< Six Weeks of Superbetter

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In September, we had game designer Jane McGonigal on our show to talk about Superbetter, a game she designed to help her recovery from a traumatic brain injury. As McGonigal put it:

JANE McGONIGAL:

Think of it as a kind of a recovery adventure game. Then we take you on a series of seven missions to identify your “power-ups.” So these are things that you can do every day to feel stronger or feel better. We identify the “bad guys,” which are things that you need to avoid. We help you pick “allies,” so close friends and family members that you want to go on this adventure with you. And then we help you think about an “epic win.” So what would be a really positive outcome, not just getting back to normal, but something at the end of it that would be even better than normal, that would feel like a real accomplishment. And once you've identified all of that, friends and family can help you take some of the helplessness or hopelessness out of what can be a really difficult process.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It just so happened that six months ago OTM producer Alex Goldman was knocked off his bike and run over by a car. Alex was, frankly, pretty depressed, limping, experiencing lots of pain and unable or afraid to ride his beloved bike.

We asked Alex to give Superbetter a try and blog about it on our site. That blog, by the way, has been terrific. Anyway, his “epic win” was to get back on the bike and do a lap, about three and a half miles, around Brooklyn's Prospect Park. So Alex, how was it?

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Well, to be perfectly honest, the process was really hard. One of the things I hate to do more than anything in the world is to ask for help. And the way that Superbetter is designed is it’s very explicitly set up so that you get allies who are close friends, or in my case, I recruited a bunch of listeners. And you have to constantly ask them to be mindful of your progress, to help you think of ways that you can improve your situation and reach your epic win. So in that respect, it was really difficult.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

We also have Jane who is one of your allies. Jane, welcome back to the show.

JANE McGONIGAL:

I actually enjoyed being Alex’s ally.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

I felt really awesome, so it might have been hard for you but it was really fun to be able to have the chance to help somebody, you know, reach their goal.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

The flip side of the fact that it was really difficult was that it was also really nice to have people sort of hold me accountable, because the behavior I’d developed after the accident was just to sit around and play video games and feel sorry for myself. Having people try and push me toward behavior that actually made me feel better was really super helpful. And Jane, you were one of those people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

One thing that we heard in that tape from Jane earlier is that you have to identify your bad guys, the things that hold back  your progress.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Stuff like not socializing, staying up super late and not really getting anything done.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Junk food.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Junk food. [LAUGHS]

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

Generally things that kept me sedentary and lethargic and unhappy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, so the quests that you were given involved vanquishing those bad guys. How successful was that?

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Well, I set quests for myself, which were things like walking to a subway stop which was a little further away than the, the one I usually go to, going out and socializing twice a week, things that pushed me toward both health physically and health mentally.

But the real reward of the game is that my allies actually came up with sort of very creative and interesting quests.

JANE McGONIGAL:

The quest that I thought was absolutely the coolest – I’m not sure which of your allies proposed it -- you had to go out to buy something for your wife and buy something for your cat.

And you had to walk. I thought that was really cool because I think it tapped into a real motivation you would have, which, you know, you love your cat, you love your wife. Like yeah, you’ll be motivated to go and get them something and bring it back, instead of say maybe just having to, you know, “do exercise.” It sort of tied into your social motivation and not just the physical side of it.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Yeah, those were actually really smart quests because they had me doing something in which I would get a reward at the end automatically-

JANE McGONIGAL:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]

ALEX GOLDMAN:

- because my cats and my wife would both be happier when I got them flowers or a cat toy,  respectively.

[LAUGHTER]

And it also sort of promoted me doing something that would be a net benefit for my injury.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, but let's stipulate that Alex also had some serious complaints about how the game was structured. And, and one thing that bothered you the most, Alex, was the resilience score which is essentially the point tally that's supposed to mark your progress. You didn't feel like they were measuring anything.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Well, you get resilience points for say logging into Superbetter or completing a quest or vanquishing a bad guy or using a power-up. So at the end I had like 167 points. But 167 points out of what? How does that compare to you other Superbetter players?

So what I thought would be valuable in terms of making the resilience points more worthwhile in the game would be to have like Superbetter leader boards, where there are people who’ve been playing for X amount of time, they have X amount of points, or some kind of leveling system, where if you reach a certain amount of points you go to another level and then you become more powerful or you have more options.

Jane, you mentioned that there was a leveling system in the works, right?

JANE McGONIGAL:

Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah. I mean, one of the cool things, Alex, that you’re sort of playing in our closed beta right now. We have about 5,000 people getting Superbetter as a way for us to learn more about the game, to make sure that things like the resilience score mean something, you know, that you're actually getting better in quantifiable ways.

So when you started playing, the only thing that we knew for sure is that people report feeling stronger at around 150 points. That was the main thing that we had observed. The next version of the resilience score, which will be out when we do a full public launch in March, will have four elements. So it’ll be tracking mental resilience, social resilience, emotional resilience and physical resilience.

We'll also be doing a leveling up system that will help us, you know, be able to show people their progress and their mastery.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, I want to raise Alex's other complaint, the lack of punishment in the game. In a regular video game you don't just progress. You also suffer setbacks, you lose points. You die a thousand deaths. Alex missed that.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

‘Cause at this particular moment the way the game’s set up is everything I record is some kind of victory. There's no way to record a defeat. And in this situation, there’s a lot of defeats. It’s a very incremental “two steps forward, one step back” kind of situation, trying to overcome something as difficult as being run over [LAUGHS] by a car.

That said, I totally understand that when you're building a game out to - help people recuperate from an illness, you don’t want to build too much [LAUGHS] negativity into it.

JANE McGONIGAL:

Right. So one of the features that we've been building out is the bad guy feature, So right now you report battles with bad guys, but you can't actually report whether you felt like you lost it or you won the battle.

So that's one of the features that we've designed into the next version. So you actually will be able to report when you've lost a battle. And the resilience score, your actual score on a day-to-day basis, if you're not using your skills regularly, your score does go down. So you do have to stay fully engaged.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This was a six-week project. And Jane, you told us that often people set a time of six weeks in order to achieve their epic win. Alex, you did it. You went around the park. Did it feel epic?

ALEX GOLDMAN:

You know, I went into this thinking okay, this is gonna be a game in which I get points for doing things like leg exercises. It's going to be very physical based and I'm going to get quantifiable rewards, based on sort of physical activity than I do that’ll improve me.

What I didn't expect was the actual focus, which turned out to be much more about emotional and mental health than it was about physical health. I’d say that a lap around the park is much more symbolic than it is sort of a physical recuperative triumph because it's - it was just the first time I'd gotten back on my bike and ridden it outside, which has been really difficult and terrifying for me.

So I'd say that yeah, it was epic. It was epic, just not in the way that I expected going into it.

JANE McGONIGAL:

I have to say personally, as Alex’s ally, really realizing how big a challenge this is and, and what an extreme ordeal it is that he's been through, I personally got goose bumps, you know, hearing him talk about being able to go out and get back on that bike.

I want to thank Alex for being a part of this process. You know, the beta process for a game is a period of intense learning. And it's really great to be able to iterate on your design with feedback from really smart and engaged players. The next version is like-

[ALEX LAUGHS]

-completely sick. It’s amazing, by the way. [LAUGHS]

[LAUGHTER]

When you earn your power-up, you’re gonna be able to see a real time feed of all the power-ups that other players are adding. Like if you’re doing it for depression, you’ll see all the power people are having for depression. There’s going to be a global map of people achieving the epic wins. It’ll be a lot more social, and it’s gonna be pretty rad, I have to say.

And if anybody else wants to play, there is a secret code that you can share with On the Media listeners, which is sochofriend, S-O-C-H-O-F-R-I-E-N-D. If anybody wants to get in and play now before the public launch, that’s the secret code that they can enter on the website.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

How secret is that?

ALEX GOLDMAN:

It’s not gonna be that much –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You just put it out to a million listeners!

[OVERTALK]

ALEX GOLDMAN:

It’s not gonna be a secret anymore.

[LAUGHTER]

JANE McGONIGAL:

Well, you know, it’s a secret to everyone who doesn’t listen to the show.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Alex, thanks very much.

ALEX GOLDMAN:

Thank you.

JANE McGONIGAL:

Congratulations, Alex.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

If you want to read Alex's blog entries about playing Superbetter, just follow the Superbetter link on the front page at onthemedia.org. Jane, thanks to you too.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

JANE McGONIGAL:

Sure, my pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jane McGonigal is the designer of Superbetter and the author of Reality is Broken:  Why Games Can Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.