. This result is primarily due to the avoidance of solving your problems. Using games to escape your problems frequently results in ignoring those problems until they compound into larger issues. The longer you avoid, the more difficult it becomes to take action, and the larger the problems become, which increases stress and in turn depression and social retreat. This is where addiction rears it’s head.
An escapist approach isn’t reserved to gaming. Gaming can be a self-suppressive immersion technique as can drinking, drugs, over-training, reading, or binging on tv or food. It’s a common coping technique to escape stress. Self-expansive immersion is healthier, though it can look identical from the outside. Reading, running, watching tv, having a glass of wine, playing a video game aren’t bad things if we have the right motivation and mindset toward why we are engaging in the activity. It’s important to keep a positive motivation behind your reasons for engaging, and to keep a self-expansive mindset.
Playing with purpose builds resilience against self-suppression. If you play games with a purpose such as; a positive goal, opportunity to connect with family and friends, to develop skills, to get an energy boost (think dopamine), then you can realize a positive benefit from gaming.
Let’s dive into the seven rules of SuperBetter.
Challenge Yourself. Challenges must be voluntarily accepted. However, that does not assume they are all self-chosen. No one would self choose injury or illness, but we can challenge ourselves to fight cancer, improve wellness, and the like. Self chosen challenges could be objectives like getting out of debt, running a marathon, or adopting a healthy nutritional plan.
To better face the obstacles in your life and adopt the challenge mindset, Jane discussed the value of learning cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal means learning how to change the way you think and feel about a stressful problems. An interesting example is anxiety compared to excitement. Physiologically they are the similar things. If applying cognitive reappraisal, a person with anxiety would change how they view that anxiety and instead embrace it as excitement to take action instead of trying to calm oneself down and relax as we may normally do.
A challenge is anything that provokes our desire to test our strengths and abilities and that gives us the opportunity to improve them.
We also need to work on changing a threat mindset into a challenge mindset.
In a threat mindset, you focus on the potential for risk, danger, harm, or loss. In a challenge mindset, you focus on the opportunity for growth and positive outcomes.
Collect and activate power-ups; simple positive actions that reliably make you feel happier, healthier, or stronger. Collecting power-ups means recognizing something you want to try to feel happier, healthier, or stronger. Power-ups are used to build your resilience in the 4 areas noted earlier. It is important, therefore, to collect and activate power-ups from each category. Activating them also increases your vagal tone, which has been identified as critical to handling stress.
Vagal tone refers to the health of your vagus nerve, which stretches all the way from your brain to your intestines. The vagus nerve touches your heart, lungs, voicebox, ears, and stomach, helping regulate virtually every important function in your mind and body, from your emotions to your heart rate to your breathing rate to your muscle movement to your digestion.
Because the vagus nerve is so essential to so many biological and psychological functions, its health is an excellent measure of your mind-and-body resilience.
Positive emotions build vagal tone. Activating small power-ups regularly induces positive emotions and thus increases vagal tone. Try to activate 3 power-ups daily, and try to come up with new ones in order to increase your self-efficacy and confidence. Try to collect power-ups that build physical, mental, emotional, and social resilience.
Some power-up examples:
- Go out and get some sunshine
- Give yourself, or others, a hug
- Drink a glass of water
- Sing out loud
- Do 10 push-ups
Find and battle the bad guys. Bad guys are anything that blocks your progress or causes you anxiety, pain, or distress. Bad guys are necessary for growth. They force us out of our comfort zone. If we adopt the challenge mindset bad guys teach us to be resilient and creative in the face of adversity. Plus, they are inevitable, no life is void of bad guys. The difference between a negative outlook on life and a better life is often how we deal with adversity. Identifying bad guys will help you become more aware when they show up, and allow you to view them more objectively rather than getting caught up in the emotions they often trigger.
In order to become happier or healthier, we need what researchers call psychological flexibility: the courage to face things that are hard for us. We must be open to failure and negative experiences—not just in games but in everyday life. We must know when to retreat and regroup, until we feel ready to try again.
Jane identifies 5 strategies for tackling the bad guys.
- Avoid – Avoidance is fairly self-explanatory and the easiest of the five, but also the least effective.
- Resist – Resisting is trying to actively stop the bad guy, try to change bad thoughts. If your feel pain try to alleviate it, if you feel isolated try to connect with someone.
- Adapt – Adapting means making a change and finding a long-term solution to the bad guy.
- Challenge – Challenge whether the bad guy is valid. Perhaps you’ve identified being shy as a bad guy when you could learn to see the positive aspects of being more introverted. Now the bad guy no longer exists, he’s an ally.
- Convert – Convert your bad guy into a power-up.
Seek out and complete quests. Quests are simple, daily actions that help you reach your bigger goals. They are different than power-ups in that they are more purposeful actions that align with a greater goal or cause. For example, maybe you’re seeking better health, a quest would be actions aligned with better health that stack upon one another toward the ultimate outcome. Something like making an appointment with a nutritionist, then joining the gym, then committing to a 5k, and so forth.
You want to become the hero of your own game and create quests that align with your personal values and goals. Frame your values as descriptions of how you want to live such as: save the world—to help others, lead a life of adventure, never stop learning, challenge limits and be an inspiration to others, connect with and respect nature, explore and understand alternative cultures, do work that matters. Create quests that sync with these values that ultimately create your story, or the story you wish to adopt.
If there’s nothing to do in a game, no goal to pursue, no further way to make progress, the player will quit.
Completing quests is important to building resilience and a better life as research shows taking committed action will increase your hope, optimism, and self-efficacy. Try to complete at least one quest per day.
Recruit allies. Invite others to play the game who can help you along the way. Encourage allies to suggest quests, activate power-ups together, and get their input when creating strategies for battling bad guys. Having others involved helps keep you committed as you can check in with one another on progress. For those battling illness, anxiety, or depression, applying the gaming principles and rules to your struggle can help friends and families better understand what you’re going through. It’s often easier to speak about struggles when you can reframe it and momentarily distance yourself from some of the emotional attachments and triggers.
Adopt a secret identity. Adopting a secret identity helps you focus on your signature character strengths so develop a heroic persona that highlights your unique strengths. Signature strengths are essentially virtues: kindness, love of learning, sense of adventure, spirituality. Jane became Jane the Concussion Slayer. The book will help you identify your top five character strengths. My five are creativity, curiosity, love of learning, spirituality, and perspective and wisdom. According to Positive Psychologist, Martin Seligman, these strengths determine how you will best cope with adversity and what brings you the greatest joy and satisfaction in life. In creating a secret identity you create a persona that values your top virtues over anything else, who knows how to battle bad guys, and who understands your power-ups and quests.
Creating a secret identity works because we find it easier to be optimistic about personal challenges if we frame them as happening to someone else. Psychologists call this self-distancing. It’s a way for us to learn from negative feelings and stressful situations without getting caught up in the rumination and negative self dialog that can plague some of us. Reframe questions from “why do I feel sad” to “why does jane feel sad”, or “what should I do” to “what would jane the concussion slayer do”. The heroic character allows us to create new stories for ourselves, the more often we tell these stories the more we are able to make lasting positive change.
We learn about ourselves by the stories that we tell. In fact, we create ourselves through conforming to our own mythic story. — Barbara Abernathy, Ph.D.
Go for epic wins — an awe inspiring outcome that helps you be more motivated and less afraid of failure. Gameful goals should be realistic, challenging, energizing, and forgiving (if you fail not all is lost, try again). Wins help build positive reappraisal which is a powerful source of mental, emotional, social, and physical resilience. It also lowers stress hormones, improves mood, and boosts immune function. Wins reveal that you are capable of more than you may have thought, that you are resilient, resourceful, and successful.
Epic wins should be measurable goals such as lose 5 pounds, save $500, run a marathon, as opposed to save money, lose weight, or run more. Epic wins should also stretch you, they aren’t power-ups or quests. Quests are what lead you to epic wins. Aside from epic wins, work toward breakthrough moments. These are bigger breakthroughs like getting a Master’s degree, starting your own business, becoming a vegetarian. These larger life changing goals have a greater impact on building your resilience.
As with any game, you want to keep track of your progress and keep score. The act of doing so keeps you more engaged and committed. A simple scoring strategy would be the following, but you can create your own scoring system as well.
3 power-ups + 1 bad guys battle + 1 quest = a daily win
Tip: Keep a daily journal of scoring documenting what power ups, bad guys, and quests you finished each day.
Learn more about Jane’s research in this TED Talk.