The Power of Games

A while ago I made a post about Janes McGonical’s TED talk, watch it if you haven’t. This is an excerpt of her book Superbetter. I highly recommend this book.


You are stronger than you know.

You are surrounded by potential allies.

You are the hero of your own story.

These three qualities are all it takes to become happier, braver, and more resilient in the face of any challenge.

Here’s the good news: You already have these qualities within you. You don’t have to change a thing. You are already more powerful than you realize.

You have the ability to control your attention—and therefore your thoughts and feelings.

You have the strength to find support in the most unexpected places, and deepen your existing relationships.

You have a natural capacity to motivate yourself and supercharge your heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination.

This book will help you understand the powers you already have—and show you that accessing these powers is as easy as playing a game.

And yet this book is not about playing games—at least, not exactly. It’s about learning how to be gameful in the face of extreme stress and personal challenge.

Being gameful means bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games—such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination—to your real life. It means having the curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up the resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success.

The best way I know to explain what it means to be gameful—and how being gameful can make you stronger, happier, and braver—is to tell you a story. It’s the story of how I invented the SuperBetter method—and the life-threatening challenge I had to overcome to be able to write this book.

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

There was one thing I could do to try to heal faster. My doctor told me I should 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 at the time: “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.1 It happens to one in three, and it happened to me. My brain started telling me: Jane, you want to die. It said, You’re never going to get better. The pain will never end. You’ll be a burden to your husband.

These voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately 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. In fact, I was the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers and how those strengths can translate to real-world problem solving. I knew from my years of 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. And I wanted to bring these gameful traits to my real-life challenge.

So I created a simple recovery game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” This became my new secret identity, a way to 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 easy way to ask for help. She became my first ally in the game. 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 or happy or powerful. Some of my favorite power-ups 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, battle the bad guys, and activate power-ups. But even with a game so simple, within just a couple days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle to me. It wasn’t a miracle cure for the headaches or the cognitive symptoms—they lasted more than a year, and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while 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.

What happened next with the game surprised me. After a few months, I put up a blog post and a short video online explaining how to play. Not everybody has a concussion, and not everyone wants to be “the slayer,” so I renamed the game SuperBetter.

Why SuperBetter? Everyone had told me to “get better soon” while I was recovering from the concussion, 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 their own secret identities, recruiting their own allies, and fighting their own bad guys. They were getting “superbetter” at facing challenges like depression and anxiety, surgery and chronic pain, migraines and Crohn’s disease, healing a broken heart and finding a job after years of unemployment. People were even playing it for extremely serious, even terminal diagnoses, like stage-five cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). And I could tell from their messages and their videos that the game was helping them in the same ways that it helped me.

These players talked about feeling stronger and braver. They talked about feeling better understood by their friends and family. And they talked about feeling happier, even though they were in pain, even though they were tackling the toughest challenges of their lives.

At the time, I thought to myself, What on earth is going on here? How could a game so seemingly trivial, so admittedly simple, intervene so powerfully in such serious, in some cases life-and-death, 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 was recovered enough to do research, I dove into the scientific literature. And here’s what I learned: some people get stronger and happier after a traumatic event. And that’s what was happening to us. The game was helping us experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth, which is not something we usually hear about. More commonly, we hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, in which individuals experience ongoing anxiety and depression.

But research has shown that traumatic events don’t always lead to long-term difficulty. Instead, some individuals find that struggling with highly challenging life circumstances helps them unleash their best qualities and eventually lead happier lives.2

To give you a better idea of what post-traumatic growth looks like, here are the top five things that people with post-traumatic growth say:

  1. My priorities have changed. I’m not afraid to do what makes me happy.
  2. I feel closer to my friends and family.
  3. I understand myself better. I know who I really am now.
  4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life.
  5. I’m better able to focus on my goals and dreams.3

Taken together, these five traits represent a powerful positive transformation. But it’s more than that. There’s actually something quite astonishing about the benefits of post-traumatic growth, something I noticed in the course of my research.

A few years ago an Australian hospice worker named Bronnie Ware published an article called “Regrets of the Dying.”4 Ware would know—she had spent a decade caring for patients at the end of their lives. She wrote that the same regrets were repeated again and again by her patients, year after year—and after she published her article, she heard from hundreds of hospice workers and caretakers all over the world who confirmed her findings. They had heard the same five regrets over the years. Apparently they are nearly universal. Not everyone has regrets on their deathbed—but if they do, they are likely to be one or more of the following:

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  3. I wish I had let myself be happier.
  4. I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.
  5. I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

Think about this list for a moment. Are you having the same “aha!” moment that I had, two years ago, when I first encountered it?

Remarkably, the top five regrets of the dying are essentially the exact opposite of the top five experiences of post-traumatic growth. With post-traumatic growth, we find the strength and courage to do the things that make us happy, and to understand and express our true selves. We prioritize relationships and meaningful work that inspires us.

Post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress disorder, by the way. Many people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder also go on to experience post-traumatic growth. The two are not mutually exclusive by any means. In fact, one study found that symptoms of post-traumatic stress were actually predictive of eventual post-traumatic growth—possibly because transformative growth requires wrestling in a deep and sustained way with something very difficult. If we bounce back too quickly, we miss the growth.5

Extreme personal challenge—if we respond in the right way—unlocks our ability to lead a life truer to our dreams and free of regrets. Looked at this way, post-traumatic growth—or getting superbetter—seems like a pretty strong candidate for the single most desirable personal transformation anyone could hope to undertake.

But how do you get from extreme stress or trauma to these five benefits? Research shows that not everyone who experiences a trauma goes on to have post-traumatic growth. So what exactly is the right process?

More important, is there any way to experience these benefits without having a trauma? I’m pretty sure no one would ever choose to suffer a terrible loss, an injury, an illness, or any other kind of trauma just to get these benefits. But at the same time, who wouldn’t want to lead a life truer to their dreams and free of regret?

And so I set off on another two years of research. And here’s what I discovered: you can experience the benefits of post-traumatic growth without the trauma, if you are willing to undertake an extreme challenge in your life—such as running a marathon, writing a book, starting a business, becoming a parent, quitting smoking, or making a spiritual journey. Researchers call this post-ecstatic growth. Ann Marie Roepke, a practicing clinical psychologist who first identified the phenomenon as a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate, describes it as “gains without pains”—or at least, far fewer pains.6 It works the same way post-traumatic growth does, except you get to choose your own challenge. Instead of waiting for life to throw a terrible trauma at you, you can cultivate post-ecstatic growth at any time by intentionally undertaking a meaningful project or mission that creates significant stress and challenge for you. This stressful adventure you’ve chosen for yourself creates the necessary conditions for you to struggle and grow as much as someone who is battling a trauma.

So if post-traumatic growth and post-ecstatic growth work the same way, what exactly is that process? What makes the difference between buckling under extreme stress and flourishing because of it? What determines whether you’ll be weakened by adversity or strengthened by it?

This is where the research gets really exciting—at least for a game designer like me.

It turns out that there are seven ways of thinking and acting that contribute to post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. And they 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 with obstacles and look at stressful life events as a challenge, not a threat. In games, we call this simply “accepting the challenge to play.”

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 by seeking out “power-ups,” items that make us stronger, faster, and more powerful.

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 the desire to improve. In games, we follow this rule whenever we battle a tough opponent or “bad guys,” knowing we may fail many times before we become clever or skillful enough to defeat them.

4. Take committed action. Make small steps toward your biggest goal, every single day. Taking committed action means trying to take a step forward, even if it is difficult for you. It means always keeping your eyes on the larger goal. In games, we have a structure to do this. It’s called a “quest,” and it helps us stay focused on making progress toward the goal that matters most to us.

5. Cultivate connectedness. Try to find at least two people you feel you can ask for help, and who you can speak to honestly about your stress and challenges. In multiplayer games, we practice the art of making “allies”—people who understand the obstacles we’re facing and who have our back.

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 take on the “secret identity” of heroic characters as part of the journey; their stories inspire and motivate us to try harder and become better versions of ourselves.

7. Learn the skill of benefit finding. Be aware of good outcomes that can come even from stress or challenge. In games, we have the notion of “epic wins,” or extremely positive outcomes that can arise when you least expect them, from the most unlikely or daunting circumstances.

No wonder SuperBetter works so well for so many people! Once you understand the science, it makes perfect sense. Of course a game designer like me would create a system that taps into these naturally gameful ways of thinking and acting. I didn’t know it at the time, but SuperBetter was essentially a perfect road map to post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. Not because I was a genius but because I was a good game designer, and all good games train us in the seven ways of thinking and acting that help us turn extreme stress and challenge into positive transformation.

These seven rules to live by make up the SuperBetter method, and they are the heart of this book:

  • 1. Challenge yourself.
  • 2. Collect and activate power-ups.
  • 3. Find and battle the bad guys.
  • 4. Seek out and complete quests.
  • 5. Recruit your allies.
  • 6. Adopt a secret identity.
  • 7. Go for an epic win.

If you’re already facing a tough challenge—an illness, an injury, a loss, a personal struggle—following these rules will not only help you be more successful in dealing with the challenge; you’ll also be more likely to experience the benefits of post-traumatic growth.

If you’re not facing an extremely stressful challenge at the moment, but you still want to become stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient, just pick a meaningful and challenging goal for yourself—and then follow these rules as you try to achieve it. You will have the satisfaction of doing something extraordinary and start to unlock the benefits of post-ecstatic growth.

If I sound quite confident that you can transform your life for the better with a gameful mindset and the SuperBetter method, it’s because I am.

Since I invented SuperBetter, more than 400,000 people have played an online version of the game. We’ve recorded every power-up they’ve activated, every bad guy they’ve battled, and every quest they’ve completed—so we know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve joined forces with data scientists to analyze all the information we’ve collected from these 400,000 players over the past two years. I wanted answers to some of the same questions you might have: Who can the SuperBetter method work for? (Virtually anyone—young or old, male or female, avid game player or someone who has never played a video game in their life.) How long do you have to play by the seven rules before you start to feel stronger, happier, and braver? (Our studies show measurable improvements within two weeks and even bigger improvements at four weeks and six weeks.) And most important, do these benefits last? (As far as we know, yes. This method has existed for only a few years, but we’ve followed up with successful players at six months, a year, and when possible two years later. We found that gameful ways of thinking and acting are a skill set that, once learned, you are likely to keep practicing and benefiting from.)

I’ve waited five years to write this book because I wanted to be absolutely sure that the gameful method works. I waited for early research on the positive benefits of games to be confirmed in larger, more robust studies. I waited for scientists from a wider range of fields, including neuroscience and behavioral psychology, to weigh in with their theories on how a gameful mindset can help. Most important, I waited until I could team up with doctors and psychology researchers myself to test the SuperBetter method in rigorous studies—and I have, with a randomized, controlled trial with the University of Pennsylvania and with a clinical trial with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. (You’ll read about that research in “About the Science,” at the end of this book.)

Not a day has gone by in these five years that I haven’t received an email or Facebook message from someone telling me how much SuperBetter has inspired them or helped their family. I hear from people from all walks of life, like Norman J. Cannon, a commander in the air force.

I was taking command of a 2,000-person squadron in the air force and wanted to talk to them about resilience. Meanwhile, my wife had just fallen down the stairs in September 2012 and had a severe concussion. She had all the same thoughts and experiences you mentioned. I showed my wife your SuperBetter video. She cried while watching, realizing that somebody understands. I then showed the video to all 2,000 of my military and civilian employees in a commander’s call that I had. It hit home with a lot of people.

I hear from parents like Michelle T., a mom in West Virginia, who says:

My thirteen-year-old son has juvenile diabetes, and this is EXACTLY what I’ve been praying for. Our family has formed our own superhero team, and the emotional change I see in my son is glorious! I’m getting my son back! Thank you!

And I hear from patients like Jessica MacDonald, then a thirty-year-old administrative assistant from Denver who played SuperBetter while she battled multiple surgeries and hospitalization for a severe staph infection.

When you’re ill or injured, the world becomes one of can’ts. I can’t lift that because of the antibiotics IV in my arm; I can’t attend that event because I’m too tired; I can’t go to work because I’m on enough medications to kill a horse and barely know my own name. A million times a day the word can’t goes through your mind, and it murders your soul by inches. If I boil all the benefits of this game down to one thing, it is this: SuperBetter turns can’t into can. Sure, there are still things you aren’t allowed to or shouldn’t do, but you stop focusing so much on the limitations. You begin to see and celebrate your achievements.

Jessica invited her doctors and nurses to be allies, and they had a lot to say about the game, too.

The question everyone asks is “Did it help speed your recovery?” I can’t say unequivocally that I got better faster because of this game, but I will tell you what my infectious disease doctor told me. In nearly fifty years of medical practice, he said he’s come to one conclusion: patients’ attitudes overwhelmingly influence the recovery process. He told me, “I don’t know if you got better faster, but you got better better.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong game player or you’ve never played a video game. It doesn’t matter if you prefer sports, card games, or board games to digital games. Whatever your history with games, you have the capacity to tap into your natural strengths by playing games—and you can learn to bring these gameful strengths to your real life challenges and goals.

Most people see games as nothing more than a pleasant distraction—or worse, as an addicting waste of time. But I see them differently—and not just because of my personal experience with SuperBetter. I’ve been researching the psychology of games for nearly fifteen years. I’ve studied games that decrease anxiety, alleviate depression, prevent pain, and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve analyzed games that increase willpower, boost self-esteem, improve attention skills, and strengthen family relationships. The mounting scientific evidence about games from the fields of psychology, medicine, and neuroscience has changed my mind about what games are—and what they can teach us. Games are not just a source of entertainment. They are a model for how to become the best version of ourselves.

I want you to look at games differently, too. I want you to discover the connection between the strengths you naturally express when you play games and the strengths you need to be happy, healthy, and successful in real life. To be more specific, I want you to see games as an opportunity to practice the seven life-changing skills that will make you a stronger person in every way: mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially.

You don’t have to be an avid game player to activate your gameful strengths in everyday life, but if you love or play any game regularly—golf, bridge, Scrabble, soccer, poker, Candy Crush Saga, solitaire, sudoku—you’re probably a bit more in touch with your gameful strengths already.

To lead a more gameful life, you simply have to be open to learning about the psychology of games—and be willing to experiment with new ways of thinking and acting that can help you increase your natural resilience.