Gamify’s Review on Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

As big advocates for the power that game elements can bring forth when incorporated into non-game activities, of course we had to read Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter” to see what she has to say on the matter.

The team here at Gamify are obviously big on gaming, as a lot of you readers are as well whether you acknowledge it or not. Whether it be on a computer, a console or simply a smartphone, most of us play games to some degree and McGonigal understood this when she put SuperBetter together. She took a motivational framework that everyone is innately familiar with and applied it to areas of need in our lives. Not a gamer? Not to worry, this book is still a valuable resource. For many of the skills, McGonigal explains how you might have learned the skill from a video game, but also gives examples of other non-gaming activities that may encourage the same type of growth.

To set the scene on how this book came about in the first place, back in 2009, Jane McGonigal suffered a severe concussion that was proving difficult with its healing and recovery process. McGonigal found that the injury was leading her down a path of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts, as the injury was hindering on her ability to think clearly, work, and even get out of bed at some points. As a game designer and author, she decided that rather than let herself sink further into a negative headspace, she was going to use her expertise to get better, McGonigal turned her recovery process into a game.

What began as a personal motivational exercise to help McGonigal work towards improving her condition was then formulated into a structured set of rules that she shared with the world on her own blog. These rules then snowballed from becoming a digital game, to an online portal and then a major research study with the National Institutes of Health. Today more than 400,000 people have played SuperBetter to get happier and healthier, which resulted in McGonigal publishing a book on her journey and the findings from the conducted study. That’s over a decade’s worth of scientific research discussed in regards to the ways all games change how we respond to stress, challenge, and pain. She explains how we can rewire our brain towards recovery and resilience in everyday life simply by adopting a gamified mentality towards tasks.

The book itself is broken up into three parts. The first just explains a bit about the psychology of games and what we can learn from them. The second part explains the pieces of the SuperBetter game, teaching you how to approach life with a “gameful” attitude. The final part includes three “Adventures” each intended to build up your resilience in different ways. That section is intended to take six weeks, with one quest a day.

This book, while approachable in content still offers a lot for the reader to digest, including from the outset the introduction of “Quests,” or little exercises meant to teach you small things that you can do to start building up physical, mental, emotional, and social resilience. Obviously from an author that had a long road to recovery with her severe concussion, the quests start off quite simple in task with a gradual incline of challenge. Each quest is supported with an explanation behind the science of what you’re doing and how it’ll benefit you in the long run. you get an explanation of the science behind the quest: what it does for you and why it works.

These game-like quests can help systemise your healing process and have you enter what McGonigal refers to as a “gameful” state, becoming more optimistic, creative, courageous and determined. By applying the psychological attributes that games unlock to real-world scenarios, we inherently take on the qualities of change and “powering-up” much like the classic game characters we know and love. McGonigal explores the best ways to harness these gameful skills in the real world not only to experience “post-traumatic growth,” but also to tackle positive life goals, achieving what she calls “post-ecstatic growth.” To show how, she shares stories and data from players who have followed the SuperBetter rules to get stronger, happier, and braver in the face of depression, anxiety, illness, and injury, as well as to achieve major goals like losing weight, running a marathon, or finding a new job.

In SuperBetter, McGonigal argues that everyone has four intrinsic gameful strengths that can be employed to overcome obstacles and achieve life goals (SuperBetter, p. 125):

  • The ability to control one’s attention and, therefore, one’s thoughts and feelings;

  • The power to turn anyone into a potential ally and to strengthen existing relationships;

  • The natural capacity to motivate oneself and supercharge one’s heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination;

  • The ability to confidently face challenges head-on instead of trying to escape them.

SuperBetter’s 7 rules to be Gameful

Failure helps build your resilience. In video games, players fail 80 percent of the time — or somewhere between 12-25 times an hour. Because of this, video game players actually have higher levels of emotional and physical resilience than the general public. Studies have shown that playing Tetris for just three minutes while feeling a craving can reduce the intensity of that craving by 25 percent. (Less visual games like Scrabble didn’t work because they didn’t occupy the same receptors). Games, just like meditation, trigger “deep focus,” and just 30 minutes of doing either activity three times a week can improve your heart rate variability, one of the best measures of physical resilience.

In the second part of the book, the SuperBetter method is explained as choosing a real-life goal or challenge and repeatedly employing the following 7 gameful rules in order to achieve the desired results;

Challenge yourself

Decide what real-life obstacle to tackle, or what positive change to make.

To gamify your life and take on a more challenge-oriented mindset, design quests to tackle your challenge or goal. Research shows that “fun framing” can increase willpower. Researchers found that when they told a group of participants they had an hour to use as they wished before a math test, the participants didn’t start studying until 60 percent into the preparation hour. Those who were told they were about to play a math “game” started preparing almost right away.

Collect and activate power-ups

Good things that reliably make you feel happier, healthier, or stronger.

Any video game player will tell you that “power ups” are essential to victory. While no one in real life is going to hand you an “extra player”, you can still use power ups to gamify your life. A power-up in real life is “any positive action you can take, easily, that create[s] a quick moment of pleasure, strength, courage or connection for you.” For example, drinking a glass of water is a simple way to boost your physical resilience.

Find and battle the bad guys

Anything that blocks progress or causes anxiety, pain, or distress.

The more strategies you have to defeat your bad guys, the more flexible you will be in your response. The five main strategies are avoid, resist, adapt, challenge or convert. Avoidance tends to be the easiest but also least effective strategy. Resisting bad guys can be much more helpful so long as you don’t internalise blame for the bad guys’ appearance. The more psychologically flexible patients are, the faster they return to work, the more they exercise, and the fewer pain symptoms they report over time. But the less flexible they are, the more likely it is that back pain will continue for months or even years to interfere with their ability to recover.

Seek out and complete quests

Simple, daily actions that help you reach your bigger goals. To increase your confidence in your ability to achieve a goal, you must accept a goal, make an effort to achieve that goal, and improve. A video game allows for this process to happen because it increases dopamine, which results in faster learner and and more of a willingness to accept challenges.

Recruit your allies

Friends and family members who will help you along the way.

Every hero needs allies and that’s true in gamifying your life as well. Receiving support from others has a number of benefits, including boosting your immune system, lowering your stress levels and strengthening your cardiovascular system. Any game played simultaneously by two people results in a synchronisation of your emotions. This creates an upward spiral of positivity because every time we sync up our bodies, we feel a microburst of human connection. If you have trouble reaching out to allies in person, an online community can also serve as great support and give you the confidence to eventually reach out in person.

Adopt a secret identity

Pick a heroic nickname that highlights your unique personal strengths.

Research shows that examining our own experiences can result in “self-reflection paradox” where instead of gaining increased clarity, we get caught up in other feelings or turmoil. Adopting a secret identity, however, can help create the distance needed to observe the problem like an outsider would. While it might seem weird to talk about yourself in third person, the science shows it can create better willpower, result in greater engagement in constructive problem solving and lower stress levels. Scientists have found that people who are more aware of their strengths more successfully achieve their goals.

Go for an epic win

An awe-inspiring outcome that helps you be more motivated and less afraid of failure.

An epic win is a gameful goal that is realistic — but challenging. This needs to be something big enough that it is meaningful to you, but something you also have a good chance of accomplishing. When you consider the possibilities, ask yourself, “Can I really do this?” Taking on that sort of difficult goal as an epic win can really energise your efforts.


To sum up, I would recommend this book for everyone. For scholars interested in game studies or gameful design, it is a remarkable book that presents a significant contribution to the field and inspires further research. For everyone else, it is an inspiring message aimed at improving one’s life. Even if you do not feel that fully employing the SuperBetter method is the best path for you, I am sure you will find some useful insights and inspiration for a better life.

Like all self-help books, SuperBetter takes familiar techniques of personal care — drink plenty of water, cultivate a robust support network, keep mentally stimulated — and repackages them with empowering language and a new outlook to challenge what can otherwise feel like a monotonous checklist of life maintenance, McGonigal helps encourage readers to achieve and complete tasks that can otherwise fall by the wayside.

A key factor that McGonigal points out in SuperBetter, in what makes game mechanics & dynamics such a strong contributor in bettering oneself is the fact that games help you focus – think about how immersed you are when you’re participating in a game. If you are consciously practicing that skill – it can help you focus and concentrate on other things.

By the end of SuperBetter, the reader has gained an understanding of why the gamification of life tasks and maintenance is so valuable and how they can practically incorporate it into their everyday. SuperBetter not only breaks down the science behind games and how they help us become physically, emotionally, mentally and socially stronger, but also gives you a 7-step system you can use to turn your own life into a game, have more fun than ever before and overcome your biggest challenges. This book’s approach to problems will connect with a lot of readers but beyond that, the practical nature of McGonigal’s writing leaves readers with concrete steps that they can take to incrementally improve their skills.

For anyone looking to gain a more in-depth look at Gamification the team here at Gamify highly recommend you read Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter”. For a more immediate understanding of Gamification, checkout

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