Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter team give Chicago a Power-Up

Jane McGonigal dispensed gameful wisdom to a packed room Wed. night at 1871 in Chicago. (Eric Clarke, 1871/CloudSpotter)

When I wrote my review of Jane McGonigal’s new book SuperBetter, it was solely out of admiration for her work and the app of the same name, as well as a desire to introduce both to Pop Mythology readers who might not have been familiar with them. I certainly didn’t expect to get an e-mail from Keith Wakeman, CEO of SuperBetter (the company that produces the app), inviting me to attend a talk that Jane gave this past Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Chicago-based 1871, a physical space and intellectual hub for local digital entrepreneurs. It turned out he had seen the review and could tell that I was a big enough fan to appreciate an opportunity like this.

I was aware that Jane was on a national book tour and that Chicago would be one of her stops, but as always with these kinds of things I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to attend, not for lack of desire but for physical difficulties and the unpredictability of my day-to-day, week-to-week condition (see my recent post about Chicago Wizard World for more on this common “spoonie” dilemma).

But, hey, if the CEO of an app you respect is going to be gracious enough to personally invite you to see an author you love, you’d better be on your deathbed if you’re going to turn down a hopefully-not-once-in-a-lifetime chance. And it turned out to be not just an inspirational evening, as predicted, but also a fairly informative one as concerning my newly adopted city of Chicago.

chicago-jane-mcgonigal-superbetter-event (1)
A healthy crowd of people filled the room at 1871 to hear Jane McGonigal speak. (Eric Clarke, 1871/CloudSpotter)

Before McGonigal’s talk a number of introductory speakers represented various organizations, and their respective missions, that had come together to host the event. Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, talked about how Chicago was increasingly becoming a city for digital entrepreneurship and how 1871 sought to be an intellectual hub for that growth. Steve Collens, CEO of MATTER (where the pre-event VIP reception was held), discussed the development of apps, not unlike SuperBetter, designed to improve the health and well-being of their users. Kelly O’Brien, Illinois Executive Director of The Kennedy Forum, explained some of the ways in which her organization was working to change the way mental health is both perceived and addressed in the U.S. (with 5$ from every ticket bought for the evening being donated to the Kennedy Forum).

Keith Wakeman, CEO of SuperBetter and the man who graciously invited this little ol’ blogger of yours, officially introduced SuperBetter as a newly Chicago-based company (it was originally based in San Francisco) and talked about all the exciting plans he and his team had for the app’s expansion including an upcoming Indiegogo campaign that would help take the app to the next level.

chicago-jane-mcgonigal-superbetter-event (10)
Keith Wakeman, CEO of SuperBetter, shares his vision for the app’s future. (Eric Clarke, 1871/CloudSpotter)

Finally, it was time for the main event and Jane McGonigal gave a characteristically engaging presentation with all the charm, intelligence and pathos that have made her TED talks among the most popular of all time. If you’re ever in the audience at a Jane McGonigal event, part of the price of admission is audience participation (for those of you who dread such things), and the cleverness of these activities is that not only do they help you to get a first-hand, experiential taste of her ideas but they are also an excellent mnemonic device for retaining the key points she makes during her talks.

#SuperScrabble (a modified version of the classic board game) was the activity she had everyone in the room do in which each person was given a single letter tile and had to form words with other players by standing in rows and columns. It was a way to visibly demonstrate one of the primary points in her book, which is that when a game is played together in the same physical space, even with strangers, the following things take place:

• Players begin exhibiting the same facial expressions, physical mannerisms and bio-signals (heart rate, brain waves, etc.).

• This physical “mirroring” of each other among players increases greater feelings of connection and closeness in a shorter time, making them more predisposed to helping each other in various ways (forming Allies).

• Regions of the brain directly correlating to focus, motivation and a goal-oriented mindset are activated. This is the diametric opposite of depression in which the same brain regions become inactive.

chicago-jane-mcgonigal-superbetter-event (11)
Strangers instantly became Allies in a game of SuperScrabble. (Eric Clarke, 1871/CloudSpotter)

So how did Chicago do at #SuperScrabble? First of all, as a newly christened Chicagoan I am pleased to report that our room’s cumulative scores were better (can I say Super Better?) than New York’s, Boston’s, Seattle’s and Santa Cruz’s, with only Toronto beating us (darn you, Canadians, always spoiling everything!).

Secondly, an interesting thing happened to me both during the game and then immediately following its conclusion:

When McGonigal explained the rules of #SuperScrabble and then had everyone get up from their chairs to play, I decided to sit it out because (1) I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, which sometimes happens randomly or if I’m overly stimulated, (2) such physical activity is hard anyway even if I’m not dizzy, and (3) sections of her talk that I closely related to had me feeling suddenly emotional which, in turn, often exacerbates the dizziness.

At first I thought that sitting it out would mean there was no way in which I could be part of the excitement playing out in the room. This was something I had long resigned myself to both when it came to life in general as well as specific events like these. “Sitting it out,” literally and figuratively, simply came with the territory of being unwell. But then, for no real reason other than a child-like fear of having Jane possibly look down from stage and frown at my lack of participation, I made an effort to at least be mentally alert to what was happening in the room, rather than just zone out, even while being physically passive. This paying attention led to a moment in which I made eye contact with a guy in a group that was looking desperately for a letter they could form a high-scoring word with.

“What letter do you have?” he shouted.

I held up my tile and said, “L!”

“Oh!” he cried, looking back over his group’s tiles. “C’mon, guys, over here!” Whereupon he and his co-players shuffled over to where I was sitting and together we triumphantly formed the appropriately SuperBetter-esque word “PIXEL.” Bam. 14 points just like that and I was instantly made a part of the game. And I didn’t even have to do anything except pay attention!

Technically, you’re not supposed to put the tiles in one person’s hand in #SuperScrabble but rather stand in a row to form the word. But the purpose was achieved: I participated in something I didn’t think I could participate in and instantly felt closer to my co-players.

But the really interesting moment came soon thereafter. First, Jane asked the room if they felt like they could verify, based on what they were feeling, any of the points she had made about playing the same game in a shared physical space with strangers. Most agreed that they could. Then, with our hippocampus and caudate nucleus freshly activated, she asked us to quietly mull for just ten focused seconds over any significant problem that we might happen to be grappling with in our lives. It wasn’t that any immediate ideas would come to us, necessarily, but that planting the intention in a gameful state of mind might lead to the incubation of ideas.

But I honestly kid you not, in those ten seconds I had what felt like a genuine insight of sorts. I didn’t even need the full ten seconds; virtually as soon as Jane told us to start the insight occurred (I’d explain what it was specifically if I weren’t so certain it’d be thoroughly uninteresting to anyone other than myself). Of course, only time will tell if this insight will ever actually lead to something concrete, and maybe the thrill of the moment was simply making me think that the thought I had was something that could be considered an insight as opposed to simply a nice thought. Either way, it was surely what McGonigal would call a Power-Up, something that felt good, boosted motivation, was easy to do and didn’t cost a thing.

chicago-jane-mcgonigal-superbetter-event (5)
After her talk, McGonigal signed books and posed for photos with fans. (Eric Clarke, 1871/CloudSpotter)

At last the crowning moment came for me when Jane started signing books and I got to meet one of my heroes in person. As someone who in a previous career has organized promotional tours, I know how exhausting any kind of tour can be. I would have more than understood had she just signed my book and said, “Thanks for coming! Bye!” But she did more than that. She wrote a lovely personalized message, took a moment to chat with me, posed for a photo and even issued me a Quest (for more on Quests, Power-Ups and Allies, read the book!). And that, my friends… that is seriously not easy to do when all you want after a long day on the road is to just retreat to your hotel room and crawl under the covers.

And so thank you to Jane McGonigal and Keith Wakeman for a wonderful and memorable evening that was more than worth every one of the spoons it took to attend (see “spoon theory” to learn what “spoons” are). I, along with all the other Chicagoans who attended I’m sure, are grateful for the lessons in gameful living and the chance to meet new Allies along the way.

More info:

• Jane McGonigal still has a couple more stops in her book tour. To check dates and cities, or to order a copy of her new book, click here.

• To see what the SuperBetter company is up to, download the app, or learn more about their upcoming Indiegogo campaign click here.

• To find out more about 1871, MATTER, or the Kennedy Forum, click the name(s).

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.


  1. hate to tell you but ice breakers hve been round for years. And guess what. They have mo long term inpact. Please think outside the square

  2. hate to tell you but ice breakers hve been round for years. And guess what. They have mo long term inpact. Please think outside the square

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.