Many metaphors have been used to describe the experience of life: a battle, a mystery, a dance… even a big cosmic joke. At times it can indeed feel like all of those things and more.
But the metaphor of life as a game has always been one of my favorites because inherent to the word “game” are the implications of fun and merriment as opposed to suffering and strife as implied by a metaphor like “battle.” And in a game, if there is suffering and strife it’s all part of the game anyway, so as difficult as it may be, the challenge to overcome it is part of the fun.
I was so fond of the life/game metaphor, in fact, that I used to think up ways – privately, in my own mind – of applying the metaphor in my life. But it was kind of vague and haphazard. I didn’t have a systematic, codified way of doing so.
But some time ago I discovered an excellent app for desktops and mobile devices that can help anyone apply the game metaphor in their lives in fun, productive and therapeutic ways. If used with diligence, trust in its effectiveness and as genuine a spirit of fun as you can muster, it can help you overcome major challenges in your life while maximizing opportunities for self-growth.
It’s called SuperBetter and in this post I’ll talk about how it could change your life. It really can.
But before I say more about the app, I highly recommend you first watch this excellent TED talk in which the creator of the app, Jane McGonigal, talks about how the game metaphor helped her to overcome a period of deep depression in which she found herself wanting to die.
I’ve seen many good TED videos but this is one of the few that has moved me profoundly. Jane basically summarizes everything that I’m trying to do both in my own life and with this blog, which is to create and teach a fun, inspiring and effective way of using mythical archetypes from pop culture as a way to surmount personal challenge and propel self-growth.
In a previous post, I briefly discussed Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero entering the Inmost Cave where she faces intense trials and, if victorious, emerges with a treasure to bring back to the Ordinary World. For Jane, the Inmost Cave was her period of recovery from her concussion and SuperBetter was the treasure that she emerged from the cave with.
Where Pop Mythology seeks to harness the hero archetype for personal growth, SuperBetter uses the mechanics and aesthetics of video games. Ultimately, this amounts to the same thing because video games, like superheroes, are one of the forms of modern mythology. The language and symbolism of video games and superhero stories are very similar in numerous ways.
Video games are interactive retellings of archetypal myths and the interactive aspect makes them particularly powerful, allowing players to not just follow the Hero on his mythical journey but vicariously become him. The therapeutic and developmental potentials of this are enormous.
So why haven’t video games, despite being tremendously entertaining and even, at their best, cathartic, overtly helped more people overcome life challenges and become better people?
It may be that sometimes individuals have found ways to transmute the gaming experience so that it becomes more than recreation. But on the mass scale, as sophisticated as they’ve become, video games are still largely perceived and experienced by many people as just entertainment.
The reason is that until now we’ve lacked a conceptual framework – a simple, ready-made and systematic paradigm through which we can consciously use games as tools for self-growth. SuperBetter seeks to be just that.
Now, granted, games have no innate obligation to be anything more than entertainment or maybe art (and even art isn’t obligated to make us “better”). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this and even just good recreation by itself can have therapeutic implications. But they have the potential to be so much more and to not explore that potential strikes me as a loss of opportunity.
The good news is that games come almost ready-made for psychological and therapeutic applications. Things like collecting points, powering up, leveling up, defeating evil bosses and completing quests and sub-quests – all staples of video games – have endless metaphorical equivalents in real-life. SuperBetter takes advantage of this symbolism and helps you to see the connection.
This post isn’t so much a review as it is a celebration of a much-needed and long overdue tool. I’ll leave it to app critics to discuss the pros and cons of the app’s functionality. I’ll only say that while it may take some slight getting used to, the interface is simple and intuitive enough so that the learning curve is very shallow.
What I will do is explain why I think SuperBetter can be so useful and effective and is a perfect complement to the kind of pop culture-based philosophy of this blog.
You see, life can be a lot like farming. Whatever your goal – whether it’s to recover from an illness or advance in the workplace – what often happens is that you work and work towards that goal but nothing seems to be happening or changing. Actually, you are making progress and your desired crop is spreading its roots deep into the earth. But you don’t immediately see visible, tangible results so there’s no short-term psychological reward system.
Then, just before the crop is about to sprout from the earth, you become despondent and give up. And all that invisible progress you made goes to waste.
In agrarian times people in general lived with a greater sense of how everything valuable and meaningful took time. One of the greatest prices we’ve paid for the convenience of a fast-food, smartphone culture of instant gratification is an epic loss of perspective.
A primary reason why video games are so addictive is that they allow us to feel a vicarious sense of accomplishment in a very compressed period of time. Within just several hours, you can transverse worlds, galaxies and dimensions, accumulate wealth, save dozens of innocents, vanquish evil, win the love of a prince or princess and become the most powerful character this side of Azeroth and still have time left for a quick trip to the gym.
SuperBetter, among many things, helps remedy our modern impatience and quickness to give up on longterm projects by harnessing this addictive reward mechanism that video games exploit.
Let’s say your goal is to recover from chronic illness (as in my own case). SuperBetter will give you daily reminders to do small, easy tasks that can slowly but surely improve your health like drink a glass of water, go for a gentle walk, connect with a friend, meditate and get enough sleep. It even backs up each suggested action with short summaries of scientific studies that you can optionally choose to read if you need to be convinced of the benefits.
Each time you do one of the suggested actions the app rewards you with pleasing auditory and visual video game aesthetics. As in video games, you go on “quests,” battle metaphorical “enemies,” collect “power-ups,” gain experience points and “level up.”
The most popular games these days have a strong social component and SuperBetter also harnesses this by allowing you to create a network of real-life “allies” to encourage and support you in your quest.
What all these things do collectively is constantly remind you – both consciously and subconsciously – that whether you can detect it or not, you are making progress and that science can prove it. This creates a positive feedback loop so that you are much less likely to give up on your project or goal.
It also gradually, subtly tweaks your perspective so that you might come to see your problem or goal as a challenging but fun game rather than an arduous, Sisyphean uphill climb. And let’s face it: excepting masochists, we all prefer the game.
SuperBetter is a remarkable and much-needed tool for our times and I highly recommend it to all aspiring superheroes.