In the summer of 2009, Jane McGonigal was strong and healthy. She’d been a runner for years, trained for marathons and was working on her first book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
It was just another ordinary day, and she was in a hurry—rushing around her apartment, when she dropped some papers on the floor. She bent down to grab them, and using her runner’s quads, pushed up swiftly, slamming her head into an overhanging cabinet door.
“It was out of a movie,” she says. “My husband was joking around, asking me who the president was. The only thing I could remember was that it wasn’t George Bush. That’s when I knew this was bad.” McGonigal was concussed.
In most cases, concussions heal within a week, but a month later McGonigal was still suffering from nausea, vertigo and crippling headaches. “Most days, I felt too sick to get out of bed,” she says. “I couldn’t read, write or watch TV because I couldn’t keep anything straight. I couldn’t remember names or details. It was terrifying.”
As time went on, and with no end in sight, she became deeply depressed. She began to think about suicide. She heard voices in her head telling her she would never get better and that she should stop burdening her family. She became very concerned for her life.
By some estimates, more than 400,000 people suffer from what’s known as “post-concussion syndrome” in the U.S. every year. With symptoms that may last weeks or even months after the concussion, the syndrome can include headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. McGonigal had them all.
There’s no specific treatment for post-concussion syndrome, and her doctor told her that the best thing she could do was to avoid things that triggered her symptoms. However, as anyone who has battled depression will attest, avoiding triggers is easier said than done.
Fortunately, McGonigal had a secret weapon. Her research for Reality Is Broken was uncovering ways that games could make people happy, and she decided it was a good time to test out those theories on herself. She was also re-watching the entire “Buffy the Vampire” series because she knew the episodes so well.
“I’d be like Buffy,” she says, “who didn’t choose her fate, but had it thrust upon her. I’d treat my symptoms like demons and vampires, and be a badass.”
A lifetime spent waging heroic battles against armies of pixelated foes got her thinking about her illness in the same way she would think about conquering a particularly challenging video game. She came up with a novel system for combatting her dark thoughts and pain—thinking of her triggers as bad guys, sort of like King Bowser in the “Super Mario Bros.” series. “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.”
She began with the basic building blocks of the online games she loved. A secret identity was key: Jane the Concussion Slayer became her avatar. “It helped me start thinking about myself as a new persona, someone who would have the strength and courage of a slayer.”
Next, she recruited allies. “It’s always better to play with friends and family, so I called my twin sister, Kelly, and said, ‘I’m making a game to heal my brain and I want you to play with me.'” Kelly became her watcher, like Rupert Giles in the Buffyverse. “She gave me a task to do every day, like looking out the window to find something interesting. It gave me a sense of purpose, and got the dopamine cycling back through my brain, which helped lift the depression.” Her husband came onboard, too, along with other friends—each of them adding their own bad guys to the mix.
Everyone was ready to do battle, but what would give them an edge? What gives an angry bird heft, or boosts an avatar to the next level? Power-ups. In the land of video games, power-ups such as Mario’s magic mushrooms, Sonic’s golden rings and Link’s healing potions, are the bonus items that add strength, skills, tools, and even life, for players…