“For those in search of a new self-help regimen, “SuperBetter” might just be the answer. Strong medical research and firsthand accounts provide evidence that playing games can make you a healthier, happier, more confident person.”
Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of Drive and A Whole New Mind:
“At the heart of SuperBetter is a simple and potentially transformative idea: We can use the same psychological strengths we display when we play games to confront real-life challenges, whether it’s illness, injury, or just changing our habits for the better. Grounded in research and informed by McGonigal’s own sometimes harrowing experiences, this book will make you stop and think, then get you to act.”
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine and author of Mindsight:
“SuperBetter delivers mind-boggling, science-supported, health-promoting knowledge and practical steps to bring more well-being into your life in a fun and engaging way, even if you are facing epic challenges like anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury, or medical illness. Visionary innovator and researcher Jane McGonigal provides the proof and the practices that reveal how living a ‘gameful’ life can help you get personally stronger, closer to others, clearer in your mind, braver in your actions, and a greater hero in your own unfolding life story. SuperBetter is a playful, hands-on manual immersing you directly in challenges and adventures of creative gaming to develop more flexibility and resilience as you transform your life.”
Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun:
“In this dazzling manifesto, Jane McGonigal knits together state-of-the-art research, moving anecdotes, and extremely satisfying mini-challenges to show us how games—video and otherwise—hold the key to a more productive, joyous life. A game designer by training and an empath by nature, McGonigal uses every power-up at her disposal to convince her audience that the very tools we deploy in imaginary worlds can be used to overcome struggles in everyday life. The result is a candy-crushing, genre-slaying read, for which fans will surely be sending her gratitude notes for years to come.”
Felicia Day, creator of Geek and Sundry and author of You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost):
“SuperBetter is an amazing book that fuses psychology and play in an revelatory way. With a wonderfully encouraging writing style, Jane morphs the tropes of gaming into an empowering tool set for change. SuperBetter is impeccably researched, extremely accessible, and sure to inspire gamers and non-gamers to adopt gameful techniques into their day-to-day lives. The sword of self-improvement never seemed easier to wield against the monsters lurking in one’s mind!”
Rob Delaney, comedian and author of best-selling memoir Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.:
“You can’t think your way out of a problem, but you can work your way out of a problem. SuperBetter shows us that it’s also possible, and maybe even healthier, to play your way out of a problem. Especially if you’re a silly person, like me or Stephen Hawking.”
Asi Burak, President of Games for Change:
“Jane McGonigal is easily one of the most innovative thinkers in gaming today. In SuperBetter, she reveals to the world a great secret that avid game players kept for years: games are not a waste of your time; they can make you stronger, happier and more mindful. Reading this book is a compelling quest for anyone—whether you play games regularly, or you just have an open mind about them.”
Amy Cuddy, associate professor, Harvard Business School; author of Presence:
“This book is a wise and compassionate distillation of a wealth of good research about the psychology and neuroscience of resilience and social support, married to a game framework that itself comes out of rigorous new science into the psychology and neuroscience of gaming. SuperBetter has been studied in action by the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institutes of Health, among others, and the facts are incontrovertible: following the SuperBetter rules makes people happier, more satisfied, less controlled by suffering, and stronger in their relationships with others. It really works.”
Susan Cain, co-founder of Quiet Revolution LLC and New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:
“After reading Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter I’ll never again say that something is ‘only a game.’ SuperBetter gives readers the tools to take the same challenge mindset we bring to playing the games we love and apply it to facing our greatest life challenges. The result is a clear path, not just to post-traumatic recovery, but to post-traumatic growth. In every sense a game-changing book.”
Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher and bestselling author of A Path With Heart:
“Jane McGonigal shows a playful doorway to well-being and how much we can gain from training attention. This is using the art of games to grow, heal and learn.”
Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Habit:
“Hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives changed by Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter program, and I see why. It’s a marriage of positive psychology with pioneering insights from cutting-edge game design. This is a plan for profound growth in the face of whatever challenges life throws at you – and whatever ones you can throw at yourself.”
Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project:
“Don’t we all want to be better than before? If fact, we’d like to be super better! Jane McGonigal’s fascinating, ground-breaking approach shows how ‘living gamefully’ can help us lead happier, healthier, more engaged lives.”
James R. Doty, M.D., Professor of Neurosurgery, Stanford University School of Medicine:
“Many of us struggle to overcome challenges that seem overwhelming. Jane McGonigal has taken her immense knowledge of the science of gaming to create an innovative guide that allowed her to overcome her greatest challenge and now, thankfully, is available to each of us to overcome our own.”
Nilofer Merchant, CEO, Silicon Valley strategist, and author of The New How:
“Until you understand yourselves as the hero of your own story, you’ll never make a dent in the world. This insightful book shows you how to create the life of your dreams, using a gameful approach.”
Stacy London, host, What Not to Wear; author of The Truth About Style:
“Jane McGonigal’s book is an inspiring one about overcoming personal obstacles, and a revolutionary testament that game playing is for ANYONE who wants to change their life for the better. To become stronger, braver, and happier, you have to ‘play with a purpose.’ And if you don’t know what that means, get ready… you will.”
Marc Goodman, author of Future Crimes and Chair for Policy, Law & Ethics at Singularity University:
“Masterfully written and well researched, SuperBetter is literally a game-changer for anybody looking to build resilience in their lives. Though today’s rapidly evolving world can often seem overwhelming, McGonigal offers an important and timely roadmap to take back control of our own lives and focus on what really matters. SuperBetter is a quest well-worth going on.”
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 Economist, Wired, 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.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Jane McGonigal
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 already 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 power you already have—and show you that accessing this power 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.[i] 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 easier 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.[ii]
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.[iii]
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 “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”[iv] 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.
Posttraumatic 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.[v]
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.[vi] 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 to struggle and grow as much as someone who is battling a trauma.
So if post-traumatic growth and post-ecstatic growth work the same way, what exactly is that process? What makes the difference between buckling under extreme stress and flourishing because of it? What determines whether you’ll be weakened by adversity or strengthened by it?
This is where the research gets really exciting—at least for a game designer like me.
It turns out that there are seven ways of thinking and acting that contribute to post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. And they are all ways that we commonly think and act when we play games.
1. Adopt a challenge mindset. You need to be willing to engage with obstacles and look at stressful life events as a challenge, not a threat. In games, we call this simply “accepting the challenge to play.”
2. Seek out whatever makes you stronger and happier. When you are facing a tough challenge, you need constant access to positive emotions, and you must look after your physical health. In games, we practice this rule by seeking out “power-ups,” items that make us stronger, faster, and more powerful.
3. Strive for psychological flexibility. Be open to negative experiences, such as pain or failure, if they help you learn or get closer to your larger goal. Be driven by courage, curiosity and the desire to improve. In games, we follow this rule whenever we battle a tough opponent or “bad guys,” knowing we may fail many times before we become clever or skillful enough to defeat them.
4. Take committed action. Make small steps toward your biggest goal, every single day. Taking committed action means trying to take a step forward, even if it is difficult for you. It means always keeping your eyes on the larger goal. In games, we have a structure to do this. It’s called a “quest,” and it helps us stay focused on making progress toward the goal that matters most to us.
5. Cultivate connectedness. Try to find at least two people you feel you can ask for help, and who you can speak to honestly about your stress and challenges. In multiplayer games, we practice the art of making “allies”—people who understand the obstacles we’re facing and who have our back.
6. Find the heroic story. Look at your life and find the heroic moments. Focus on the strength you’ve shown and the meaning and purpose to your struggles. In games, heroic stories abound. We often take on the “secret identity” of heroic characters as part of the journey; their stories inspire and motivate us to try harder and become better versions of ourselves.
7. Learn the skill of benefit finding. Be aware of good outcomes that can come even from stress or challenge. In games, we have the notion of “epic wins,” or extremely positive outcomes that can arise when you least expect them, from the most unlikely or daunting circumstances.
No wonder SuperBetter works so well for so many people! Once you understand the science, it makes perfect sense. Of course a game designer like me would create a system that taps into these naturally gameful ways of thinking and acting. I didn’t know it at the time, but SuperBetter was essentially a perfect road map to post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. Not because I was a genius but because I was a good game designer, and all good games train us in the seven ways of thinking and acting that help us turn extreme stress and challenge into a positive transformation.
These seven rules to live by make up the SuperBetter method, and they are the heart of this book:
1. Challenge yourself.
2. Collect and activate power-ups.
3. Battle the bad guys.
4. Seek out quests.
5. Make allies.
6. Adopt a secret identity.
7. Go for epic wins.
If you’re already facing a tough challenge—an illness, an injury, a loss, a personal struggle—following these rules will not only help you be more successful in dealing with the challenge; you’ll also be more likely to experience the benefits of post-traumatic growth.
If you’re not facing an extremely stressful challenge at the moment, but you still want to become stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient, just pick a meaningful and challenging goal for yourself—and then follow these rules as you try to achieve it. You will have the satisfaction of doing something extraordinary and start to unlock the benefits of post-ecstatic growth.
* * *
If I sound quite confident that you can transform your life for the better with a gameful mindset and the SuperBetter method, it’s because I am.
Since I invented SuperBetter, more than 400,000 people have played an online version of the game. We’ve recorded every power-up they’ve activated, every bad guy they’ve battled, and every quest they’ve completed—so we know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve joined forces with data scientists to analyze all the information we’ve collected from these 400,000 players over the past two years. I wanted answers to some of the same questions you might have: Who can the SuperBetter method work for? (Virtually anyone—young or old, male or female, avid game player or someone who has never played a video game in their life.) How long do you have to play by the seven rules before you start to feel stronger, happier and braver? (Our studies show measurable improvements within two weeks and even bigger improvements at four weeks and six weeks.) And most important, do these benefits last? (As far as we know, yes. This method has existed for only a few years, but we’ve followed up with successful players at six months, a year, and when possible two years later. We found that gameful ways of thinking and acting are a skill set that, once learned, you are likely to keep practicing and benefiting from.)
I’ve waited five years to write this book because I wanted to be absolutely sure that the gameful method works. I waited for early research on the positive benefits of games to be confirmed in larger, more robust studies. I waited for scientists from a wider range of fields, including neuroscience and behavioral psychology, to weigh in with their theories on how a gameful mindset can help. Most important, I waited until I could team up with doctors and psychology researchers myself to test the SuperBetter method in rigorous studies—and I have, with a randomized, controlled trial with the University of Pennsylvania and with a clinical trial with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. (You’ll read about that research in “About the Science,” at the end of this book.)
Not a day has gone by in these five years that I haven’t received an email or Facebook message from someone telling me how much SuperBetter has inspired them or helped their family. I hear from people from all walks of life, like Norman J. Cannon, a commander in the air force.
I was taking command of a 2,000-person squadron in the air force and wanted to talk to them about resilience. Meanwhile, my wife had just fallen down the stairs in September 2012 and had a severe concussion. She had all the same thoughts and experiences you mentioned. I showed my wife your SuperBetter video. She cried while watching realizing that somebody understands. I then showed the video to all 2,000 of my military and civilian employees in a commander’s call that I had. It hit home with a lot of people.
I hear from parents like Michelle Towne, a mom in West Virginia, who says:
My thirteen-year-old son has juvenile diabetes, and this is EXACTLY what I’ve been praying for. Our family has formed our own superhero team, and the emotional change I see in my son is glorious! I’m getting my son back! Thank you!”
And I hear from patients like Jessica MacDonald, a thirty-year-old administrative assistant from Denver who played SuperBetter while she battled multiple surgeries and hospitalization for a severe staph infection.
When you’re ill or injured, the world becomes one of can’ts. I can’t lift that because of the antibiotics IV in my arm; I can’t attend that event because I’m too tired; I can’t go to work because I’m on enough medications to kill a horse and barely know my own name. A million times a day the word can’t goes through your mind, and it murders your soul by inches. If I boil all the benefits of this game down to one thing, it is this: SuperBetter turns can’t into can. Sure, there are still things you aren’t allowed to or shouldn’t do, but you stop focusing so much on the limitations. You begin to see and celebrate your achievements.
Jessica invited her doctors and nurses to be allies, and they had a lot to say about the game, too.
The question everyone asks is “Did it help speed your recovery?” I can’t say unequivocally that I got better faster because of this game, but I will tell you what my infectious disease doctor told me. In nearly fifty years of medical practice, he said he’s come to one conclusion: patients’ attitudes overwhelmingly influence the recovery process. He told me, “I don’t know if you got better faster, but you got better better.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong game player or you’ve never played a video game. It doesn’t matter if you prefer sports, card games, or board games to digital games. Whatever your history with games, you have the capacity to tap into your natural strengths by playing games—and you can learn to bring these gameful strengths to your real life challenges and goals.
Most people see games as nothing more than a pleasant distraction—or worse, as an addicting waste of time. But I see them differently—and not just because of my personal experience with SuperBetter. I’ve been researching the psychology of games for nearly fifteen years. I’ve studied games that decrease anxiety, alleviate depression, prevent pain, and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve analyzed games that increase willpower, boost self-esteem, improve attention skills, and strengthen family relationships. The mounting scientific evidence about games from the fields of psychology, medicine, and neuroscience has changed my mind about what games are—and what they can teach us. Games are not just a source of entertainment. They are a model for how to become the best version of ourselves.
I want you to look at games differently, too. I want you to discover the connection between the strengths you naturally express when you play games and the strengths you need to be happy, healthy, and successful in real life. To be more specific, I want you to see games as an opportunity to practice the seven life-changing skills that will make you a stronger person in every way: mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially.
You don’t have to be an avid game player to activate your gameful strengths in everyday life, but if you love or play any game regularly—golf, bridge, Scrabble, soccer, poker, Candy Crush Saga, solitaire, sudoku—you’re probably a bit more in touch with your gameful strengths already.
To lead a more gameful life, you simply have to be open to learning about the psychology of games—and be willing to experiment with new ways of thinking and acting that can help you increase your natural resilience.
The fastest way I know to get you to see games—and your own capabilities—differently is to play a game with you.
So let’s play a game together—right now.
* * *
I challenge you to complete four life-changing quests in the next five minutes.
Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds. I’ve watched some amazing people complete the same four quests you’re about to undertake—including Oprah Winfrey, legendary skateboarder and entrepreneur Tony Hawk, and Colonel Bat Masterson, the surgeon general for the U.S. Armed Forces. If they can do it, you can do it too.
These are the first four quests that every SuperBetter player completes. I guarantee that if you successfully complete them all, roughly five minutes from now you will already be a stronger person—mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially. (You’ll also have a much better idea of how this book can help you unleash your gameful qualities.)
Ready to play? Let’s go!
The Game Starts Now
Here’s your first life-changing quest. I want you to complete it, right now, before you read any further.
Do not skip this first quest. I repeat: DO NOT SKIP THIS QUEST. If you skip it, you’ll be tempted to skip others—and then the game will be over before you’ve even started playing. So here we go. Your first quest—I know you can do it!
Quest 1: Physical Resilience
Stand up and take three steps.
Make your hands into fists and hold them over your head as high as you can for five seconds.
Did you do it? Well done!
By completing this quest, you’ve just boosted your physical resilience.
Physical resilience is your body’s ability to withstand stress and heal itself. And research shows that the number-one thing people can do boost their physical resilience is to not sit still. Whenever you sit still for more than a few minutes, your body starts to shut down at the metabolic level. This shutdown negatively impacts every aspect of your health, from your immune system to your ability to handle stress.[vii]
Every single second you’re not sitting still, however, you’re actively improving the health of your heart, your lungs, and your brain.[viii] You’ll have more energy and sleep better, too—which is crucial when you’re facing a hard challenge, even if it isn’t primarily physical in nature.
So stand up for just one second. Take three steps. Throw your arms in the air. That’s all it takes. You are now physically stronger than you were thirty seconds ago.
Ready for your next quest?
Quest 2: Mental Resilience
Snap your fingers exactly fifty times
Count backward from 100 by 7, like this: 100, 93 . . . all the way to at least 0.
All done? Good work.
By completing this quest, you’ve just increased your mental resilience.
Mental resilience is motivation, focus, and willpower—strengths that are essential to achieving any goal.
Researchers have figured out that willpower is like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you exercise it—as long as you don’t exhaust it.[ix] Accomplishing tiny challenges—even ones as absurd as snapping your fingers exactly fifty times or counting backward by seven—helps you exercise this muscle without wearing it out. That means you’re more likely to have the motivation and determination you need when it’s time to tackle tougher obstacles. So congratulations: you are now mentally stronger than you were a minute ago.
Let’s keep playing!
Quest 3: Emotional Resilience
If you’re inside, find a window and look outside for thirty seconds. If you’re outside, find a window and look in.
Do a Google Image or YouTube video search for “baby [your favorite animal].”
Mission accomplished? Great!
By completing this quest, you’ve just strengthened your emotional resilience.
Emotional resilience is the ability to access positive emotions at will. It doesn’t matter if you’re stressed, or bored, or angry, or in pain—when you have emotional resilience, you can choose to feel something good instead.
Emotional resilience is a particularly important strength. Research has shown that if, on average, people experience more positive emotions than negative ones, they gain a huge range of benefits. They’re more creative at solving problems. They’re more ambitious and successful at school and at work. They’re less likely to give up when things are hard. People around them are more likely to offer help and support them in their goals.[x]
To achieve emotional resilience, you don’t need to eliminate negative emotions—that’s obviously impossible. You just need enough positive emotions, over the course of a day, to beat out the negative ones.
Both options in this quest are scientifically validated methods for provoking a specific positive emotion. Looking through a window provokes curiosity—the positive emotion that psychologists define as “a desire to gratify the mind with new information or objects of interest.”[xi] (Hopefully you saw something interesting through the window!) Meanwhile, researchers have demonstrated that looking at photos or videos of baby animals is all it takes to make virtually anyone feel the emotion of love. (Baby animal cuteness brings out our nurturing instinct!) Better yet, this quick burst of love from looking at baby animals doesn’t just feel good, it also improves attention and productivity.[xii]
Even if you felt the curiosity or the love for only a few seconds, you just got emotionally stronger. Enjoy it.
Let’s try one more quest.
Quest 4: Social Resilience
Shake or hold someone’s hand for at least six seconds.
Send someone you know a quick thank-you by text, email or Facebook message.
All done? Awesome.
By completing this quest, you’ve boosted your social resilience.
Social resilience is the ability to get support from friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. You’re able to ask for the help you need—and you’re more likely to receive it. Social support is crucial to tackling challenges successfully. You can try to go it alone, but your odds of success are vastly improved when someone else has your back.
There are lots of ways to increase your social resilience. Touch and gratitude are two of the most effective.
Studies show that shaking or holding someone’s hand for at least six seconds increases the level of the “trust hormone,” oxytocin, in both of your bloodstreams.[xiii] Boosted oxytocin levels make you want to help and protect each other. The more oxytocin you release together, the deeper your bond.[xiv]
Meanwhile expressing thanks is one of the most reliable ways to cultivate good feelings and a closer connection. Gratitude is the single most important relationship-strengthening emotion because, as researchers explain, “it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”[xv]
So whether you just touched or thanked someone, you are now socially stronger than you were a page ago. Success!
* * *
I knew you could do it: you’ve completed four simple quests, and you’re already building up life-changing skills and abilities. You’re discovering that you are, in fact, stronger than you know; you are indeed surrounded by potential allies; and you really can become a hero to others just by tapping into your natural resilience.
Are you having fun yet? I hope so. Because my goal is to make this the most fun book you’ve ever read. You’ll complete nearly one hundred more quests before this book is through. Each one is based on a different scientific breakthrough about what makes you more resilient. And at the start of each quest, you’ll see one of these four icons to let you know if you’re building primarily physical, mental, emotional, or social resilience: [body icon], [brain icon], [heart icon], [multiperson icon]. I promise you these quests will make you feel more confident, more in control, and more optimistic about all your real-life challenges. (As with any good game, these quests will get a little bit trickier the further you go!)
Seeking out and completing quests is just one of the seven gameful skills that will help you become stronger, happier, and braver in everyday life. Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what it feels like to adopt a gameful mindset, let me tell you a little bit more about what you can expect from this book.
I won’t ask you to start leading a more gameful life until you’re absolutely convinced of the ability of games to solve real problems and change real lives. So in Part I, “Why Games Make Us SuperBetter,” we’ll start with an overview of the evidence on games. What strengths do they tap into, and what psychological benefits do they bring? We’ll look at games that increase motivation and willpower, that block the feeling of physical pain more powerfully than morphine, that help you overcome anxiety and depression, that can change your eating habits, develop your compassion for others, and help you forge stronger, happier relationships with friends and family. Most of the games we discuss in Part I are readily available for you to play on your phone or your computer as a way to practice and understand your gameful strengths better. However, even if you decide never to play any of these games, Part I will give you a solid foundation to understand what it means to be gameful. You will know exactly what it takes to tap into your three most important challenge-facing, problem-solving powers: your abilities to control your attention, to make allies and get support, and to motivate yourself to do what’s important, even when it’s difficult for you. We’ll finish by exploring the research on why some game players are better able than others to bring these powers from their favorite games into their real lives.
Part I is full of gameful quests for you to complete, just like the ones in this introduction—so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to play and get stronger with every page.
In Part II, “How to Be Gameful,” we’ll talk about your life. Now that you understand your strengths, what is the best way to harness them in everyday life? We’ll go in depth with each of the seven gameful skills that can help you tackle real-life challenges with more courage, creativity, and determination. I’ll give you seven simple rules to follow to practice each of these skills in daily life. This is the SuperBetter method, and it’s designed to make it easy for you to lead a more gameful life—whether or not you have the time to play games.
In Part II, you’ll meet people who have used the SuperBetter method to grow stronger, healthier, and happier in the face of challenges like anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD. You will hear stories from people who have adopted a gameful mindset to find a better job, have a more satisfying love life, run a marathon, start their own company, and simply enjoy life more. And because everything in this book is grounded in research, you will discover the science behind these success stories—more than two hundred studies from the fields of psychology, medicine, and neuroscience that explain exactly why living by these seven gameful rules builds mental, emotional, physical, and social strengths.
Part III, “Adventures,” is designed to spark your creativity. You’ll see exactly how you can follow the SuperBetter method to achieve specific health and happiness goals, like losing weight or finding love. I’ve also included my best game design tricks so you can start to design your own life according to the SuperBetter rules.
Together, the stories and the science in this book will reveal how adopting a gameful mindset can change your life for the better. They will not only change what you think games are capable of. They will change what you think you are capable of.
Let’s go get superbetter.
[i] Jessica L. Mackelprang et al., “Rates and Predictors of Suicidal Ideation During the First Year After Traumatic Brain Injury,” American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 7 (2014): e100–e107; Nazanin H. Bahraini et al., “Suicidal Ideation and Behaviours After Traumatic Brain Injury: A Systematic Review,” Brain Impairment 14.01 (2013): 92–112.
[ii] Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004): 1–18.
[iii] I arrived at this list of the five most common signs of post-traumatic growth after an extensive review of the scientific literature on PTG, including the following important sources: Birgit Wagner, Christine Knaevelsrud, and Andreas Maercker, “Post‐Traumatic Growth and Optimism as Outcomes of an Internet‐Based Intervention for Complicated Grief,” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy 36, no. 3 (2007): 156–61; Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, “Beyond Recovery from Trauma: Implications for Clinical Practice and Research,” Journal of Social Issues 54, no. 2 (1998): 357–71; Laura Quiros, “Trauma, Recovery, and Growth: Positive Psychological Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress,” (2010): 118–21; Stephen Joseph and P. Alex Linley, “Growth Following Adversity: Theoretical Perspectives and Implications for Clinical Practice,” Clinical Psychology Review 26, no. 8 (2006): 1041–53; Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 9, no. 3 (1996): 455–71; Matthew J. Cordova et al., “Posttraumatic Growth Following Breast Cancer: A Controlled Comparison Study,” Health Psychology 20, no. 3 (2001): 176; Susan Cadell, Cheryl Regehr, and David Hemsworth, “Factors Contributing to Posttraumatic Growth: A Proposed Structural Equation Model,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 73, no. 3 (2003): 279–28; Mary Beth Werdel and Robert J. Wicks, Primer on Posttraumatic Growth: An Introduction and Guide (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2012); Kenneth W. Phelps et al., “Enrichment, Stress, and Growth from Parenting an Individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability 34, no. 2 (2009): 133–41; Katie A. Devine et al., “Posttraumatic Growth in Young Adults Who Experienced Serious Childhood Illness: A Mixed-Methods Approach,” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings 17, no. 4 (2010): 340–48; Stephen Joseph, What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth (New York: Basic Books, 2011); and Janelle M. Jones et al., “That Which Doesn’t Kill Us Can Make Us Stronger (and More Satisfied with Life): The Contribution of Personal and Social Changes to Well-Being After Acquired Brain Injury,” Psychology and Health 26, no. 3 (2011): 353–69.
[iv] Bronnie Ware, “Regrets of the Dying,” November 19, 2009, http://bronnieware.com/regrets-of-the-dying. The article was subsequently expanded to a full-length book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (Bloomington, Ind.: Hay House, 2012).
[v] Ann Marie Roepke, “Psychosocial Interventions and Post-traumatic Growth: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (May 19, 2014): n.p.
[vi] Ann Marie Roepke, “Gains Without Pains? Growth After Positive Events,” Journal of Positive Psychology 8, no. 4 (2013): 280–91.
[vii] Mark Stephen Tremblay et al., “Physiological and Health Implications of a Sedentary Lifestyle,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 35, no. 6 (2010): 725–40.
[viii] Ruth M. Barrientos et al., “Little Exercise, Big Effects: Reversing Aging and Infection-Induced Memory Deficits, and Underlying Processes,” Journal of Neuroscience 31, no. 32 (2011): 11578–86; Genevieve N. Healy et al., “Breaks in Sedentary Time Beneficial Associations with Metabolic Risk,” Diabetes Care 31, no. 4 (2008): 661–66; and Corby K. Martin et al., “Exercise Dose and Quality of Life: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 3 (2009): 269.
[ix] Martin S. Hagger et al., “Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis,” Psychological Bulletin 136, no. 4 (2010): 495.
[x] Barbara L. Fredrickson “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” American Psychologist 56, no. 3 (2001): 218; Barbara L. Fredrickson, “What Good Are Positive Emotions?,” Review of General Psychology 2, no. 3 (1998): 300; and Sarah D. Pressman and Sheldon Cohen, “Does Positive Affect Influence Health?,” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 6 (2005): 925.
[xi] Todd B. Kashdan, Paul Rose, and Frank D. Fincham, “Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities,” Journal of Personality Assessment 82, no. 3 (2004): 291–305; and Todd Kashdan, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life (New York: Harper, 2010), 352.
[xii] Hiroshi Nittono et al., “The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus,” PLOS ONE 7, no. 9 (2012): e46362. There’s a bonus benefit, too: Viewing baby animals also makes you more productive!
[xiii] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Wendy A. Birmingham, and Kathleen C. Light, “Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol,” Psychosomatic Medicine 70, no. 9 (2008): 976–85.
[xiv] Robin I. M. Dunbar, “The Social Role of Touch in Humans and Primates: Behavioural Function and Neurobiological Mechanisms,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 34, no. 2 (2010): 260–68; and Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing (New York: Merloyd Lawrence Books, 2003).
[xv] As defined by leading gratitude researcher Dr. Robert Emmons. See Robert A. Emmons and Cheryl A. Crumpler, “Gratitude as a Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19, no. 1 (2000): 56–69; Sara B. Algoe “Find, Remind, and Bind: The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, no. 6 (2012): 455–69; and Sara B. Algoe, Jonathan Haidt, and Shelly L. Gable, “Beyond Reciprocity: Gratitude and Relationships in Everyday Life,” Emotion 8, no. 3 (2008): 425.
SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games Book
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.