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C2SV keynoter Jane McGonigal's epic quest to cure illness, solvecomplex problems and save the world through video games

Using the framework of an entertaining and engaging video game, McGonigal developed ‘SuperBetter’—a game users play to overcome depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, or simply to motivate themselves. llustration by Finlay Cowan

The Adventures
Of Jane

As McGonigal explored the real-world power-ups that might help her heal, she discovered everyday things that made her feel better. Cuddling her dog, going for a walk, having a glass of water—even on her worst days, these simple actions made a difference. And as she added activities to the list, she noticed what scientists have already proven, that obstacles, or in the language of gaming, bad guys, can help us develop the psychological flexibility to grow stronger.

After a few months, she put up a blog post about the game, renaming it “SuperBetter,” because that’s what she wanted her recovery to look like. “Soon I started hearing from people all over the world, who were adopting secret identities, recruiting allies, and fighting bad guys.” So remarkable were the success stories that McGonigal says she wouldn’t have believed them if the game hadn’t worked so well for her.

What surprised McGonigal most about “SuperBetter” was that the more extreme and traumatizing the challenge someone was facing, the more effectively it worked. “People with huge problems have had tremendous success,” she says. “A young dad diagnosed with late stage ALS played to create a legacy for his kids. Folks with terminal cancer play as a way to navigate the journey. Survivors of rape and incest make real progress, too. In fact, people with those kinds of challenges often have better results than people using it for smaller goals like running a 5K or losing 10 pounds.”

McGonigal attributes this unexpected outcome, at least in part, to a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, which is when, in the wake of extreme trauma or tragedy, people bounce back stronger than before, discovering a new sense of mission, connection and appreciation for life. “That’s what the game turned out to be doing,” she says. “I didn’t know when I invented it, that this was going to help the people who need it most.”

“SuperBetter,” the online game that has been played by half a million people worldwide—and McGonigal’s new book by the same name—are borne from what “Jane the Concussion Slayer” began. And as far as she’s concerned, she’s just getting started.

In an effort to share the success of “SuperBetter” and spread the word of how gaming can be used to do more than simply entertain, McGonigal will be speaking at the third annual technology conference and music festival, Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV), on Oct. 8-9. She would be the first to say, she’s come a long way since her concussion.

There’s A Game For That

McGonigal had just been admitted to graduate school at UC-Berkeley in fall 2001, intending to study how physicists collaborate. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, she and a group of fellow gamers began to discuss ways they could use the strengths they had developed through gaming—collaboration skills, collective intelligence, crowd-sourced problem solving—to help the relief and recovery effort.

“It was a light bulb moment for me,” she says, “and I wondered whether other gamers were using their gaming skills in real life.” At the end of that first year, she changed her academic focus, eventually earning a Ph.D. investigating how gamers collaborate. She’s been taking on big-picture issues through that lens ever since.

As many hardcore gamers have long suspected, it turns out there are real world benefits to spending evenings glued to an Xbox or PC. Whether it’s hacking away at the digital terra firma of “Minecraft” and/or blasting alien invaders in “Halo,” playing games can aid in the development of resilience. Accepting challenges, taking on secret identities, recruiting allies, seeking power-ups, trying again after failures and going for epic wins all have value when it comes to navigating the challenges in our lives, according to McGonigal.

“At ‘SuperBetter,’ we’re kind of hacking the brain,” she says, “creating opportunities to make predictions or take actions that will result in successful outcomes, so you’re getting hooked on striving for things you care about, even when it’s difficult.”

McGonigal notes how video games have shown therapeutic success with certain brain disorders. “Some games tap into the part of the brain associated with visual processing as well as anxiety, addiction and PTSD. Scientists have found that by monopolizing the visual processing center, you can block the response to picture what you crave, imagine terrible things happening or focus on flashbacks of trauma. There’s a lot more work to be done, but that’s why video games work so well for these conditions.”

Playing With Purpose

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, was Jane McGonigal’s first book, and it turned her into an instant star at tech gatherings like South by Southwest and TED. “Gamification” is the loaded term that was tossed around when discussing the ideas that emerged from Reality is Broken. Critics pointed to the disquieting ease with which corporations could influence user behavior. They also noted that while people crave the sense of achievement they derive from “World of Warcraft” more than from their jobs at Starbucks, games are not reality, and shouldn’t provide a false sense of satisfaction that masks real world problems. Drug dealers, media moguls and religious leaders have been pushing that agenda for years with less than stellar results.

But here’s the thing: McGonigal agrees. “If we’re in denial about how the games we play impact our bodies, brains, and relationships, it’s no good. The number one predictor of people who become addicted to video games is when they play them to escape daily life, or avoid feelings like boredom, loneliness and anger.”

She says that the people who experience the benefits of games are those who play them with purpose. “These people identify real impacts that games are having on their daily lives, like spending quality time with their family, improving how fast they can process information, or allowing them to re-energize after a hard day of work. The balance is in understanding the benefits and playing to achieve them.”

One thing is certain, the balance has tipped. The gaming industry is projected to reach $70 billion this year and 75 percent of American households play video games—whether on a computer, console or mobile device. Perhaps this is the best argument for looking more deeply into the benefits they can provide: The public has already bought in.

Along with creating games that promote creativity and teamwork for partners like the American Heart Association, The International Olympic Committee, the World Bank Institute and the New York Public Library, McGonigal is mother to twin daughters. When she imagines a future where gamers tackle real world problems (she says she won’t be satisfied until a game designer wins the Nobel Prize), she wants her own children to be part of it.

“Parents should talk to their kids about the strengths, skills and abilities the games they play are building, like resilience and cooperation. Tell them why you think those 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.”

As for the science, while McGonigal has demonstrated how games do everything from enhancing problem-solving skills to reducing depression, she is committed to the long haul. “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 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.”

“SuperBetter” is the evolution of an idea that McGonigal first proposed in Reality is Broken: that people have the smarts, skills, and resilience to solve the world’s problems, and that games can provide the structure and motivation to help us heal our own lives. When talking about the effect that creating and playing “SuperBetter” has had on her, she says, “The main thing that worked was that I stopped feeling helpless. It made me feel optimistic and like I had agency.”

If a generation raised on gaming can recapture optimism and agency in a setting as unlikely as cyberspace, and return to a real world starving for those assets, she is onto something big.

Jane McGonigal

Oct 8, 1pm, $25

California Theatre

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