Book Review: “Superbetter” by Jane McGonigal

Superbetter by Jane McGonigal

I’ve been following McGonigal’s career with admiration for many years now. From her groundbreaking doctoral work on Puppetmastery [2, 3] through her pivotal Reality is Broken (2011) [4], her work has been exciting, deep, and thoroughly researched. How can I not love someone who loves to cite literature from many differnt fields as much as I do?

As everyone who has followed McGonigal knows, her career took a big swerve as described in Reality is Broken (2011) when she suffered a debilitating concussion, and a long, difficult recovery. This struggle to save her own life forced her to dig deep and discover that she could use what she know about the psychology of game design to fight her way through.

The basic insight is that the principles of game design can be used in ordinary life. She calls this living “gamefully”. She used this to step by step get her life back together, recruit allies, and beat off “bad guys”, including depression and pain. Furthermore, as she recovered, she dug into the science of these processes, to draw connections and understand why this approach works. Brava!

Sensei McGonigal is not someone to leave something as important as this lying on the table: she has spent that last few years creating and studying what she calls the “Superbetter Game”. This new book explains the whole package, with extensive explanation of how it works, why it works, and the science that supports these claims.

Great stuff!

I grant you that vast swaths of this book are rather Oprahish, filled with autobiography and gripping stories of people struggling with problems, and using Superbetter to get better and achieve their own dreams. She also include a hundred or more insets that are “try it yourself” exercises.

This literary form is not my cup of tea normally, so the book was more than a bit of a slog at points.

But, as I already said, there is science here. So listen up, Bob. Sensei McGonigal knows what she is talking about, you might learn something.

And what she tells us is believable, not least because she shows how it ties to fairly solid theory and practice. She is particularly fond of metaanalytic studies, which is certainly persuades me more than personal testimony. Still, even though I basically ignored the exercises, and have no intention of actually playing the Superbetter Game (at least at this time), just reading McGonigal was inspiring.   I found myself thinking about my own aspirations, relationships, and behavior, with a new understanding of how life works, and things I should try to do.

I think it is important and valuable to try to put McGonigal in perspective with other good literature that is emerging digital life and its effects on humans.

In general, McGonigal is relentlessly optimistic and positive (about everything), and she has grown up digital, and in fact, grown up digital gaming, and has studied gaming and game design. She knows digital gaming inside and out.

The Superbetter Game itself doesn’t require computers, but it is built on the principles that drive video games: the addictive and positive psychological benefits of incremental “quests”, scorekeeping, allies, and occasional “epic wins” make video games “work”. McGonigal shows us how to make them work in lots of ways, not necessarily digital.

It is interesting how McGonigal  looks at the same literature as, say, Greenfield [5] and sees a glass more than half full. Fortunately, McGonigal is not some half ignorant Silicon Valley “disruptophile”, she is a careful researcher, aware of the literature, and conducts her own empirical research. So we have to take her very seriously.

One of the crucial points McGonigal makes is that playing video games, per se, is not necessarily good (or bad) for you. Much depends on how gaming is framed. In particular, someone who plays games (computer or otherwise) to avoid or escape problems is likely to have trouble. But someone who plays games because they invigorate, or connect with friends or family, or learn things; he or she will benefit from the game time, and the benefits will extend beyond the game itself.

I would say that this principle is true for many other digital “addictions”, including social networks, connectivity, and so on.

Another principal that McGonigal considers is the key components that create game “addiction”, the incremental reinforcement, and relentless ratcheting up of challenges. She points out that this can build self-efficacy and opportunities for social reinforcements, which are very, very good for you. And the “ratcheting” of game goals is exactly the right thing to do if you want to build skill or pursue a goal.

I can also see how tying these benefits into a “gameful” package creates a not-completely-serious comic book like saga, in which you (literally) are the hero of your life. I’m not sure this is good for everyone (politicians and other bullies usually need quite a bit less heroic storytelling, IMO), but I can’t think of anything that would be better therapy.

Notably, the Superbetter Game, even the digital version, is definitely not a “together alone” thing, a la Sherry Turkle (who I’ll have to return to in another post). One of the real keys to the Superbetter Game is the recruitment of “allies”, and framing the process of asking and receiving “help” into the context of “playing a game together”.   This is a clever “trick”, which conceals some deep insights into the tricky business of caregiving and dependency. We desperately want to help our loved ones, but often don’t know how to do so, or to even talk about it. If Superbetter greases those gears, it’s seriously useful.

And, by the way, Sensei McGongal is pretty clear that the strongest benefits accrue from face-to-face, close enough to touch, human interaction. Some things are amenable to mindsharing a la Zoref [6], but generally speaking, you need real, physical people in your life—and they need you.

This book is essential reading, IMO.

Brava, Susan McGonigal, brava!


  1. Jane McGonigal, Superbetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  2. McGonigal, Jane Evelyn, This Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, in Performance Studies. 2006, University of California, Berkeley: Berkeley.
  3. McGonigal, Jane, Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming, in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, K. Salen, Editor. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2008, 199–227.
  4. Jane McGonigal, Jane, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, New York, Penguin Press, 2011.
  5. Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, New York, Random House, 2015.
  6. Zoref, Lior, Mindesharing: The Art of Crowdsourcing Everything, New York, Penguin, 2015.


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