Four years ago, Jane McGonigal released Reality is Broken to make a case for the positive benefits of games, both as an anti-escapist outlet for personal growth and as a template for tackling serious societal challenges. The focus of Reality is Broken was on dissecting the core principles of game design, providing a series of case studies on how those principles were used to tackle big problems, and creating a community of game developers interested in making “gameful experiences.” Reality is Broken is a book of big solutions for big problems. It’s turning to games to encourage entrepreneurship in Africa, or to reinvent education to be more fun and rewarding for students. The book’s spiritual successor, SuperBetter, tells a much more personal story, of making the world better one person at a time.
Jane McGonigal, Concussion Slayer
Halfway through writing Reality is Broken, McGonigal slammed her head into a cabinet door and suffered a serious concussion that took away many of the things she loved most. To help recover McGonigal assumed a secret identity as Jane the Concussion Slayer. Over the following weeks, she recruited her friends to serve as Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed allies as she identified the “bad guys” (triggers that made her feel worse) and “power-ups” (concrete actions she could take to feel better) to get better. Longer-term quests helped her along the road to recovery. Jane the Concussion Slayer was a highly personal and transformative experience for McGonigal.
During her research, McGonigal learned that while traumatic events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, they can also serve as opportunities for people to reevaluate their priorities and experience post-traumatic growth, coming out of their crisis better than they were before. Further research indicated it’s even possible to voluntarily embrace a difficult challenge to experience similar benefits without the trauma, as post-ecstatic growth. SuperBetter is McGonigal’s attempt to tell their own stories of growth, whether in response to personal trauma or as a voluntary route to betterment.
The release of Jane McGonigal’s newest book SuperBetter is not the game’s global debut. McGonigal released the basic framework for it six years ago on her blog, She went on to recount the story in Reality is Broken, before creating a free online portal to make it easier to guide people through the process. The game has been around for a while. The book provides a rationale for playing, an overview of the studies that influenced its design, and a roadmap to start playing the game.
A Super Better Book
SuperBetter the book is designed to mirror the SuperBetter game. In the first 20 pages of the book, readers are given a series of four simple quests that are to be completed at that moment, before reading any further. The book is filled with dozens of quests designed to gradually introduce readers to the SuperBetter method. Due to this structure, SuperBetter is not the best book to marathon in one sitting. While early quests can be completed in a matter of seconds, others might play out over the course of a day, and attempting to speed through too quickly can lead to tips and tricks blending together into a jumble of confusion.
The SuperBetter method itself is relatively simple: identify a challenge you what to undertake, choose a secret identity, enlist allies and identify “power-ups” to help you on your way, and be mindful of the “big bads” you’ll face as you tackle a series of quests. McGonigal notes that most players can explain the core mechanics in a minute or two. The book’s focus, therefore, is on providing explanations of how to best complete these tasks, and the science behind the process. At times, the SuperBetter method feels more like an extension of the quantified self movement than of gamification, with recommendations to consider measuring everything from your positive emotion ratio to your vagal tone.
Games are Still Good
Over the past decade, Jane McGonigal has been a vocal supporter for the positive impact of games, particularly casual games like Farmville and Candy Crush that are often written off as pointless wastes of time. And before diving into an explanation of the SuperBetter game itself, McGonigal uses the book to offer a brief refresher on the use of games for good. She highlights efforts to use Tetris as a psychological intervention immediately following traumatic events, design games capable of motivating cancer patients to adhere to their treatment regimens, and to create virtual snowscapes capable of reducing the perception of pain among burn victims.
Throughout the book, McGonigal focuses heavily on the personal anecdotes of peoples’ relationships with games she gleaned over her years of advocacy and research. A Buddhist monk turns to Angry Birds as a way of decompressing after a day of meditation. A job seeker creates a game of “worst-case-scenario BINGO” to turn a particularly stressful job interview into a game, allowing him to feel closer to winning with every horrible question thrown his way. These anecdotes are the glue that hold the book together, and provide a diverse collection of stories of people doing incredible things in creative ways.
Okay, But Show Me the Science
Over the past five years, the SuperBetter method has been subjected to a randomized, controlled study at the University of Pennsylvania, a clinical trial with Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Cinncinati Children’s Hospital, and the personal experiences of the game’s 400,000 players. Much of this research has been documented at the website ShowMetheScience.com, so that skeptics and advocates alike can engage directly with the sources McGonigal references in support of her claims.
At its core, SuperBetter provides a structure for people looking to make changes in their lives, and build a support group to help them do it. SuperBetter isn’t the only source of structure out there but it has shown results across a broad subset of the population, and draws upon the framework from many of McGonigal’s past games to be fun, if people are empowered to craft compelling enough games for themselves to play. With only a few minor tweaks, it’s easy to imagine that Top Secret Dance Off was created as a SuperBetter quest to combat social anxiety, or that Cryptozoo was created as a series of quests to help someone with their fitness goal. It’s a cheesy framework, but that’s part of what makes it work – it’s a lot easier to tackle major life changes if you approach it as a game…especially if you’re the sort of person who’s up for completing a series of quests while reading a book.
Interested in giving it a try? Go to SuperBetter.com to sign up for the free online experience, or read SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient for a more extended introduction.