Gameful, If Not Playful

“We all sometimes take ourselves and our thoughts too seriously. By reframing things in gameful ways, SuperBetter can help us gain some perspective and separate ourselves from unhelpful thoughts.”

–Ann Marie Roepke

Playfulness has never been my strong suit. I have always felt that the absence of playfulness in my character was a weakness as a mother, and maybe as a human. I am probably less fun because of my serious nature, although I certainly have fun doing the things that are meaningful to me. I have been called rigid and told to lighten up. This is just who I am. So, it was a bit of a stretch for me to purchase and read the book I just finished, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting, Stronger, Healthier, Braver and More Resilient, by Jane McGonigal.

Intrigued by what I heard on NPR, I debated the purchase for a few months because of my admittedly disdainful view of video games and my general disinterest in most forms of “play.” However, each time I saw or heard something about the book, I felt a twinge of curiosity. So, I finally ordered it for Kindle. I finished it Friday night, and I am so glad that I read it.

I read a lot of applied and positive psychology, as well as a great deal of personal and professional development literature. While much of what I read has meaning and value for me, a good portion of it cites the same research and presents similar (worthwhile) ideas in a variety of ways. SuperBetter takes a decidedly fresh approach to growth, development and healing.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer who suffered postconcussion syndrome and battled associated suicidal thoughts by using what she knows about the science of games. While I admit that I struggled a bit with some of the “game” language, and some of the concepts push my comfort level with personal playfulness, I have accepted McGonigal’s challenge to take on three adventures that she outlines at the end of the book. These three adventures are designed to strengthen social connections, improve health and fitness and increase the perception of time affluence. I am interested in growing in all three areas, so I started the social connection challenge yesterday and plan to work through all of them, using McGonigal’s gameful approach, over the next six weeks.

McGonigal refers to “quests,” “bad guys,” “power-ups, “allies,” “secret identities” and “epic wins.” Quests are mini-challenges that take us closer to the epic win of achieving a major goal. Both quests and epic wins increase our sense of self-efficacy, which then fuels our initiative to take on additional challenges. Bad guys are common pitfalls, for which McGonigal suggests scientifically backed battle strategies. Power-ups are simple techniques to energize ourselves or clear our heads. Allies are people in our physical or virtual lives whom we trust to be partners was we face down our challenges. McGonigal’s secret identity during her recovery was Jane the Concussion Slayer. While I recognize the potential helpfulness of objectivity, adopting a secret identity and thinking about myself in the third person doesn’t resonate with me.

I was fascinated, however, by the discussion of post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. McGonigal and her co-researcher Ann Marie Roepke have found that major growth often happens in people’s lives following either very traumatic or very positive events. Either of these circumstances can be life-changing, prompting reconsidered priorities, closer relationships, clarification of purpose and stronger focus. McGonigal teaches a gameful approach to recovering from trauma or working toward a meaningful and challenging goal. Both can result in epic wins.

Cycling provides me countless opportunities to take on quests. Each ride, or even a tough stretch of headwind, gamefully can be considered a quest in pursuit of the epic win of completing another successful BAK or century or of increasing my average speed or even my baseline level of happiness. Cycling helps me battle bad guys like stress, anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, hopelessness and all the negative emotions that threaten my mental and physical health and happiness on any given day. McGonigal has given me some new tools for utilizing cycling to achieve positive results in my life. I also learned power-up strategies and off-bike techniques for battling bad guys. Most of what McGonigal presented really was new to me, and learning it can help me to take a more lighthearted, yet courageous—gameful—approach to facing life’s challenges. I am grateful to have the SuperBetter tools at my disposal.