Jane McGonigal, Game Developer
By Grant Davis
It's not every day that a knock in the head leads to an entirely new approach to treating disease, but that's what sparked SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal's free online game, which introduced a radical new approach to the prevention and treatment of depression, anxiety and other neurological conditions.
In 2009 McGonigal banged her head against a cabinet in her San Francisco home, sustaining a concussion that took nearly a year to heal. This led her to use her Ph.D. in performance studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and her experience building collaborative online games for the World Bank and the American Heart Association to develop a game that would allow her to play her way to better mental health. The result was SuperBetter, which launched at the 2012 SXSW Interactive festival. It asks players to set up progressive, daily goals for themselves and enlist friends
or family to keep them on track.
"Games promote positive health aspects, optimism, social support and resilience," McGonigal says. "We know games have the power to change the state of the brain, stimulating parts of the brain that therapy doesn't."
Leaders in science are taking her work seriously. Last year The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center began clinical trials on the efficacy of SuperBetter to treat traumatic brain injuries, and the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center greenlighted a randomized controlled user study of the game to treat depression. Results from the UPenn study are expected this spring.
According to McGonigal, the appeal of SuperBetter (which is played by 125,000 people worldwide) is that unlike many medications that treat such conditions, it has no side effects--and people always want to see what works better than current protocols. It's a big promise, and to shepherd her game into the healthcare arena, McGonigal has taken an "entrepreneurial sabbatical" of undetermined length from her role as director of games research and development at Palo Alto, Calif.'s Institute for the Future.
"Ninety-nine percent of teenage boys and 94 percent of teenage girls in this country play online games," she says, equating the acceptance of gaming by the next generation to TV watching. She also points out that there are more than 1 billion people playing online games around the world. "And all these people are learning from their failures," she says. "Gamers fail 80 percent of the time, but they keep playing. There's a connection between becoming a good gamer, learning from failure and being better at making life a game."