When you think of video games, the impression probably isn’t good: mindless button-pushing, no socializing, wasting time. Game designer Jane McGonigal is out to prove that just isn’t so.
The U.S. has an estimated gamer population of 183 million. That’s not an anomaly, and neither are the reasons we play. McGonigal challenged the perception of who a gamer is in her previous book, “Reality Is Broken."
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This time around with “SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games,”she investigates the science of gaming using over 500 studies, and how to turn it into a tool for living a better life.
“SuperBetter looks at about 20 years’ worth of scientific research about how games change the way we respond to stress and challenge,” she tells Metro. “Playing games regularly actually helps us build and practice psychological strengths that are really important when we’re facing tough obstacles in our real lives.”
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In fact, McGonigal makes the case for games’ role in helping the most vulnerable in society. She designed the game to recover from her own traumatic brain injury in 2009, and people have used it to deal with problems ranging from anxiety to chronic pain and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
We asked her how picking up a controller can put more control of our real lives.
The opposite of play
When we think of games as a way to waste time, it’s easy to say the opposite of that is working. But McGonigal says that, in fact, it’s depression. “When we’re playing, we activate the parts of the brain associated with willpower, motivation and optimism,” she says.
Think about what is actually the opposite of that — lethargy, not feeling like you can change anything — and it begins to shift your perspective.
Cultivate the challenge mindset
Gaming naturally puts you in the challenge mindset. One of the “SuperBetter” exercises is to think of the biggest problem you’re facing, then imagine the worst possible reaction to it. For example: “I lost my job, so I will turn to a life of crime.” Now think of the opposite of that least helpful response: “I will turn to a life of crime.”/“I will turn to a life of service.” You’ve just taken back agency, realized you have options and given yourself a new goal.
Bridge the worlds
When your progress in a game is measured by how much time you put in instead of what you get out, it can become toxic. “The No. 1 thing you can do for yourself or a loved one is to make sure that you’re able to identify the connections between the game and everyday life,” says McGonigal. “If you see games as nothing more than a distraction, you’re more likely to use them to avoid your real problems.”
If you’re dealing with someone who may have an issue with gaming, instead of criticizing, try talking to them about the skills, strengths and abilities they may be developing, then ask them to consider if those assets would help them in real life.
Real world bonding
Many of the benefits of gaming come from their social aspect — so if you want to be better friends with someone, try playing together. “We know that if you play a game in the same physical space with someone, you experience a lot of interesting mind-body synchronization,” says McGonigal.
Within about 10 minutes, gamers’ heart rates synch up, breathing patterns become similar, and facial expressions, body language and even brain waves mirror each other. “Video game play is a particularly extreme form of synchronization, because you are trying to get inside the mind of another player — whether you’re cooperating or competing, you’re constantly trying to anticipate their actions.” This has been shown — by years of research — to increase compassion, empathy and willingness to offer help.