Resilience may be one of the key reasons we’re still going after five years and counting. It’s a word we’ve heard a lot these days on TV, in the news, in everyday conversation, etc., and we wondered why it’s striking a chord now. So we called Jane McGonigal, author of New York Times bestseller Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and creator of SuperBetter, which helps people build resilience, to learn more.
Interview with Jane McGonigal
Q: Why games?
A: My area of expertise is the psychology of games and what I’ve been studying for more than a decade is how games change how people act and solve problems in real life. One of the biggest findings I’ve discovered over the past decade is that people who spend more time playing games have a number of different types of resilience – more reserves of resilience – than people who don’t.
Q: Before we go any further, can you define resilience?
A: When I say resilience I mean being stronger in the face of adversity, being more determined, courageous, creative and optimistic.
There are four different kinds of resilience:
The ability to pay attention and motivate yourself to do something that’s difficult.
The ability to invoke positive emotions when you need them, like optimism, curiosity or joy.
The ability to reach out to others for help when you need it. This also means learning to be the kind of person that others are likely to want to support and encourage.
The ability to face physical challenges.
Q: Why is resilience the buzzword of the moment?
A: I think it’s two things. For one, there’s been a focus on resilience research for the last 15 years, giving us more things to talk about within the field of psychology as new findings come out.
I also think it’s because we’re all dealing with so many obstacles today – our health, the economy and the stress that comes with today’s lifestyle. People are realizing that you can’t control everything. You can’t make your life perfect, but you can be the kind of person who, when obstacles pop up or crises hit, has the strength to face them and thrive.
Q: What are the elements of a game (virtual or otherwise) that build resilience?
A: The first thing that all games have in common is that there is a goal – an arbitrary challenge that you are accepting. Games are designed to make it difficult for you to achieve this goal. For anybody playing a game, you’re going to fail 80% of the time (that’s just a typical play rate). In real life, you’d be more than likely to give up with a rate of failure like this. In games, you’re compelled to keep trying because it’s voluntary and you’re liberated from consequence (we’re not embarrassed if we fail, we’re not going to get fired, etc.). This allows us to learn from failure so that we can get better. It encourages us to be more creative, finding new strategies. In real life we need these skills - to have that creativity, to try different strategies, to call in friends, and to not give up at the first sign of failure.
Q: It’s almost like we’re building a muscle...
A: Yes, exactly. But games are also for creating positive emotions. There’s scientific research that shows that if you can experience three positive emotions for every negative emotion, you then develop an emotional resilience that makes you less likely to give up. It also makes you more likeable to other people (so they’ll help you out).
There are lots of things that reliably change your positive emotion ratio. Things like listening to music, cuddling a pet, going for a run, and being outside help. Games are a quick way of putting more minutes in the positive emotion category.
Q: What are some other "real life" sources of positive emotion?
A: In SuperBetter, we have all kinds of suggestions that we call "Powerups".
- One of my favorites is to go high-five a tree. It sounds silly, but what it does is get you outdoors. We know that being in the presence of something living, a plant of any kind, is really good for your health and happiness. You don’t have to go to a nature reserve to get that benefit, so the idea is to boil it down to the smallest thing you can do… Find a tree, high-five it, go back to work.
- Swinging, oddly enough, is also known to build emotional resilience.
- Doing anything that’s slightly difficult for you – brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand – supercharges your willpower.
- If you want to have the most amazing day of your life, send a thank you (call, email, FB, or text) to a different person for every hour that you’re awake in that day. You will be surprised by how amazing it feels.
These aren’t just tips and tricks. Try to mix a little bit of a challenge in there – you’re supposed to have a goal that’s a little bit difficult. Where do I find the nearest tree? What 16 people can I thank?
Q: Is resilience incremental?
A: I wouldn’t say it works incrementally, partly because that’s not how life is. You can’t tackle small injuries until you get the big injury or tackle small unemployment until you get the real unemployment.
It’s essential to build core strengths or abilities and once you have these assets use them to overcome obstacles large and small. You’re learning skills, developing assets and building allies before you face the obstacle – whatever it may be. Strengthen your social relationships today so that if you need some social support in the future, they’re there for you. Learn to feel positive emotions no matter how stressed out you are. You can use these skills no matter what.
Q: How did SuperBetter come about?
A: SuperBetter grew out of my efforts to apply my research on the idea that games make people more resilient. I suffered a traumatic brain injury a few years ago, and wound up inventing this game to help me be more resilient and find all the strength that I needed to overcome the injury.
Screenshots from the computer game and app.
We recently conducted a randomized controlled trial of SuperBetter for depression with the University of Pennsylvania and found that the game was able to eliminate six symptoms of depression in a typical player after six weeks. We’re starting to see that these games really do affect our ability to thrive and be happy in real life.