| May 26, 2023

From Concussion to SuperBetter: How One Designer Built a Game for Healing

Jane McGonigal used gamification to tap into the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. Today, SuperBetter is a sensation.

Bedridden. In pain, nauseated, and wrapped in a mental fog. Suicidal.

This was life for game designer Jane McGonigal. When McGonigal hit her head in 2010, she suffered a concussion that didn’t heal properly. Her doctor told her that to recover she had to ditch anything that would trigger symptoms. Most of the things that were entertaining or purposeful were blacklisted.  

Fortunately for McGonigal, held inside her injured brain were years of research reassuring her that people can approach a tough challenge with more creativity and positivity when they play games. She was determined to use that understanding to heal. 

McGonigal developed a game that required only the basics: Adopt an identity, find buddies, battle bad guys, and keep activating power-ups. Playing didn’t erase the bulk of her pain, which stuck around for over a year. But it did significantly improve the anxiety and depression she felt. When she shared the game with others who faced their own life hurdles, the results were similar. SuperBetter was officially born.

Massive Growth Doesn’t Require a Physical Hit

As McGonigal started to see that people who were playing her game were doing better and reporting more happiness, she turned to science to explain her results. It turns out there’s a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth: Sometimes, when someone experiences trauma, the trauma unleashes the individual’s best qualities. They become more confident to do what they enjoy, deepen relationships, learn about themselves, improve their focus on goals and dreams, and find more purpose. 

There are, McGonigal discovered, seven ways of thinking and acting that contribute to post-traumatic growth, as she summarizes in her book, “SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games:”

  • Adopt a challenge mindset.
  • Seek out whatever makes you stronger and happier.
  • Strive for psychological flexibility.
  • Take committed action.
  • Cultivate connectedness.
  • Find the heroic story.
  • Learn the skill of benefit-finding.

These ways of thinking and acting are the same points people execute when they play games: It’s common in a game to look for a power-up for strength or to find allies who can help you reach a goal. 

But researchers also know there’s something called post-ecstatic growth, where non-traumatic hurdles like starting a business or running a marathon can push a person to find the best version of themselves. And here’s the wild part: The process for post-ecstatic and post-traumatic growth is exactly the same and hits the same seven points. So you don’t have to suffer to become “superbetter”. You just have to choose an adventure that requires you to struggle a little bit.


Developing the Four Types of Resilience

Through her recovery, McGonigal learned that there are four main types of resilience associated with post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth: Physical, mental, emotional, and social.

Each of these can be developed through gameplay. Social resilience is developed when you join forces with an ally, for example. But they also translate to real life. Activities as simple as looking at puppy pictures online (so many feels!), shaking someone’s hand, or walking 10 more steps today than yesterday all can strengthen the forms of resilience associated with growth and joy.

Adding 10 Years to Your Life

Today, McGonigal’s game is a sensation — more than 1 million people have already played. Similarly, her book, which details a range of scientific studies that reveal why the game and overall approach are so effective for self-improvement, is a New York Times bestseller. Her Ted Talk, posted in 2012, has more than 7.8 million views.

McGonigal is clear through all of this success that she wants games to be something positive for people. Much more than just a way to waste a few minutes, they can provide a structured way to practice skills that build all four types of resilience necessary for a meaningful, healthier life. 

But the real secret within her recovery and success is that healing or growth isn’t a matter of huge effort. Rather, it’s a matter of intentional commitment to repeating many small quests over time. By creating daily opportunities for small practice, we can create a massive change. In fact, McGonigal asserts that consistently working to build the four types of resilience can translate to an extra 10 years of life, or about 7.68 minutes every day. 

One Level at a Time Wins the Game

Virtually all professionals want to become superbetter and develop good resilience. Many, however, aren’t sure what first step to take to change the path of their lives. McGonigal’s story suggests that a rich suite of neurological and sociobiological tricks can be tapped with some basic principles of gameplay. Even if you aren’t sure where you would like to end up on your journey, those principles can reduce your suffering and ensure you don’t quit along the way. 

So log on. The controllers are in your hands. You don’t need to play a perfect game or know all the Easter eggs in advance. You just need to commit to winning each level.

Wanda Thibodeaux
Wanda Thibodeaux

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer, editor, and podcast host based in Eagan, MN. view profile


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