April 16th, 2012
03:44 PM ET

Jane McGonigal: 'A game saved my life'

By Jane McGonigal, Special to CNN

(CNN) - “When you’re on your deathbed, will you really wish you’d spent more time playing Angry Birds?”

It’s a question I hear all the time. And understandably so: I’m probably the world’s leading advocate of spending more time, not less, playing computer and video games.

Why am I so passionate about spending more time playing games (ideally, at least 30 minutes every day)? Because heaps of scientific evidence over the past few years – from an extremely diverse group of investigators, such as Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, the U.S Army’s Mental Health Assessment Team, Michigan State University’s Department of Psychology and Massachusetts General Hospital - have shown that games can increase our mental, emotional and social resilience.

Games can make us more resilient in the face of tough challenges, better able to learn from mistakes, more likely to cooperate with others on difficult problems and more creative in coming up with new solutions. They can alleviate depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. New research from Stanford University just this month even shows, through fMRI imagery of the brain, exactly how games boost our motivation and self-efficacy at the neurological level. Games build up our belief that we can take positive steps to affect the outcome of our lives – and game help us be more motivated to take those steps and not give up.

That’s why when I was facing the toughest challenge of my life – overcoming a mild traumatic brain injury - I faced it not as an anxious and hopeless patient (although I did feel that way a lot of the time), but rather as a confident gamer. My injury took more than a year to heal, and the symptoms included daily migraines, nausea, vertigo, memory loss and suicidal ideation. It was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. So I invented a game I could play to help me heal my brain. I used the game to collect real-world power-ups (anything I could do that would make me feel better or heal faster, tackle bad guys (obstacles that stood in the way of my recovery), and recruit allies (friends and family who could support me during the ordeal). It helped me spark positive emotion when I needed it most, and it gave people who cared about me concrete things to do every day to help, instead of just worrying about me.

The game I invented is called SuperBetter, and today people around the world are playing it not for brain injuries – but for everything from losing weight, getting fit, fighting cancer, finding a job, and overcoming depression.

So do I think on my deathbed I’ll regret the time I spent playing games? Not a chance.

The way I see it, a game saved my life. My many years of playing games helped me build up my capacity to face tough challenges, to work more effectively with others, to invent and put into action creative strategies. It gave me the mental, emotional and social strength I needed to not give up, to keep fighting through the darkness. Games, more than anything else, have helped me be urgently optimistic even while under pressure. That’s why I make it a priority to play games every day, even if just for a few minutes. Because you never know when you’re going to need your gamer strength – or how it could help you win in real life.

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Filed under: Gaming • Innovation • Tech • The Next List • Video
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. BixEdidsEndak

    Hello. I just wanted to let you know about a place I found where you can swap unwanted games.

    Check it out and trade any unwanted game, I'm off to trade my Halo collection.

    May 30, 2012 at 5:49 am | Reply
  2. C. W. Deckner, Ph. D.

    Dear Sir or Ms.: May I enquire whether your company would be interested in marketing the educational games described in the following attachment: Charles W. Deckner, Ph. D.
    C. W. Deckner, P. L. Deckner and D. F. Deckner
    Copyright by C.W.D. All Rights Reserved

    Steady Learning combines old-fashioned game boards and online interactive computer technology. Although the following example of the games’ application refers to teaching advanced English vocabulary, we invite the reader to consider Steady Learning’s potential utility in teaching a variety of other subjects of different levels of difficulty, as well.

    In both “Racing” and “Soccer,” players initially focus on a single set of 25 words. They advance on either a “racetrack” or a “soccer field” contingent upon stating the correct definitions of the words. Players take turns clicking a “GET NUMBER” button in order to produce on their computer screen the number of the specific word that they must try to define.

    After each turn, players only have to click the specific word in order to see its correct definition. All players will immediately see the correct definition, and a player advances if what s/he has just stated is confirmed by what is then written on their computer screen. Each time a player clicks to see a definition, all players will hear the target word’s correct pronunciation.

    In Race/Game One of each four-game match, words 1-6 are randomly and repeatedly presented until a player reaches a Finish Line or a Goal Box. In the second Race/Game, words 1-12 are presented; in Race/Game Three, words 1-18 are presented; and in Race/Game Four, words 1-24 are randomly and repeatedly presented. Thus, new words are introduced in small enough numbers to be learned in a fairly short time, and there is substantial review.

    One point is scored for winning Race/Game One; two points for Race/Game Two; three points for Race/Game Three; and six points for winning Race/Game Four. A player therefore can lose the first three games of a match and still have undiminished incentive to compete because winning the fourth will force a tie break. The instructions suggest that breaking a tie by repeating Race/Game Four for an additional six points will improve vocabulary learning.

    Several features of the games help maintain interest by ensuring variety and unpredictability in the outcomes of the matches. Particularly in Race/Game Four, luck will play a sufficient role in winning that even if a player learns consistently faster than others s/he still will win only a moderately larger proportion of the matches and by widely varying margins. In addition, the instructions recommend an effective way to eliminate any unfair advantage due to a player already knowing words in an upcoming set before play is begun—a way that also helps achieve the goal of having all players learn all 25 words in each set. Moreover, teams can play, and usually it is possible to balance learning proficiency across teams to make the matches close and interesting.

    We would like for research-oriented educators to view the games as a framework within which a number of variables can be studied. For example, a hypothesis that we will test with Steady Learning relates to the consideration that differential reinforcement in this context might be expected to mean that players advance a constant number of spaces with each correct definition and do not advance without a correct definition. With the present instructions, players advance according to the number of the word that they define correctly. In Race/Game Four the randomly presented word numbers range from one to 24—the reason that luck will play such a large role in winning that decisive six-point game.

    We hypothesize that sets of words will require fewer opportunities to learn with matches of variable differential reinforcement (VDR) than with control matches of constant differential reinforcement (CDR), and that preference ratings will indicate that VDR is more motivating and fun than CDR. Even though we expect VDR to have an advantage with regard to learning, both forms of reinforcement may produce quite satisfactory learning rates. For that reason, we predict that the more important advantage of VDR will be that a large majority of players prefer that form of the games and, therefore, will be motivated to engage in the learning activity more frequently and for longer durations than with CDR. In addition to the multi-player games, this study will be conducted with both Solo Racing and Solo Soccer, which are described below.

    VDR may be particularly consequential and motivating when certain optional ways of playing are chosen. In the instructions one option is, “If your opponent cannot define a word on his/her GET NUMBER turn and you can define it, advance according to the number of that word.” In order to reinforce fluency, another option is to have the player who states the correct definition first advance the spaces of GET NUMBER, regardless of who has clicked GET NUMBER. (If two or more players state the correct definition

    simultaneously, the player who has clicked advances.) In Racing, if the word number is 24, instead of one
    player advancing 24 spaces, the opposing player may advance 24 spaces. In Soccer, if the word number is 24, instead of a 24-space advance toward one goal, there may be a 24-space advance toward the opposite goal. Even if a player is losing by a large margin, because such match-changing swings are possible, players remain alert and motivated to compete until the match is over.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply

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