There’s a new book about a gameful approach to health that’s actually old news to me: SuperBetter.
Jane McGonigal, famed game designer and best-selling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World, follows up on that book with this guide to winning your health through playing it like a game and getting SuperBetter.
I first heard Jane speaking at the 2011 SXSW Interactive Festival, and was struck by the alternate reality games she’d designed and run for the Institute for the Future, and her argument that gaming skills closely match the skills we need in the 21st Century to move forward as a species.
So, when I saw she’d that be speaking at the 2012 SXSWedu Conference, I made sure to snag a front row seat, knowing she’d wow me once again with ideas and exercises.
Sure enough, she started off by showing us Multi-Player Thumb Wars as a variant of the standard hand game, with 3 hands joined rather than 2, and the winner the first to pin another’s thumb, not the last. Then, in a slick move of stagecraft and audience magic, she involved the whole room (several hundred of us) in a single Massively Multi-Player Game of Thumb Wars.
In so doing, she also had everyone in the room holding the hand of two other people — touching each other, she explained to us, long enough to release hormones increasing our empathy.
Such is the power of games.
McGonigal builds games to address social issues or challenges, and she explained some of her prior efforts to us. My favorites were “EVOKE” (“A crash course in changing the world”) and the New York Public Library overnight teen lock-in game, “Find the Future” (“500 authors. 1 night. 1 book”). Both of these games fascinate me, but deserve their own accounts. Once again — that’s another story.
She lead us through the stories behind these games, and shared the research underpinning how and why gameful design (her choice of phrasing, as differentiated from ramification or “serious games”) helps students become more engaged in learning and persevere against failure to achieve their learning goals.
Then, she told us how she had come to design a game to save her own life.
She had suffered a serious concussion and faced a recovery period deprived of much of her standard activities: no reading, writing, gaming, computer time, running or caffeine. This prescription for recovery read like a death sentence to her. She became depressed. Like many people with brain injuries, she began to experience suicidal ideation.
I’m either going to kill myself — or turn this into a game.
So she designed a “role-playing recovery game” to rebuild her physical, mental, emotional and social resiliency and called it, “SuperBetter.”
Jane was appearing that week in 2012 at both SXSWedu and SXSW Interactive to promote the online version of “SuperBetter,” as well as continued promotion for Reality is Broken. Her presentation blew me away, and I picked up Reality is Broken immediately after the conference to incorporate some of those principles into my own learning projects.
Little did I know at the time it would be SuperBetter that would be more pivotal in my life.
A few short weeks after seeing the SuperBetter presentation, I was setting up a videocamera to record some bands at a club when I fell off the chair, severely injuring my shoulder. “When you do things, you do them thoroughly, don’t you?” the orthopedic surgeon commented after looking at the MRI. Later, he would describe my injury as looking like “mashed jellyfish” when he went in to repair the major rotator cuff tear.
Then I faced months of rehab at home. I could not even lie flat on my back at first, so I had to sleep in a recliner the first two months. Everything I tried to do was difficult and all the effort required to perform the simplest task of daily living was discouraging. I started to feel overwhelmed.
So I decided to play SuperBetter.
I created a secret identity (shh! no, I’m not telling you! it’s secret!) and set my personal “Epic Win” goal — being able to drive to visit my friends again. By identifying Allies who supported me and Bad Guys to battle and Power-Ups to increase my resiliency, I could complete Quests that earned me points. As I accumulated points for increased physical, mental, emotional, and social resiliency, I moved up Levels.
By participating in these activities daily, I was able to see progress, not only within the game, but in me, as well. By playing SuperBetter in addition to all my other rehab activities — physical therapy and home exercises — I made rapid progress in recovering my functional ability. The game (free, in both online or app version) tracks your activities and progress, providing not just a scorecard, but encouragement on your progress.
Within 4 months, I was driving again — and set SuperBetter aside.
Now, this new book might revive my interest in taking a gameful approach to managing my diabetes. As I tell people, I’m a diabetic, but I’m not very good at it. Diabetes is an insidious condition, both chronic and progressive, eating away at your bodily systems without walloping you in the face with attention-grabbing symptoms like the pain of a gout attack. It’s far too easy to let it creep up on you. Recently, my longtime doctor warned me again that I’ve been slipping up in dealing with this problem.
Maybe it’s time for a re-commitment to my alter ego, Redwing Dreamseeker.