Growing up in the 80s, I had a recurring dream in which my parents bought me an Atari 2600. I can still remember the palpable sense of joy and excitement in those dreams dissipating upon the disappointment of waking up. In reality my parents refused to ever buy me an Atari because they were first-generation Korean immigrants and if you know anything about Korean parents’ so-called “education fever” (교육열) you can probably guess the reasons why.
Later, when the first Nintendo console came out, I think they gave in because by that point my father’s alcoholism was getting worse, their marriage was falling apart and the idea of keeping me distracted from the incessant yelling, screaming, breaking of things and sometimes the physical violence was a welcome prospect. Nevertheless, the damage had been done and even when I claimed full autonomy as an adult in my choice to play games, I couldn’t entirely rub away that sense of shame that had been imprinted onto my consciousness, that underlying fear that I was just wasting my time when I played.
Jane McGonigal’s first book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, helped begin to shift that for me, and this could not have occurred at a needier point in my life because by the time I had gotten around to reading it I was severely ill with a chronic disease, penniless, unable to work, and living at home with my mom, mostly confined to my room with almost zero social interaction. After years of not playing games due to the everyday struggle of trying to hold onto a job while my health was steadily declining, I suddenly had some time. Games called to me again with the sweet promise of a brief respite from pain. So escapism was part of it but only a small part. There were other reasons for wanting to play games that I believed were more substantive and beneficial, but I hadn’t done the research to be able to prove that to myself – it was all just intuition and speculation. But Jane McGonigal had done the research and Reality is Broken presented a wealth of scientific studies backing up her claims for all the ways in which both the playing of games and the gamification of real-world activities could be beneficial for self and society. It was an important read for me in ways that I just can’t overstate or go into enough detail in a single article.
SuperBetter, McGonigal’s new book, is the logical extension of her ideas in Reality is Broken. Whereas the latter book presented some of the earlier studies that showed the psychological benefit of games, analyzed the reasons society was seeking escape en masse, and examined ways in which various organizations have used games to tackle real-world problems, SuperBetter shifts the focus to you, the reader, and how you can personally benefit from games whether it’s simply playing them in a more conscious way or applying so-called “gameful” techniques in the pursuit of a meaningful goal.
McGonigal’s writing style is accessible and inviting and yet when it comes to the science in which her ideas are grounded she is stringent and thorough. In this respect, SuperBetter is a stellar example of synthesizing near-academic intellectual rigor with a populist approach in an entertaining, eminently readable way that turns the reading of the book itself into a game.
SuperBetter also benefits from a tightly-organized structure:
“Part 1: Why Games Make Us Better” argues the ways in which games, in general, serve psychologically and socially beneficial functions. It covers some familiar territory from Reality is Broken but it serves as a useful review for those who have read the first book as well as a sufficient summary of the pertinent game-related research out there for those who haven’t.
“Part 2: How to Be Gameful” then instructs readers in the SuperBetter method: how to implement gameful techniques for real life goals whether one is facing a difficult ordeal or simply interested in what Tony Robbins calls “CANI” (Constant and Never-ending Improvement). The SuperBetter method involves a systematic use of Power-Ups (things that make you feel better but are also proven to be good for you), Quests (small things you can do every day to inch closer to your goals), and Allies (friends and family who care about you and want you to succeed), all while battling Bad Guys (things that trigger or reinforce unhealthy patterns). Over time, this process leads to Epic Wins (meaningful achievements that personally feel big to you).
“Part 3: Adventures” offers a number of ready-made templates for those who wish to try the SuperBetter method while pursuing more satisfying personal relationships, better health and physique, or a greater sense of control over their time.
One thing I noted with appreciation was that McGonigal never says you have to use the SuperBetter app in order to utilize this system. Many people who read the book will probably be aware of the app’s existence; it’s out there for those who wish to use it. But for those who, for whatever reason, cannot or prefer not to use it, she assures you that a notebook, spreadsheet or any note-taking app can suffice. In fact, if you find that the SuperBetter method appeals to you but you don’t like any of the rules or feel constrained by some aspect of it, there’s no reason you can’t tweak the mechanics to suit your own needs, and McGonigal herself seems to encourage this sort of creativity.
SuperBetter, first the app and now the book, is one of my all-time favorite examples of what I call Applied Geekism, or the practice of consciously using pop culture to help people in ways that go beyond entertainment. And although I do not personally use the SuperBetter app anymore for various reasons, both the app and McGonigal’s first book, Reality is Broken, were extremely influential in helping me to put together my own personal gameful method in my ongoing struggle to overcome my illness.
Reading SuperBetter has proved useful in helping me to further improve my personal method because one of the biggest problems I had was coming up with a scoring system that felt right to me. I wanted something that could be as objective and authoritative as the leveling-up system of, say, a computer RPG game in which there’s no way to cheat (unless you use a cheat code). The chapter “Keeping Score” in SuperBetter has helped me to accept that there really is no way to have an objective scoring system, and that it doesn’t matter anyway because the main thing is to be able to somehow keep track of your progress and to remind yourself, when you feel stuck, just how much progress you have in fact made. McGonigal even argues that a self-scoring system is actually superior to an external scoring system for gamifying your life because it helps you to internalize what she calls the seven gameful rules. Finally, for those who understandably still want some external validation for their progress, she cites various tests you can take depending on the nature of the challenge you’re facing such as the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD) or the New General Self-Efficacy Scale (NGSES), tests developed by professional psychologists to assess mental and emotional well-being.
Having given you a synopsis of the book and my opinions on it, this is about where a typical review of mine would end. But I’m about to do what I don’t normally do which is respond to someone else’s review within my own review. Usually, I don’t even read other reviews of a work before writing my own but The New Yorker recently posted an early review of SuperBetter and curiosity got the better of me. As a writer myself there’s nothing I find more frustrating than when I’ve worked hard to convey my ideas clearly in detail only for people to make derisive comments about it while twisting my ideas out of shape (or clearly without having even read my articles). It’s almost equally frustrating when I see this being done to other writers but this is what the New Yorker review effectively does with SuperBetter.
In his review, New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller criticizes SuperBetter on a number of fronts that I found to be overly harsh and misrepresentative, and I wanted to address a few of these points lest readers draw their conclusions about the book on the basis of Heller’s review.
One thing Heller does is ridicule some of McGonigal’s ideas for specific Power-Ups as being “nutty” but he does so by entirely stripping them of their context. From within their contexts they make absolute sense and McGonigal backs up her suggestions with published research. She never claims that her Power-Up ideas are the only or even necessarily the best things to do. She merely states that others have benefited from them and that there is research to support their validity, both of which are verifiable claims. If any of the Power-Up ideas don’t appeal to you, you can easily create new ones. The point of SuperBetter is simply to provide a useful framework within which you can play around with your own ideas.
Next, Heller seeks to refute some of the neuroscience behind SuperBetter. For instance, he writes:
McGonigal often turns to biological phenomena to elaborate the seven rules of the SuperBetter method. The bodily sensations of anxiety and excitement are nearly identical, she writes, and, if you convince yourself that every threat is a challenge, “your brain can’t always tell the difference.” Having friends—or allies—around can cause cortisol levels to drop, indicating a decrease in stress. Power-ups raise “vagal tone,” the activity of the vagus nerve, which governs parasympathetic function. The catalogue of benefits proceeds from there.
Unfortunately, physiological processes tell us little about the circumstances, or the mind, that created them. If you blush, it might be because you’re embarrassed; or it might be because you’re sexually aroused. It would be wrong to conclude that all blushing people are turned on by whoever is talking to them. But this is the logic that McGonigal often follows.
This is inaccurate. Using Heller’s own example above, McGonigal would not say that if two different types of stimuli both triggered the physical response of blushing that you would experientially feel both stimuli the same way. What she actually means is that even as we may subjectively experience two separate stimuli very differently (for example, the anxiety I feel about a job interview vs. being excited about going to Comic Con) the brain treats both stimuli similarly in terms of some of the physiological processes that are triggered. What McGonigal suggests therefore is a technique for cognitive reappraisal, or reframing an uncomfortable stimulus so that it feels less negative at the experiential level. If we know that the brain treats an uncomfortable stimulus (job interview) and a pleasant stimulus (going to Comic Con) in similar physiological ways, then it becomes easier to mentally reframe the uncomfortable stimulus as being something that’s not “bad” because it’s the framing of it as “bad” that causes other undesirable physical responses like elevated cortisol.
I first encountered this idea of cognitive reappraisal some years ago in an audio CD by the British self-help author Paul McKenna. It made sense to me so I started trying it and you know what? It works. The last time I had to give a speech in public, when my heart started pounding and those familiar butterflies in my stomach started fluttering I kept telling myself, “I’m excited! What I’m feeling is excitement. Who cares if I mess up? I’m here to have fun!” It didn’t make the butterflies go away nor would I have wanted it to, but it helped me to subjectively experience the nervousness as less of a problem and more as a source of energy. (And yes, I rocked that speech.)
Heller then tries to discredit the way that the SuperBetter method utilizes the brain’s dopamine release mechanism to instill positive habits:
Another thing that raises dopamine levels, [McGonigal] points out, is playing video games. She cites a study in which kids who played at least nine hours a week showed high dopamine levels, and more gray matter in their reward-processing centers, than kids who didn’t. She generalizes from here. “Work ethic is not a moral virtue,” she writes. “It’s actually a biological condition that can be fostered, purposefully, through activity that increases dopamine.” If you want your daughter to be President, in other words, make sure she gets her daily hours of Candy Crush.
Yet dopamine levels increase under the influence of many things: sex, blackjack, sunny days, and brownies of all recipes. If this were all it took to get ahead, then Charlie Sheen would be the highest-functioning man in the world.
Again, this is a gross oversimplification. First of all, our culture conditions us to think of qualities like a strong work ethic as being a virtue intrinsic to certain people rather than a quality that can be trained. McGonigal is saying that by better understanding the brain chemistry underlying habit formation, and by consciously manipulating it through gameful techniques (which isn’t the only way but it’s one effective way), we can form good habits and surpass personal limitations that we took for granted as being part of our unalterable makeup.
Second, never once in SuperBetter does McGonigal ever suggest that the mere playing of games in itself will lead to spectacular worldly success. She is saying that games can help when they are approached in the right kind of way. And herein lies a crucial point: whether we like it or not, gaming has reached critical mass and the people who play games will continue to play them no matter what others say. This being the case, as a pragmatist I believe it is better to find ways to help people from within this existing reality rather than expect the reality itself to change (which it most probably will not if the game industry’s ongoing growth is any indication).
But Heller isn’t done yet:
“SuperBetter” aims to eliminate unpleasant feelings or weakness—anything, really, that gives human character its distinctness and depth. Living gamefully means tuning out so much of the experience of actual life that you can wonder whether the gains are worth it.
This passage makes me question how carefully Heller read the book he is criticizing because SuperBetter is not about trying to eliminate unpleasant feelings and McGonigal states this repeatedly. In fact, the SuperBetter method seeks to do the opposite: train people to recognize that negative feelings are inevitable and to become more accepting of them. In games, we do not immediately succeed. We fail – we “die” – repeatedly and it causes frustration but we are comfortable with that because we know it’s just part of the process. If we persist, sooner or later we will beat the boss, pass the level, rescue the princess – whatever it may be. McGonigal is trying to help people adopt that same kind of acceptance of negative feelings in real life that we’re able to practice within the context of games.
Finally, Heller frames a quote by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin in false opposition to McGonigal’s ideas:
“The final value of our lives is adverbial, not adjectival—a matter of how we actually lived, not of a label applied to the final result.”
Essentially, Dworkin, and Heller through him, is saying that it’s the journey that counts more than the desired destination. But this is exactly what McGonigal is trying to help people to understand as well. Again, like it or not most of the world is thoroughly obsessed with worldly achievement. It is impractical and simply ineffective to tell people they should surrender their worldly desires or that they should just enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome. Both our culture and our brains’ biology indoctrinate us to a system of effort, outcome and reward/punishment. The reason, therefore, that SuperBetter does work – not for everyone but for many – is that it works with, not against, our culturally conditioned preoccupation with goals as well as our inherent biology. But here is the marvelous part: in using gameful techniques towards worldly goals many people (again, not all but many) do indeed realize that it is the process of their struggle that proves most meaningful, not the outcome, because the process is the only thing that is within their control.
But why would gameful goal-setting be more effective versus any other method in terms of helping us to enjoy the ride? One reason may be because of the inherent sense of fun and levity that’s involved in games. If you overly fixate on a desired outcome, you’re likely to create the kind of chronic stress and anxiety that can actually undermine your goal, not facilitate it. But if you’re able to approach your goal with a sense of play, you are more likely to create the kinds of positive feelings that not only help bring about success but make the process more enjoyable as well. After all, in games we don’t play to hurry up and get to the end. We play to enjoy the game.
I can personally attest to this. My present life circumstances are quite literally a life-or-death situation in a number of ways. Staying mindful of the gravity of this to a certain degree does help me stay focused and not get distracted. But I find that when I get too mired in an obsessive survival mindset, like victims of prolonged trauma I start exhibiting signs of deteriorating mental health. If, however, I can tap into a spirit of play and approach my challenges, no matter how tough, as a game, I find that not only am I able to be more patient with the process I can even enjoy it somewhat despite great physical pain, financial uncertainty and social isolation. Now, I may recover or I may not, but even in the event that I do not at least this spirit of play, to the degree I’m able to sustain it, will help me better enjoy the years of life I do get. And contrary to what some critics might say, this is not a trivialization of serious problems or a denial of reality. It is precisely because I take reality seriously and because I want to solve my problems that I am willing to use whatever works. Call it creative pragmatism.
Therefore whereas the New Yorker review criticizes SuperBetter for perpetuating our culture’s goal-oriented mindset, what Jane McGonigal is actually trying to do is channel that goal-oriented mindset towards helping people adopt a more process-oriented mindset. Like any self-improvement methodology it is not going to work for everyone. But if you like games, have tried other methods that didn’t work for you, and if you are facing a significant life challenge or just want to better yourself in some way, then you owe it to yourself to at least read this book and reach your own conclusions.
Now, then: Shall we play a game?
Also check out the class Jane McGonigal will be teaching at Stanford from Sept. 26 – Oct. 24, How to Think Like a Futurist: Improve Your Powers of Imagination, Invention, and Capacity for Change.