A game that heals: Jane McGonigal at TEDGlobal 2012

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Jane McGonigal

A list of regrets

Jane McGonigal is a gamer, so she likes to have goals and special missions. For this talk, her goal is to increase the lifespan of everyone in the audience by 7.5 minutes. Our secret mission: How will we spend these bonus minutes?

(To back that up, she has math! Well, science, that she explains as she goes through. It’s all collected here.)

The audience could reasonably expect that she’ll want us to spend it playing games. In her first TEDTalk, she did suggest that we should spend 21 billion hours a week playing games. Because of that, the number-one comment she’s received is, “On your deathbed are you really going to wish you’d spent more time playing Angry Birds?” Or recently a cab driver, on finding out that she was a game designer, said, “I hate games, a waste of life. Imagine getting to the end of your life and regretting all that time.”

She’s been thinking about that idea a lot. “On our deathbeds, will we regret the time we spent playing games?”

Well, hospice workers have released a report on the most frequently expressed regrets on actual deathbeds.

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  2. I  wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  3. I wish I had let myself be happier.
  4. I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.
  5. I wish I had lived a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

McGonigal can’t help but note that games let us fulfill all five of these.

Jane McGonigal

The first is mostly about family — games are an extraordinarily good way to build family bonds and spend time together.

To the second point, friends, she notes that one of the main ways we use games now is to stay in touch with friends, especially through social games such as Farmville and Draw Something. Games are incredibly powerful relationship-management tools.

For happiness, research shows that online games outperform pharmaceuticals for treatment of depression and anxiety, just by playing 30 minutes a day.

To point #4, games have always been a way to explore and exhibit our true selves. In recent development, avatars are the way, and Stanford research has shown how idealized avatars change how we act in real life, making us more confident.

Finally, the fifth is a question mark. (McGonigal, of course, uses a Super Mario question mark.)

Who is she to tell us this?

McGonigal is not a hospice worker, or a researcher, but she recently spent three months in bed wanting to die. She hit her head and had a major concussion, which didn’t heal properly, producing headaches, vertigo and mental fog. A doctor told her that to recover she would need to rest with “No reading, writing, videogames, work, email, running, alcohol, or caffeine.” That meant, “No Reason to Live.” It’s a joke (and the audience is laughing wither her), but it’s also quite serious. Suicidal ideation is common with brain injuries, and it happened to her. A voice in her head was saying the pain would never end, and she started to fear for her life. So she said, “I am either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game.”

She called the game “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” She called her twin sister, asking her to be an ally in the game. “This was,” said McGonigal, “an easier way to ask for help.” Her husband joined next, and together they battled bad guys — anything that could trigger symptoms, like bright lights and crowded rooms. They also collected power-ups, anything she could do to create a little improvement, like cuddle her dog or walk around the block. Even with so simple a game, after just a few days, the fog went away: “It felt like a miracle.” It wasn’t, of course, a miracle cure. The other symptoms, the headaches and vertigo, lasted for a year, but even when they were present she had stopped suffering.


She put up some videos and blog posts, and renamed the game SuperBetter. And then she started hearing from people around the world who were using it to deal with everything from cancer to Crohn’s disease to ALS. People talked about feeling stronger and braver and feeling better understood by friends and family. McGonigal wondered, “How could a game so trivial intervene so powerfully? In some cases, life or death.”

There’s research here. “Some people get stronger and happier after a traumatic event. These people were experiencing what scientists call post-traumatic growth.”

Since she started SuperBetter, she’s found people say things like:

  1. My priorities have changed.
  2. I feel closer to my friends and family.
  3. I understand myself better. I know who I really am now.
  4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose.
  5. I’m better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

These, notes McGonigal, are the opposite of the top five regrets, “Somehow a traumatic event can unlock an ability to live a life without regret.” How can we make this happen intentionally? Even better, how can we make it happen without the trauma? McGonigal went to the literature, and found ways to do it.

Jane McGonigal

There are four strengths you need to work on. She gives us four quests.

Quest 1. “Stand up and take three steps, or make your hands into fists and raise them over your head for 5 seconds. Worth +1 physical resilience. It turns out the best thing you can do for physical health is not sit still. (The whole audience raises their arms, and she notes some who did both: “Overachievers, I like that.”)

Quest 2. “Snap your fingers 50 times, or count backward from 100 by sevens.” That’s worth +1 mental resilience, which gives more focus and willpower. The research shows that those are both like muscles, and get better the more they’re exercised.

Quest 3. “If you’re inside, find a window and look out of it, or if you’re outside, find a window and look in. Or think of a baby [your favorite animal] and do a Google or YouTube search for it.” This gives +1 emotional resilience. She suggests you try to experience three positive emotions for every one negative — that improves your ability to respond to any challenge.

Quest 4. “Shake someone’s hand for 6 seconds or send someone a quick text, e-mail, thanking them.” That gives +1 social resilience. A great way to increase social resilience is gratitude. (By this point, the audience is incredibly loose and happy. It seems to be working.)

McGonigal has one last bit of science. “People who regularly boost all four kinds of resilience live 10 years longer than everyone else.” That’s where she gets the seven minutes she’s just granted us.

Our mission, says McGonigal, is how to spend them? Like a genie’s wish, you can wish for a million more wishes. So use the minutes to keep earning more. And if you do, she says, you won’t have any of those regrets, because you’ll have built up your resilience.

The raises to a massive standing ovation.

McGonigal’s collection of science references >>

Watch her talk from TED2010: Gaming Can Make a Better World >>

Read a Q&A with the TED Blog >>

Play SuperBetter >>

Photos: James Duncan Davidson