Jane McGonigal explains how gaming can make us the hero of our own story

After experiencing a concussion that left her feeling anxious and depressed, Jane McGonigal sought healing through gaming. As part of her recovery process, McGonigal designed a game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which was later re-titled “SuperBetter.”

During a widely viewed TED talk, McGonigal said that after playing the game for awhile, her psychical pain was still there, but the depression she had experienced started to go away. She began hearing from others around the world who had adopted her idea and made themselves the hero of their own real-life-based video game. As they did, they boosted their resilience and experienced what doctors called “post-traumatic growth.”

McGonigal’s new book, “SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient,” explores the SuperBetter game, as well as research that suggests gaming can help make you the hero of not just your own video game, but your own life story.

In a Longreads interview last week, McGonigal talked about some of the findings outlined in her book:

“The games you already play can benefit you, or the games that you yell at your spouse or your kids to stop playing can benefit them, if you play in the right time and in the right ways.”

“One of the early findings from the neuroscience of gaming, around 20 years ago, I think, was when they first started seeing what a big dopamine rush was involved with video games. It was as much of a dopamine rush as when somebody injects methamphetamines. The effect is pretty clear: the more dopamine you have flowing and are able to access, the more motivated and goal-oriented you are. And you tend to discount the effort required to achieve your goal, and focus more on the benefits of achieving your goal. So if you are very low dopamine, that’s what we see in clinical depression: No matter how many goals they think about or how many future good things they try to imagine, they don’t have the dopamine necessary to feel action-oriented.”

“This is one of the things that happens with traumatic brain injury and with concussion: your brain chemistry changes so that you literally can’t imagine anything positive in the future. That’s why I was having suicidal ideation. No matter what goals you try to set for yourself, your brain is just like, ‘Oh, don’t do it, it’ll never work, it’ll never pay off.’ Whatever happiness you try to imagine in the future, your brain just doesn’t believe you. No dopamine, no hope, no motivation.”

“This helps explain why gamers never give up and why you can see a player trying to tackle the same stupid level fifty times in a row and they still have hope. ‘I think I’m gonna do it next time, I just gotta give it one more try.’ They don’t want to go to sleep, they don’t want to quit. The dopamine is really firing them up.”

“There are benefits besides that. We know that a high level of dopamine primes your brain to continue thinking in that pattern. So if you are playing a game and can step away and use that dopamine high to tackle a real-life challenge, that’s actually really productive, right? You can think about priming your brain for a hard day of real-life challenges with something like Tetris, Candy Crush Saga, or whatever is your thing.

“Why this happens is that every time we take an action that has a possible consequence, we can either be successful or we can fail and learn why we failed. In both cases, the brain releases a little hit of dopamine: it is the learning and motivation chemical. Games are just constantly taking action. If I rotate this piece, will it fit? If I fire at this angle, will it hit? If I go this way, will my opponent be able to follow? You are constantly making predictions and taking actions that you get immediate feedback on. That explains why video games, in particular, give us this incredible dopamine rush: there are really very few other activities that require us to be constantly taking actions that can pay off or making a prediction that we’re going learn something from. You do that for hours when you play games, so your dopamine is just through the roof.”

The full Longreads interview is well worth the read. We recommend the book, too, which shows how gaming is an example of media as a force for good.

Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, had this to say about McGonigal’s book: “In ‘SuperBetter,’ she reveals to the world a great secret that avid game players kept for years: games are not a waste of your time; they can make you stronger, happier and more mindful. Reading this book is a compelling quest for anyone — whether you play games regularly, or you just have an open mind about them.”


Related: ivoh summit panelists explain how gaming can enrich storytelling | Exploring the overlap between games and journalism

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