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When Jane McGonigal takes the stage to speak - giving TED talks, for instance, or presentations at the World Economic Forum in Davos - it's hard not to be struck by her appearance. She is petite, with a mass of long, wavy dyed-blond hair, and wears bright patterned dresses with knee-high leather boots. Her blue eyes are picked out in dark kohl and her lips - made up pale pink - are typically set in a purposeful smile. For some reason, you can imagine her executing a karate kick or a judo chop. It all adds up to lend her the colour and dynamism of a comic book hero or Nintendo character which, thinking about it, may not be a total coincidence.
McGonigal, 38, designs video games. She lives in San Francisco, has a PhD from Berkeley and is the director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group based in Palo Alto. She is, by some distance, the most high-profile proponent of a theory that millions of people will be inclined to dismiss out of hand. She believes that video games have the power to heal. Not just that games aren't as bad for us as we once thought, or that they offer a short-term escape from the problems we all sometimes encounter, but rather that they can be harnessed to help us cope with some of the worst hands life can deal - from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain to terminal cancer. She has created her own game, a smartphone app called SuperBetter, which she says almost half a million people have used to tackle these conditions and more.
'A lot of people find the idea ridiculous,' she says. 'It's so firmly ingrained in us that games are trivial or fun that if you're dealing with something in your life that isn't fun, we just assume that they cannot possibly be helpful. But in the next decade, people will be prescribed games before they're prescribed antidepressants or pain medication. I'm completely confident that's where we're going.'
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Her home, which she shares with her husband, Kiyash, and their twin one-year-olds, contains paintings of robots and a silver desk in the shape of a bomber jet's wing. If McGonigal is an unapologetic geek - and in the nicest possible way, it's hard to conclude otherwise - her challenge is to prove to the world that she is not an eccentric, that her belief in the healing potential of games is not simply an enthusiast's wishful thinking. Her contention (which she lays out in her new book, also called SuperBetter) is that when we face challenges in video games we tend to be more focused, more optimistic, more goal-orientated and more inclined to ask others for help than we could ever hope to be away from the computer screen. But if we could somehow transfer this outlook to overcoming obstacles we face in reality - what McGonigal calls 'living gamefully' - then who knows what we could be capable of overcoming? 'The way we approach problems and challenges in games is literally the way that psychologists and researchers say we should approach traumas in real life,' she says.
McGonigal speaks from first-hand experience. She maintains that this approach enabled her to recover from a serious brain injury that had left her suicidal and then, later, helped her and her husband through IVF. And when their twins arrived two months premature - 'they were three pounds when they were born and were on ventilators, blood transfusions, all that stuff' - it was the power of gaming that helped them manage all the resulting fear and uncertainty.
But . . . how? To find out, we first have to go back to 2009 and the freak brain injury McGonigal suffered during the process of writing a book about games.
'It was so stupid,' she says. 'I was in my home office picking some scattered papers off the floor and I quickly stood up underneath an open cabinet door. I'm a runner and I have pretty strong leg so it was the full force of my quads powering my head into the corner of the door. I could feel my brain hitting the back of my skull and I was just like, oh s***, something really bad has just happened.'
She was badly concussed. The problem was that, with each passing day, she wasn't getting any better. She experienced constant headaches, memory loss and vertigo, and was left unable to read, write or maintain conversations for more than a few minutes at a stretch. After a month of being bedridden, anxious and depressed, she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, a condition that can last indefinitely and leave sufferers feeling bereft and hopeless.
'Your brain chemistry changes when your brain is trying to heal,' she says. 'And there is a really sharp drop in dopamine in the areas of the brain associated with happiness and pleasure and the ability to anticipate good things. But your brain chemistry, during healing, doesn't feel like devoting any resources to that, and so you cannot imagine anything good.'
A common symptom of post-concussion syndrome is suicidal thoughts. 'I heard these voices in my head telling me that I should kill myself. At the time, I lived in an apartment that was 43 storeys high and had a rooftop, where I used to love to go and look at the view of San Francisco. But I was nervous to even let myself go on the roof.'
So she took everything she knew about the psychology of video games and applied it to the circumstances she was in. She decided that she was the protagonist of a game called Jane the Concussion Slayer ('I'd been watching a lot of Buffy), a game that required her to recruit allies (her sister, her husband etc), identify and defeat 'bad guys' (anything that could trigger her symptoms, such as bright lights) and collect 'power-ups' (anything that helped her feel better, from cuddling her dog to walking round the block). By framing her illness as something that could be tackled using the familiar tropes of game play, McGonigal found that within days she was feeling better. She was not cured - she would experience headaches and other symptoms for a further year - but she was happier, more resilient, and for the first time felt in control of her recovery.
McGonigal developed Jane the Concussion Slayer into an app, SuperBetter, which sets users small quests depending on the challenge they are facing (you can choose, among other things, 'depression', 'physical injury', 'chronic pain' or 'will power!'), and allows them to identify their own bad guys and power-ups as they progress. A clinical trial, run by the US National Institutes of Health, gave people with post-concussion syndrome SuperBetter. 'Not only did they feel less depressed and anxious after 30 days of playing, but their symptoms got better faster,' says McGonigal.
And as more and more people downloaded it, she found that they were using the SuperBetter method to help them cope with a range of issues. 'I started hearing from medical researchers who specialise in spinal rehabilitation, who treat veterans with PTSD, people who work with suicidal patients,' she says. At one stage, McGonigal was contacted by a man with a form of motor neurone disease who had downloaded her app. 'It was one of his strategies for having a meaningful end of life through the progression of a disease he knew would kill him.'
It's important, she says, that we do not see this as simply turning problems into games. She says she has lost count of the number of times she has been likened to Mary Poppins (as in, 'in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun'), but she bristles at the comparison. 'It's not about turning anything into a game. It's about using a certain set of psychological strengths that we have and use all the time when we play games but that, for a variety of reasons, we don't think to use in the course of everyday lives.'
She has, perhaps unsurprisingly, had to deal with a lot of incredulity too. The idea that a game or app could have this effect simply doesn't sit with everybody. Her accompanying book has been the subject of some snarky reviews. 'It's about an empathy gap,' she says. 'Because the people who've been most helped by SuperBetter are maybe people whose lives media critics can't necessarily relate to; young, healthy, single men who don't have kids and who have not been through a personal crisis or trauma themselves yet.' One recent review in The New Yorker hypothesised, tongue-in-cheek, how you could use SuperBetter to recover from dropping a bottle of shampoo on your foot during your morning shower. 'It completely ignored all the people I talk about in the book, the rape survivors and the terminal cancer patients who have been helped by this.'
One thing she has observed is that the bigger the challenge someone is facing, the more open they are to the idea that playing a game might help them. 'The reality is that the more serious and out of control your situation is, the better this works,' she says. 'The word 'game' can be a burden, but it can also be a blessing because for people who are hurting or suffering, saying that you want them to try a game is incredibly helpful. You're not saying 'try this drug' or 'try this therapy'.'
And when, last year, McGonigal's twins arrived two months premature, the SuperBetter method kicked in. 'We started making a list of the power-ups we could do with the babies. When they're that small, you're not even allowed to hold them and there are so many things you can't do that we had to ask, OK, what can we do? Well, we can do things like sleep on a piece of fabric that they put in the babies' containers so that they can smell you. That's a power-up. We were making lists of all the different doctors and nurses working on constantly rotating shifts, trying to turn them into our allies. It was a resource. It really helped,' she says. 'It didn't make it good. It didn't make us happy that our babies were sick or that we couldn't hold them. But it helped us not shut down, which is what happens to a lot of parents in that situation, who end up afraid to love their baby because they could die. We used simple strategies to make sure we were as engaged and loving and optimistic as we could be.'
McGonigal says it affects her when people roll their eyes at her ideas or say that it's ridiculous to think a game could have such an impact on people's lives. But she's comforted in the knowledge that there is 'so much increasing respect for using games in these serious contexts'. And while there will always be doubters, there seem to be just as many people who are happy to give it a shot. 'The important thing is that the people who need it hear 'game' and say, well, I can try a game,' she finishes. 'That's something I'm willing to try.'
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(London Times readers' response to review)
* At the risk of pointing out the bleedin' obvious. Whats described here isn't a "game". It's a framework for planning how to overcome a hurdle which life throws at you. a few bits of gamer jargon removed and what you have is a basic project management tool. Whats my project, what are the goals, what milestones and phase-gates are there, who do I need involved. etc etc
Traditional games are mindless disconnected experiences, hovering up peoples time and producing a cohort of young people who genuinely believe that a virtual world is somehow connected to reality and will somehow help you get on in life; which is demonstrably isn't doing.
I'm sure this lady, like a lot of tech geeks, really really really believes in what she's doing, and good luck to her. But, she hasn't developed a "game". She's ripped off basic planning, or "crisis management" models, which already exist and have been around for years, and draped a bunch of gamer jargon off them in order to make it sound current and relevant. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this as such but please lets not get carried away with this lady's abilities or significance.
* Very good points - I too had a wry smile when she described putting a piece of material under her premature babies as a 'power-up'. I imagine too that framing a trauma as a series of tasks to overcome stops it being so big and frightening and isn't really 'gaming' per se.
The only thing is... we're trembling on the edge of a gaming revolution as big as the explosion of the novel in the 18th century, ie something that had been around for years but became the dominant form of creative expression. Novels were the subject of snarky disapproval from the media, church and all sorts as frivolity for young women (as games are dismissed as frivolity for young men now) but quickly developed into a hugely sophisticated form that brought solace, education, different viewpoints, deep pleasure and much, much more to a global audience of millions over the years.
I can't ignore the fact the same may be true of gaming.
* we are witnessing (and it's well documented) a cohort of young people and in particular, young men, emerging from adolescence without basic life skills and the emotional intelligence to cope with the demands of adult life. (Not true of the ladies, who spend way less time attached to an x-box.) There is a direct correlation between this and the amount of time spent playing games, in a virtual world. It's not any great leap of intellect to understand that the more time spent in a virtual world the less time there is to engage with, and learn about the real world. It's why a great many leaders in the technology industry are the first to say they limit the time their own children are exposed to technology and gaming. The online gaming world is a creative fantasy, that's all. It's not real life and never will be.
* "Novels were accused of creating expectations which life could not fulfil and... producing callousness by constantly exposing the reader to scenes of exciting pathos. When all the rest failed, laying blame on them for distracting readers from the more useful work, and attributing to them the power of a drug, was always at hand." (Williams, 1970: 13-15)
"Young men, emerging from adolescence without basic life skills and the emotional intelligence to cope with the demands of adult life.... The online gaming world is a creative fantasy, that's all. It's not real life and never will be." (AJM1969, 2016)
Just sayin' ; )
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