It’s Time to Think Like a Gamer

When times are tough, doing what you’d do in a game—powering up, finding allies, and beating the bad guys—is a supremely powerful response.

By Jane McGonigal, published on August 28, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

Illustration by Quick Honey

In the summer of 2009, I hit my head and got a concussion. It didn’t heal properly, and after 30 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. The 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.

But there was something I could do to try to heal faster, my doctor told me: 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, “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. It happens to one in three patients, and it happened to me. My brain started telling me: Jane, you want to die. You’re never going to get better. The pain will never end. You’ll be a burden to your husband.

The voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I legitimately started to 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. My dissertation was the first to study the psychological strengths of gamers and how they can translate to real-world problem solving. I knew from my 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.

I wanted to bring these “gameful” traits to my real-life challenge. So I created a simple recovery game I called “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” “The Slayer” became my new secret identity, one that let me 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. 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, happy, or powerful. Some of my favorites 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. Activate power-ups. And battle the bad guys. But even with a concept so simple, within just a couple days, my fog of depression and anxiety dissipated. It just vanished. It wasn’t a miracle cure for my headaches or cognitive symptoms—they lasted more than a year, and it was still the hardest year of my life. But even when 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.

IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT: The author back in her element, behind the wheel of a game console in San Francisco in 2011, just two years after a debilitating concussion. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun

What happened next surprised me:
After a few months, I put up a blog post about the game and a short video explaining how to play. Of course, not everybody has a concussion, and not everyone wants to be a slayer, so I renamed the game SuperBetter. Why SuperBetter? Everyone had told me to “get better soon” while I was recovering, 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 secret identities, recruiting allies, and fighting bad guys. They were getting superbetter at facing challenges like depression and anxiety, surgery and chronic pain, migraines and Crohn’s disease, and healing a broken heart and finding a job. Some with extremely serious diagnoses, like late-stage cancer or ALS, played it too, and the game was helping them in the same ways it had helped me.

I thought to myself, What on earth is going on here? How could a game seemingly so trivial, admittedly so simple, intervene so powerfully in such serious 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 had recovered enough, I dove into the literature on resilience to figure out why this gameful solution had worked. This is what I learned: Hundreds of resilience studies show that there are at least seven ways of thinking and acting that make all the difference between buckling under extreme stress and flourishing despite it. And here’s where the science gets really exciting—at least for a game designer like me. It turns out that these powerful ways of thinking and acting 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 whole-heartedly with difficult obstacles and look at stressful life events as challenges, not threats. In games, we do this when we Accept the Challenge to Play. After all, every game starts with a challenge, whether it’s to solve a puzzle, rescue a princess, or get a golf ball into a very small hole while standing very far away.
  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 when we Seek Power-Ups, items that make us stronger, faster, and more powerful. Think of the power pellets that make you invulnerable to the ghosts in Pac-Man, or the health packs you pick up in Call of Duty that restore your avatar’s energy.
  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 a desire to improve. In games, we follow this rule whenever we Battle the Bad Guys, knowing we may fail many times before we become skillful enough to defeat them. Every game has bad guys, whether it’s the creepers in Minecraft or the J in Scrabble.
  4. Take committed action. Make small steps toward your biggest goal, every single day. Try to take a step forward, even if it is difficult. And always keep your eyes on the larger goal. In games, we have a structure to do this: We Go on Quests, which helps us stay focused on progress toward the goal that matters most to us. In games like World of Warcraft, quests are designed so that we always have something concrete and heroic to do. There’s never a lack of opportunity to make progress. In SuperBetter, quests are anything you can do in the next 24 hours to spend at least one minute living according to your dreams and values.
  5. Cultivate connectedness. Try to find at least two people you feel you can ask for help and speak to honestly about your stress and challenges. In multiplayer games, we must Recruit Allies—people who understand the obstacles we face and who will have our back. In games like Candy Crush Saga, we can help other players by sending them extra moves to finish tough levels.
  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 Adopt a Secret Identity or heroic avatar as part of the journey; their stories inspire and motivate us to try harder and become better versions of ourselves. Who doesn’t love unleashing their inner Super Mario so they can jump higher, help their loved ones, and never give up?
  7. Learn the skill of benefit finding. Be aware of good outcomes that can come even from stress or challenges. In games, we Go for Epic Wins, extremely positive results that can arise when you least expect it, even in the most daunting circumstances. Think about scoring a last-second goal in soccer or marching a pawn across the chessboard to win a new queen. In games, we always hold out the possibility of a positive outcome.

I didn’t know it at the time, but SuperBetter was essentially a roadmap to getting braver, stronger, and happier—just as all good games train us to think and act in ways that can transform extreme stress and challenge into something positive.

To date, nearly a half-million people have followed these rules to get “superbetter”— and there’s a lot of evidence that it’s working. A randomized, controlled study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that following these gameful rules for 30 days significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety and increased optimism, social support, and participants’ belief in their own ability to achieve their goals. The study also found that people who followed the rules for a month were significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives. A clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that the SuperBetter method improved mood, decreased anxiety and suffering, and strengthened family relationships during rehabilitation and recovery.

It’s clear: The right games, played at the right time, can produce real-world benefits. But you can get the same benefits even if you don’t play games, as long as you can adopt a gameful mindset that lets you apply the psychological strengths we express when we play—optimism, creativity, determination, and the ability to ask for help—to help yourself become happier, healthier, and more successful.

These strengths exist inside you already. You simply have to be open to experimenting with new strategies and ways of thinking and acting that can help you increase your natural resilience so you can tackle tougher challenges with greater success.

Many people see games as nothing more than pleasant distractions, or worse, as addicting wastes of time. I see them differently. I’ve studied games that decrease anxiety, alleviate depression, treat post-traumatic stress disorder, increase willpower, boost self-esteem, and strengthen family relationships. The mounting evidence is that gaming is not just a source of entertainment, but a model for how to become the best version of ourselves.

Power-Ups

Power-ups are essential to most video games. They’re the bonus items that give you more strength, more power, or extra life, like the special seeds in Angry Birds that supersize the birds in your slingshot, making them capable of knocking down bigger, stronger walls.

A real-world power-up is any positive action you can take, easily, that creates a quick moment of pleasure, strength, courage, or connection for you. Collecting a power-up simply means identifying it as something you want to try. Activating a power-up means actually doing it in your daily life.

Just as you would use a power-up in a video game to get through a particularly difficult level, or to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, you can use real-world power-ups to give you a boost during difficult times. This is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of someone who is living gamefully—the ability to feel better, anytime, anyplace, no matter what. But power-ups are about more than just feeling better in the moment. They also change your biology in important and long-term ways, helping you become far less vulnerable to stress and much more likely to experience post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth. 

Quest: Collect Your First 5 Power-Ups

Remember, anything that makes you feel happier, stronger, healthier, or better connected counts as a power-up. Here are some possibilities:

  • What song makes you feel powerful?
  • Is there a mantra that makes you feel more motivated?
  • What physical activity energizes you?
  • What reliably inspires you when you read or watch it?
  • What memory brings you great satisfaction when you recall it for 30 seconds?
  • Is there something small you like to do to help others?
  • What photo, video, or image always makes you smile?
  • Is there a daily habit that makes you feel better when you remember to do it?
  • Is there a place or space that you can get to easily that brings you joy or comfort?
  • Who is the best person to call, text, write, or visit to get a quick pick-me-up?

Eventually you may build a supercollection of 100 power-ups or more. The bigger your collection, the more control you’ll have every day to feel better, no matter what stress, pain, or adversity you’re facing.

Bonus Quest: Activate one of your five power-ups right now before you continue reading!

Bad Guys

We know how bad guys work in video games—they’re the obstacles that force us to be creative and clever, like the relentless chocolate fountains that block our moves in Candy Crush Saga. They require us to try harder and jump higher, and the really tough ones might prompt us to call in a friend for advice or backup. Many nondigital games have bad guys, too, even if we don’t call them that, like the sand traps in golf.

Bad guys in everyday life work in the same way—they make things tougher on us. But they also help us develop skills and strategies that ultimately make us smarter, stronger, and faster. That’s why we battle. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

This is not some feel-good sentiment. It is a validated, scientific finding. To become happier or healthier, we need psychological flexibility—the courage to face things that are hard for us. And we must also be open to failure and negative experiences, since, as in any game, we won’t defeat every bad guy. “It doesn’t matter in any given moment, or even three times in a row, if the bad guys overwhelm you, or if you back away,” says Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. “But if you look two or three weeks in a row, and there’s a willingness to approach those stressful things, and to absorb some of the stress and discomfort that comes with it…that’s true psychological flexibility.”

Quest: Spot 3 Bad Guys

If you want to get superbetter, you can’t hide from the bad guys. You have to identify them and look them squarely in the eye so you can figure out how to battle them more effectively. 

What to do: Identify your three major nemeses. These questions can help:

  • What habit do you want to break? 
  • What distracts you from getting things done?    
  • What makes you nervous or uncomfortable?    
  • What zaps your energy?    
  • What thought or feeling runs through your mind that makes you question your goals or abilities?
  • What has a doctor or therapist recommended you do less of or avoid?
  • What makes you feel stressed out if you let it get to you?   
  • What moods make you want to just stay home and do nothing?    
  • What triggers are you trying to steer clear of?

Just by naming these bad guys, you’ve taken a big step toward neutralizing their power. Many SuperBetter players find that giving their bad guys a silly or creative name helps them tackle them with a more positive mindset, but just identifying them is an accomplishment. 

Visit Your Alternate Universe

Imagine that you’ve just woken up in an alternate universe. Everything is the same as it is here, except for one thing: All the problems you’ve been worrying about have been solved. You are free of stress, pain, depression, anxiety, grief, self-doubt, and hardship. You feel completely unburdened of all the negative thoughts, feelings, and worries that bothered you in your old universe. So, in this alternate universe, what will you do with yourself today? How will you spend the next 24 hours? What important areas of life that you have been neglecting can you now devote more time and attention to? What dreams are you free to pursue? Spend at least one full minute imagining your schedule for the day in this alternate universe. The more details you can imagine, the better. Then make a commitment to spend at least five minutes today, in our universe, doing one of the things from your alternate-universe to-do list.  

The Good News: Quests let you do all of these things right now, even without an alternate universe to escape to. Learning to take committed action will help you be the person you want to be, even in the face of adversity and stress.

Adapted from SUPERBETTER by Jane McGonigal, published September 15, 2015 by Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Jane McGonigal.

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