SuperBetter's McGonigal: Games can lengthen your life

By Jonah Comstock
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speaker-jane-mcgonigal-lgAttendees at Mad*Pow's Healthcare Experience Design (HXD) 2013 conference in Boston got one freebie that wasn't in the gift bag: an extra seven-and-a-half minutes of their life. At least, that's according to SuperBetter founder Jane McGonigal, who took attendees through a demo of the SuperBetter game in her morning keynote.

SuperBetter, a Rock Health startup that's received a fair amount of media attention, is a website (and iOS app) that helps people dealing with a range of challenges turn their life into a game in order to better face that challenge. McGonigal said the game now has more than 250,000 users. A clinical trial of 40 patients, conducted by The Ohio State University, is currently under way to test the efficacy of SuperBetter for helping patients recover from traumatic brain injuries.

That's a very appropriate first use case, since the idea for SuperBetter was born out of McGonigal's own traumatic brain injury. McGonigal said that she invented a rudimentary version of SuperBetter while recovering from post-concussive syndrome, which caused pain and nausea and prevented her from reading, writing, or playing video games, among other things. McGonigal took on the "secret identity" of "Jane the Concussion Slayer," and recruited friends and family to help her meet small, daily challenges. McGonigal said the game brought her out of suicidal ideation, a common problem among those recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

"Even with a game that simple, within a few days that fog started to lift. [However,] it was not a miracle cure for the symptoms," she said. "I was still in pain, but I wasn't suffering."

McGonigal shared the game in its early stages and was surprised by how many people found the approach helpful for a range of different challenges.

SuperBetter"I wanted to understand how a game so trivial could help so many people in so many different situations," she said. "A trauma can actually help people. We were experiencing through the game what researchers call post-traumatic growth. Trauma doesn't doom us forever, it can actually be a springboard."

McGonigal wanted to develop a system that would enable that kind of growth without requiring the trauma. She says the key mistake that most designers make in attempting to bring about healthy behavior change is to focus on the idea of motivation: "I think motivation is completely beside the point," she said. "The players, the patients I have worked with, are not lacking motivation. They have motivation in spades."

Instead, SuperBetter focuses on helping people build up skills like social connectedness, having a challenge mindset, or psychological flexibility. The platform groups these skills into four kinds of resilience -- physical, mental, social, and emotional -- and uses "quests" to encourage users to develop each area in small ways every day. Data shows that working on this resilience every day can increase life expectancy by 10 years, McGonigal said. Doing some math, that means working on them for an hour would buy those attending her talk and viewing the demo about seven and a half minutes.

McGonigal shared some new statistics about SuperBetter's user base: 55 percent are male, 45 percent female. The median age is 33, but 11 percent are over the age of 56.  The data also shows that people are using the platform to address big issues: the majority of users say they're addressing the biggest challenge in their life with SuperBetter. Forty percent use SuperBetter to address something they've struggled with for more than five years; 70 percent use it for something they've been dealing with for more than a year.

McGonigal's larger mission is to elevate gaming above its stigma as a time-wasting activity. In her address to HXD, she drew connections between an oft-cited hospice worker's summation of peoples' top five deathbed regrets and gaming, noting that each thing people said they wished they'd done more often -- spending time with friends, self-expression -- could be accomplished with games. As such, she told attendees, there are worst ways to spend your extra seven and a half minutes of life than playing a game.