Do you like playing games?
We play games because they are fun and challenging. Have you ever noticed how motivated you are to finish that one level or defeat that one big boss, no matter how difficult? Have you ever noticed that after you fail, you immediately want to try again? And how excited and determined you are to do so?
Games have that incredible effect on us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we bring this same attitude in our real life tasks we need to get done, problems we need to overcome or make positive changes in our life? This is what the core message of the book Superbetter, it’s about adopting the mindset and attitudes we have in playing games into tackling real life challenges. Superbetter gives us a framework to transform a real life challenge into a game, in seven simple rules.
The author Jane McGongigal is a game designer, she came up with Superbetter after she had a concussion and had a difficult time recovering to the point that she was having suicidal thoughts ( apparently common in people who suffered a concussion). She even made it into an app that you can play on your phone where she created quests and power ups to help with issues like anxiety and depression. The whole book is littered with game quests that the reader could easily do to understand the Superbetter rules better. But what I really took away from the book is the framework, the rules on how, I , myself could create a game out of a real life problem that I have. The concept is intriguing to me, and so I set out to understand them better and summarized them here.
Rule # 1 Challenge yourself
In a game, we always have a mission we need to accomplish. It could be rescuing a princess, escaping a zombie horde, or saving the world. In real life what we have in abundance are problems, everyone has them, it’s seems to be a side effect of living. Your problems maybe be voluntarily chosen, like running a marathon, adopting a new habit, or writing a book you’ve wanted to write for years. Or it could be something involuntary, like a losing a job, overcoming anxiety or recovering from an illness. The type of problem doesn’t make a difference as long as you do one crucial step – that is to view your problem as a challenge.
That’s the secret, viewing a problem as a challenge and not as a threat. When you view a problem as a threat, you view it as an opportunity to be overwhelmed, you focus on the loss and risk, which leads you to more likely react in self defeating ways (like alcohol or drug abuse, chronic procrastination) to avoid dealing it. However, if you view a problem as a challenge, you view it as an opportunity to test your strengths and get better, you will more likely respond in constructive ways, like taking action even in the face of difficulties. In this regard, it’s not really the nature of the challenge that matters but how you view it.
Examples of challenges:
Beating depression, overcoming anxiety, coping with chronic illness or pain, finding a new job, adopting a new habit, developing a talent, improving a skill.
Rule #2 Collect and activate power-ups
In games power ups are objects that give our characters extra boost in life, weapons, or power. In real life power ups are things we can do easily and quickly that can give us a boost either mentally, emotionally or physically. Simply put, power ups are little things we can do that give us joy and makes us feel energized.
Why is this important?
There is a part of our body called the vagus nerve, it stretches from our brain to different parts of our bodies (heart, lungs, ears, stomach). According to several studies the health of the vagus nerve determines how a person’s heart, lungs, and brain responds to stress. The rate of emotions (how many positive emotions you feel in the course of the day compared with how many negative emotions you feel) affects the health of the vagus nerve. Positive and negative emotions affect us physically, and is probably why happier people recover from illness faster, and are more resilient.
Power ups need not be elaborate, they could be simple things like watching videos of baby animals in youtube, a quick hug, playing with your dog or getting some sunlight. It varies from person to person, so you might need to do some experimenting which power ups work for you. When it comes to power ups, frequency matters more than intensity. Every time you activate a power up, you are developing your ability to make yourself feel happier and more energized anytime, anywhere – a skill that comes handy especially when find yourself struggling with your challenge.
Examples of power ups:
Get some sunshine, do a dance break, eat something healthy, do a digital detox, hug yourself, listen to your favorite playlist
Rule # 3 Battle Bad Guys
Bad guys in games are what stands in the way of you being able to complete your mission. In real life bad guys are what holds up your progress and causes you pain, anxiety and distress. Although we may wish to just not have a bad guy in our lives because they make things tougher, the benefit of having them is that they make us stronger, smarter, and more resilient.
So what you need to do first is to identify what your bad guys are. If your challenge is overcoming anxiety, your bad guy might be your negative self talk, if your challenge is trying to lose weight, it might be the that you overeat when you are stressed. Observe yourself carefully and uncover what your bad guys are, if you want you can even name them. This is optional and requires a little imagination, naming your bad guys personifies them, it serves as way to view it separate from you, and also it’s a way to poke a little fun at something that normally we take so seriously.
In the book the examples of the names I liked were Lord Impossibility – this is the voice in your head that says it’s impossible whenever you plan anything good, in my head I have a picture of a haughty English lord with a top hat and a cane when I heard the name, looking down at you. I like the idea of naming your bad guys, it injects a little humor in an otherwise difficult issue. (Other examples of bad guy names: Snuff the tragic dragon – for self pity, Mrs. Volcano – for anger)
Identifying your bad guy is just the first step though, the next steps are coming up with a strategies in dealing with your bad guys, doing battle with them and then succeeding. You need a battle plan when facing a bad guy, you need to come up with multiple strategies ahead of time, so that if one fails, you are not caught unaware and have something else to fall back into during a stressful time.
It’s useful to come up with strategies for
- Avoid – these are prevention measures. What are the ways you can prevent an encounter with a bad guy? Example: not keeping cakes or junk food in the house if you are trying to lose weight.
- Resist – these are things you do when prevention measures fail, this is actively fighting the bad guy. What do you do during encounters. Example: If your bad guy is anger, and you feel the urge to shout, your resist strategy can be taking a walk when you feel angry
- Adapt – these are the long term solution for dealing with bad guys, come up with creative solutions or ask others. Example: If your bad guy is procrastination, you can make a bet with a friend to complete your task before a certain date or you’ll pay him a certain amount of money.
- Challenge – this is about asking yourself if your bad guy really needs slaying in order for you to complete your mission, because you might be surprised that the answer maybe no. That your bad guys might not really have that much power over you. Example: do you really need to feel like doing it to do a task, or can you do it even when you don’t feel like it, or do you really need to feel confident to do something you want or can you do it without feeling confident.
- Convert – this is about transforming a bad guy into a power up. This is like swallowing a magic pill that transforms how you view the bad guy. It may seem difficult at first but it maybe worth the investment. Example: your bad guy maybe be not wanting to go to the gym for exercise, but through just going repeatedly you learned to love going to the gym because you learned that feels so good afterwards.
Try coming up with a plan for each strategy, it will increase your chances of success in the battle. Try to do at least one battle a day, and always power up afterwards. It would help to track what strategies you used, to determine what works and what doesn’t. And for those bad guys that simply won’t go away, the advice is to try just being friends with them, acknowledge their presence and live your life as you normally would have.
Rule # 4 Go on Quests
In games quests are designed for the hero to gain experience, improve his abilities and build up strength and skills. In real life, quests are the action steps you do everyday to move you forward on your goal of winning your chosen challenge. It takes effort and time to win a challenge, it doesn’t happen overnight. It might take days or weeks or even months. Going on quests is a way of building up your strength every day. They are things you can do daily that are, inline with your values, move you closer to your goals, and give you a sense of adventure and curiosity.
Taking on quests is your way to win the day and take a small step towards your goals, which if you’re consistent, creates an upward spiral that will help you eventually win the challenge. When you create your own quest, make them:
Specific – have a clear objective
Meaningful – aligns with your values and helps you with your challenge
Adaptive – achieving this quest moves you in the direction of making you happier, healthier, stronger
Realistic – you can do it given the skills and resources you already have
Time Bound – you can do it in a specified time
You can also make quests fun, just like a viewing an problem as an opportunity to get better, you can view quests as an opportunity to have fun. It all depends on how you frame it, an experiment done by researchers asked participants to solve math problems by telling one group to take a math test and the other group to play a math game. It’s the same exact activity, but the people who were told take a math test procrastinated 60% more than the play a math game group. To help you frame your quests as fun, ask yourself, “what’s enjoyable about this” or “what’s exciting about this”.
Take on a quest a day, it will build up your abilities, strengthen your willpower and most importantly increases your self efficacy. Self-efficacy is the “I can do this feeling”, its when you think that the you can make positive changes in your life. Low self-efficacy leads to procrastination because if you don’t believe that what you will make a difference, you wouldn’t bother trying. Doing one quest a day builds self-efficacy, because one quest done means one small feeling of success, a point in your self-efficacy experience bar added. Over time you gain more self-efficacy points you can take on harder quest and go for epic wins.
When it comes to quests, like power ups, frequency matters more than the size. So it’s okay for your quest to be small or easy, because a quest is a way for you to experience success. When you get better at tackling a quest, you can go for chains of quests – quests that build on each other which gets harder over time.
Rule # 5: Recruit Allies
Recruiting allies means asking others to join you in your game. You can share the game rules with a family member or a friend and ask them to play with you. Allies can help by suggesting quests, power ups or strategies in battling your bad guys.They could also be someone you check in with to share your progress with, and ask advice from. It can also be a great fun to celebrate epic wins with your allies. Allies can be a source of advice and support. However, if you find it hard to ask help from family or friends, you can go online to find people who are taking the same challenge as you are, there are lot of online forums and social media groups you can go to who will understand what you’re trying to do, get advice and support from.
Rule # 6: Adopt a secret identity
In every game we choose an avatar to represent us in a game. In real life, adopting a secret identity is equivalent to us choosing an avatar in real life. Here what we need to do is choose our secret identity and come up with a heroic nickname. You can use fictional or real life heroes as a model, or combine heroic qualities from different people you admire.
Okay, I admit this sounds a little silly, but as children didn’t we all do this, put on blankets on our backs, pretended it’s a cape and run around and pretend to be superheroes? But playful, child-like imagination aside, there are three reasons why adopting a secret heroic identity can do us a great deal of good.
First, is that when we choose a heroic identity, we are choosing to focus on our signature strengths. We all have our core strengths, something we are good at, it differs from person to person. Sometimes though, it’s easier to list our weaknesses rather than our strengths. The heroic identity we choose is the ideal version of us, possessing the strengths we already have and strengths we also aspire to have. Adopting a heroic identity serves as a reminder of that.
Secondly, adopting a heroic identity helps us change our stories. Whether we notice it or not, we are always telling ourselves stories, that’s how we learn about ourselves and about the world. That’s why we are so captivated by books and movies because they tell us a story. When we are going through tough challenges we are telling ourselves a story, sometimes we tell ourselves dis-empowering stories, telling ourselves that we are the victim or there’s nothing we can do. Adopting a heroic character identity changes the story we tell, because the story changes to us being the hero, going through our own heroic journey. We are then now creating our own personal mythology.
Lastly, it’s because adopting a heroic identity will help us practice self-distancing technique that can make us better problem solvers. Self distancing is when we take a step back from viewing our life from our own perspective and then zoom out and view it from a third person perspective, as if what’s happening to us is happening to somebody else. When we self distance we are more likely to view things in a bigger picture, remember our long term goals and help us focus on think of solutions instead of being wrapped up in our own worries. Since a heroic identity is not something we usually adopt, it helps us practice self-distancing. When we find ourselves seemingly out of options, we can use this technique and ask ourselves: “What would my hero do?”
Examples: Jane the Concussion Slayer ( what the author used as a nickname when she was recovering from a concussion
Examples of epic wins: Go 7 days straight without eating sweets, exercise 3 times a week for a month
- When you feel anxious, instead of trying to tell yourself to stay calm, tell yourself that you are excited instead. As it turns out, the feeling of anxiety and excitement in the body is just the same (sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach). This process is called cognitive reappraisal.
- Playing visually stimulating games like Tetris after a traumatic event can lead to less flashbacks and symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in the future.
- Post-traumatic growth is the term used when a traumatic experience eventually leads you to grow and lead a happier life. Post-ecstatic growth on the other hand is enjoying the benefits of post-traumatic growth without going through trauma, by choosing your own challenge.
- Spotlight of theory of attention states that human attention is like a spotlight, that we can only focus on a limited amount of information from among all the information that comes at us. When we play games, our spotlight of attention is on the game that we are playing and so we ignore the other information that comes at us, and that includes pain. A game named Snow World was used by burn patients during their treatments to help with the pain.
- To get motivated, make a prediction about the possible outcome of a task you want to do. It motivates us because it triggers an increase in attention and dopamine as we pay attention to the result, we become highly focused on the reward of learning whether we are right or wrong.
- Psychological flexibility is term used to describe having the courage to face things that are difficult for us, being open to negative experiences.
- Rule # 1 Challenge yourself – pick a problem that you have and turn into a challenge.
- Rule # 2 Collect power ups – do things through out the day that boost your energy and make you feel happy.
- Rule #4 Go on quests – quests are action steps you can do everyday that would move you forward in your challenge. Make them Specific, Meaningful, Adaptive, Realistic and Time bound. Going on quests improves your self-efficacy.
- Rule #5 Recruit allies – ask family, friends or even strangers online to play the game with you and help you with your challenge.
- Rule #6 Adopt a secret identity – choose your secret heroic identity and come up with a heroic nickname. This helps turn your story into a hero’s journey, focus on your strength and develop the skill of self-distancing.
- Rule #7 Go for epic wins – do things that are outside your comfort zone that will change the way you think of yourself. They can be measurable wins, break through moments or sneak up sideways wins.
- Score yourself – keep score of your quests, bad guys, and power ups. To win the day, do 3 power ups, 1 bad guy battle and 1 quest.