Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal

Game designer Jane McGonigal, came up with the idea for “SuperBetter”, after she got a concussion. In interviews with Jane, she has described how she struggled to retrieve her focus until she decided to treat her recovery like a game: setting a series of progressive challenges, levels of achievement, with small prizes along the way. Users will be able to pick from a list of challenges—quit smoking, lose weight, recover from heartbreak—and try to accomplish them. Friends or family who have also signed up can act like Toad in the classic game “Super Mario Brothers 3”, and nudge you along.


The latest offering resembles Ms McGonigal’s earlier efforts, such as “World Without Oil” (which allows players virtually to enact events in a world devoid of petrol). All are predicated on the idea that online games can foster offline change, an argument she propounds in her book “Reality is Broken”, which this newspaper reviewed in March.

Computer games, she says, feel in many ways more rewarding than the real world; the tasks are clearer and more manageable, feedback is instantaneous and rewards are quick and plentiful. Management consultants, who have long pondered how best to motivate workers, could do worse than study how Blizzard Entertainment, which develops “World of Warcraft” [a hugely popular online game] keeps its players happy and productive [in the virtual world, at least].

At the same time, they allow players, by definition, to develop a psychological distance from what might otherwise be a daunting situation (slaying trolls, say). This might be especially useful where the challenges are, as in the case of “SuperBetter”, highly personal.

Others have tried using internet-based tools to spur self-improvement—by putting $500 in escrow from where it will go to a despised cause if the player fails to lose ten pounds in three months, for instance. In many ways, Ms McGonigal has taken the opposite tack. Whether her virtual carrots always work better than real pecuniary sticks is debatable. Different people respond to different stimuli. It might not be entirely coincidental that this idea comes from a female designer.

A few months ago this blog argued that there is an unintentional gender bias in geosocial networking, which is why those services have less uptake among women than men. That is in contrast to, for example, Facebook, which actually draws more activity from women (see Johanna Blakley’s TED talk for more on the subject). A number of commenters considered that line of argument, well, sexist. It might be worth adding that unlike the blog’s patron, this Babbage (who wrote that post) is a woman, and clearly opposed to sexism. That is not to say that there are no historical, sociological, or cultural circumstances which, for better or worse, mean that women sometimes have different perspectives or experiences than men do.

The argument transcends gender, though. Douglas Edwards, formerly Google’s 59th employee, argued in a recent interview that one factor which constrains the company is that most of its employees are hyper-rational types (not just men, mind you), making it difficult to understand how most folk (or as he puts it, “irrational people”; again, not just women) will feel about things like targeted e-mail advertising, for example. In other words, the more Ms McGonigals, the merrier.

Via The Economist