SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games - Jane McGonigal (2015)
Part 2. How to Be Gameful
Chapter 9. Allies
How to Be Gameful Rule 5
Recruit your allies—friends and family members who will help you along the way.
The advice in this chapter is based on a simple “aha!” moment I had when I was recovering from my concussion: It’s hard to be vulnerable and ask for help with a serious problem. But it’s easy to invite someone else to play a game.
After all, we do it all the time. Collectively, we spend more than a billion hours a week playing video games with our friends and family.1 We spend even more hours playing cards, board games, and sports together.2
The ease with which we invite each other to play is the key to feeling more connected and getting more social support when we need it most.
Having social support makes it easier for us to achieve our goals. It’s not just that our friends and family help us directly by offering their time, advice, or resources. Medical research shows that our bodies respond to social support in dramatic ways, getting stronger and more resilient every time someone helps us.
Every time you get support from someone—an encouraging word, a shared laugh, a hug, a satisfying conversation, a gesture of kindness, a few minutes of fun together—the following things happen:
· Your stress levels go down, as measured by a drop in cortisol, the stress hormone.
· Your immune system is bolstered. Wounds heal faster, you catch fewer colds, and you even fight diseases like cancer more effectively.
· Your heart literally gets stronger. In fact, your whole cardiovascular system works more efficiently, with lower blood pressure and a decreased heart rate.3
No matter what challenge you’re facing, this kind of physical resilience helps you have more strength and energy to achieve your goals.
And let’s not forget the immediate and very practical benefits of social support: the resources your allies can provide, whether it’s words of wisdom, ideas, information, supplies, introductions, a spare hand, a fresh perspective, or just good company.
Social support also potentially gives you more time on this planet to pursue your biggest dreams. A meta-review of 163 different studies of social support and mortality found that increasing the number of positive social interactions you have each day extends your life expectancy as much as giving up a pack-a-day cigarette habit or reaching a healthy weight.4 (That is, on average, it adds just over six years to your life expectancy.)
But what if you’re naturally introverted or a very private person? What if you have fewer close friends and family than you’d like? The good news is that you don’t need an extroverted or outgoing personality to achieve a strong sense of social support. And you don’t need a large group of friends who you feel comfortable sharing your problems with. Having just one or two allies makes a huge difference. Scientists define a true ally, or strong social tie, as someone you can speak to honestly about your stress and challenges and whom you believe you could ask for help with a serious problem.5
Of course, knowing how beneficial it can be to ask for help and to speak honestly about your challenges doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do. I know this firsthand. When I was dealing with my biggest personal challenge, the long recovery from concussion, I was scared to tell others how much I was hurting. And I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone by asking for help. I felt this way even about the people closest to me, like my husband and my twin sister. So how did I do it?
In this chapter, you’ll learn to share your challenge and ask for support gamefully. You’ll discover how the seven gameful rules actually make it easier for friends and family members to know exactly what to do to help you—by bringing you a power-up, helping you resist a bad guy, or completing a quest with you. You’ll develop the skills to cultivate connectedness when you need it most—not by asking for help, but by inviting others to play and to team up with you on cooperative missions and adventures.
It’s not just easier to recruit allies this way. It actually makes your relationships stronger. As we’ve seen in countless studies in this book already, when you play a game with someone, you build the positive emotions, the mirror neurons, and the lasting trust necessary to truly be there for each other. You’ll be surprised how much positive impact this will have not just on you but also on the people you invite to be your allies.
As one SuperBetter player, who was invited to help his brother play for depression, explains: “We talk in SuperBetter-ese now. We say things like ‘That sounds like a bad guy’ or ‘You should add that as a power-up.’ We didn’t have words to talk about this stuff before. Now I have words to put to goals he has. It makes a big difference. I honestly had no idea before what I could say or do to help him. Now I do.”
When it comes to social support, I often think of the wisdom of one of my favorite storytellers, G. K. Chesterton: “There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.” Even if you think you’re not the kind of person who can ask for help, you can make an ally. This chapter will show you how.
But first let’s take a quick look at the top five reasons why it’s so much easier to get superbetter with at least one ally by your side.
The Top Five Ways Your Allies Can Help
Our SuperBetter players have teamed up with allies all over the world. They’ve joined forces with friends and family, coworkers and coaches, doctors and therapists, teachers and online buddies.
I asked them what their allies do for them that helps the most. Here are the top five ways they say their allies give them extra strength and motivation, week in and week out.
1. My ally suggests a quest.
“Sometimes I get stuck thinking up my own quests, so I ask my allies, including my kids, for new ideas. Plus, if my allies tell me to do something, I always make more of an effort. I don’t want to let them down.”—Mark, forty-nine, whose challenge is getting fit for fifty
2. We activate a power-up together.
“My allies know what all my power-ups are, and they’ve been conspiring behind my back to make sure that at least one of them activates a power-up with me every day. Literally, they made a schedule. It’s really sweet.” —Sarah, nineteen, whose challenge is discovering life after soccer (and dealing with postconcussion syndrome)
3. We brainstorm strategies for a bad guy.
“There are days where I feel like there is no possible way I can win against the bad guys. If I’m having one of those days, I can just say to my favorite ally, my sister, ‘I’m stuck in the Void of Guilt. Help!’” —Regina, thirty, whose challenge is overcoming the working mom blues
4. We have a daily or weekly “debrief” or check-in.
“Every day I look forward to telling my boyfriend what I’ve done to get superbetter. I tell him which quests I completed, which power-ups I activated, and which bad guys I battled. It motivates me to do more and try harder, because I know he wants to hear good news. But if I tell him I did zero quests, activated zero power-ups, and spent all day getting beat up by the bad guys, I know he’ll give me a little extra attention and care that night. He seems to have a much easier time understanding what I’m feeling when I put it in simple game terms.” —Maisie, twenty-eight, whose challenge is finishing her Ph.D.
5. We celebrate an epic win together.
“Most of my allies are online friends. They helped me plan a Day of Chris celebration for after I achieved my first big goal, which was to walk one hundred miles total. I’ve been adding up fifteen-minute walks after each meal, which is a big part of managing my blood sugar and staying healthy with diabetes. It took me three months to reach my epic win. As I got closer, my allies started encouraging me to spend a whole day celebrating my hard work by doing just things I love. I took photos of how I spent the Day of Chris to share with them.” —Chris, thirty-one, whose challenge is having a strong mind and body
You’re starting to get a better idea of just how allies can help you get superbetter. Before you start recruiting your own, let’s warm up your social muscles.
It turns out that just thinking about getting help or giving help can give your social resilience a boost. To find out how, try this quest!
QUEST 33: Imagine That!
It’s time to tap the power of your imagination.
What to do: Take a minute right now to consider three fictional scenarios. Each one asks you to imagine yourself facing a very unusual challenge. You’ll need to pick one person who you would join forces with as you tackle each hypothetical challenge. The scenarios are fictional, but the person you pick should be real, someone you already know and are close to in everyday life.
There’s just one rule for this quest: you must pick a different person for each scenario. It’s no fair calling on the same ally for all three crazy challenges! At the end of this quest, you should have a total of three different people in mind.
What if you draw a blank and can’t think of anyone you could ask for help in these situations? That’s okay—just flip the scenarios around. Imagine that someone you know—someone specific—is facing the crazy challenge, then think about what you would do to help. (When it comes to boosting social resilience, thinking about how you could become an ally for someone else is as beneficial as imagining someone else being an ally for you!)
These scenarios are silly on purpose, so don’t take them too seriously. Just pretend for a moment, and let your imagination take hold! (A special thanks to game designer Chelsea Howe, currently creative director for Electronic Arts Mobile, for creating these crazy scenarios with me.)
Scenario 1: Oh no! A meteor struck planet Earth, and its cosmic rays have turned millions of people into mutants with unpredictable superpowers. Guess what? You are now one of those mutants with superpowers. You’re pretty sure you can figure out a way to use them for good. But in the meantime the government is after you.
Who can you trust with your secret? Who will you tell the truth to about your superpowers? Who can help you figure out what to do with them?
Pick one Mutant Superpower ally now.
Scenario 2: Uh-oh! The local chocolate factory exploded! A raging river of delicious chocolate has covered your home and everything in it. Fortunately, the elves who run the factory have a plan to clean up the mess: they’re going to eat all the chocolate themselves—yum! Unfortunately, it will take them at least a week to eat it all.
Who is the person geographically closest to you who you could stay with, or at least borrow clothes and other useful things from, until all the chocolate is cleaned up? Or, if your house is the first to be cleaned up, who is the first person who lives near you, who you will offer clothes or a place to stay?
Pick one Chocolate Mudslide ally now.
Scenario 3: Whoa! Your eccentric, long-lost aunt Zelda just left you one million dollars in her will. If you spend it all by next Tuesday, you’ll inherit a billion dollars. But there’s a catch: you have to spend the first million without accumulating a single worldly possession, and you can’t give the money away or donate it to charity.
Aunt Zelda’s will stipulates that you can enlist only one person’s help in spending the first million. If you tell anyone else what you’re up to, the money goes to her cat. Who do you enlist as your coconspirator, as you try to unlock the billion dollars? Who would be able to help you come up with a winning strategy? Who would you have the most fun with as you blow through the first million dollars?
Pick one Million Dollar Spree ally now.
Why it works: When you vividly imagine fictional scenarios like the ones in this quest, you activate important social emotions like gratitude, empathy, trust, and compassion—all emotions that make you more likely to get and give support in the future.
Now that you’ve completed this quest, you’ve not only sparked some helpful social emotions, you’ve also identified three potential allies to recruit for your game. (Or perhaps, you’ve identified three people you’d like to become an ally to!) So let’s talk more about exactly what an ally does.
This SuperBetter story captures the ally experience perfectly—much to the surprise of its hero, Alex, who never wanted any allies in the first place.
A SuperBetter Story: The Reluctant Hero
Alex Goldman, thirty, a public radio show producer who lives in New York City, is the last person you’d ever expect to recruit allies. “There’s nothing in the world I hate more than asking for help,” he told me on the air, when we chatted on his radio show in late 2011.
Alex is an avid bike rider, but in the summer of 2011, he suffered a terrible accident when he was knocked off his bike and run over by a car. “I had multiple fractures in my leg,” he recounted, “and I needed two surgeries to fix them. After my first surgery, I spent three weeks with rods and clamps drilled into the bones in my leg. I had a second surgery to remove them, and then I spent six weeks on crutches.”6
Even after he started walking again, Alex faced a long road to recovery. “I walk with a limp now, and every step is pretty painful,” he said. “My leg swells up in the afternoons. I can’t do any of the exercise I used to do, especially riding my bike. The medical professionals looking at my injury have not been all that clear about whether this is permanent or not. As you can imagine, this has left me incredibly depressed.”
Alex turned to SuperBetter during this difficult time. I spoke with him on air before he started playing, to go over the rules. He was convinced that recruiting allies would be the toughest part of the game for him, harder even than running a marathon on his broken leg! But when we spoke again, six weeks later, he had not only achieved his first epic win—a three-mile bike ride around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park—but to his great surprise, he also had a whopping eleven allies by his side when he did it.
How did he get from refusing to ask anyone for help, ever, to being surrounded by friends and coworkers cheering him on?
It started slowly, with just two allies—his wife, Sarah, and his colleague PJ. He told them about his goal and asked them to spend the next six weeks helping him achieve it. To break the ice, he showed Sarah and PJ his list of bad guys: “Stuff like not socializing, staying up really late but not getting anything done, junk food, generally things that kept me sedentary and lethargic and unhappy.” Then he shared his power-up list: “Anything that would get me physically moving or interacting with other people.” With PJ at work and Sarah at home, he had someone around essentially 24/7 to help him keep moving and avoid succumbing to the bad guys.
Alex admitted that he never would have asked for this much help on his own. “To be quite honest, the process was hard for me,” he said, “even though the game rules made it easier. But the flip side of it being really difficult was that it was also really nice to have people hold me accountable. The behavior I’d developed after the accident was just to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Having people trying to push me to behavior that would make me feel better was superhelpful.”
Once Alex saw the advantages of having allies, he decided to expand his circle of support. But he didn’t feel comfortable talking to other friends or colleagues yet about his challenges. So he turned to online discussion forums and social media. As an avid player of Team Fortress 2, a popular online team-based shooter game, Alex felt comfortable recruiting allies from a pool of strangers online. Soon a dozen allies he’d never met in real life were sending him ideas for power-ups, bad guy strategies, and quests. They also helped him decide on the epic win he would try to achieve: getting back on his bicycle and riding one lap (or three miles) around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
“I suppose this is a bit of a no-brainer, but I was shocked at how motivating it is to have other people designing quests for me,” Alex said. “The quests my allies have given me have been much more interesting and enlightening than anything I’ve come up with myself.” His favorite one required him to buy his wife a flower and purchase two new toys for his cats. The twist: he had to travel to the flower shop and pet store on foot, ensuring he would get some physical exercise. “This suggestion was very smart, because I’m much more motivated to make my wife and cats happier than I am to do my own physical therapy,” he said. He reported it “a huge success—I not only achieved my physical activity goal for the day, my cats and wife are looking at me like I’m their hero.”
Alex also appreciated an ally who sent him a fifteen-dollar gift certificate to a bar near Prospect Park, with instructions to enjoy a beer—but only if he completed a lap of the park on foot first. It was more great motivation to get out and work toward his epic win.
Having allies and completing quests started to make a real difference in how Alex was feeling every day. As he described in The SuperBetter Diaries, a blog he kept during his eight weeks of play: “I’m now in my fourth week using SuperBetter, and my coworkers have been talking about how uncharacteristically sunny my disposition is.”7 This gave him the perfect opportunity to talk more openly about his rehabilitation and to recruit even more allies.
These friends and coworkers turned out to be just as supportive and helpful as his online allies—giving quests, sending power-up reminders, and rooting against the bad guys. More important, they were there in person for Alex’s attempt at an epic win. On a cool morning in November, eleven allies showed up bright and early to complete a lap of Prospect Park with him.
“Even though I usually hate this kind of cheer ’em on, rah-rah type of attention, which is why everyone thinks I’m a selfish, ungrateful curmudgeon, it was very flattering and encouraging that a lot of my coworkers and friends came by to show their support,” he said afterward—clearly still a bit wary of social support but just as clearly happy to receive it.
So how did his attempt at an epic win go? “The ride was a victory. It was the first time in six months I’d gotten back on my bike, which has been really difficult and terrifying for me. It was a big step. And yes, it definitely felt epic!”
To help him celebrate and remember the feeling of victory, one of Alex’s allies made a video of the bike ride and set it to the theme from Chariots of Fire. Alex proudly shared the video online. And when I talked to him on the radio after six weeks of play, he admitted how surprised he was that recruiting and collaborating with allies turned out—shockingly, for a self-described curmudgeon!—to be his favorite part of the experience.
Three years later I touched base with Alex to see how he’s doing. He still credits SuperBetter with helping him bounce back faster and stronger from his traumatic injury. He’s an active athlete again, with a newfound ability to ask for help. “I healed up really, really well. SuperBetter definitely helped,” he told me. But for Alex, a speedier physical recovery wasn’t the biggest benefit of getting gameful. “In the end,” he said, “getting superbetter for me was actually much more about emotional and mental health than just a physical recovery.”
There are lots of ways to seek and offer social support, but as Alex’s story shows, social support in SuperBetter has a structure—to make it easier to ask for help and easier to give it.
The structure is simple. In SuperBetter an ally is someone who:
· Knows what challenge you’re tackling
· Has a good sense of your favorite power-ups and biggest bad guys
· Is game to check in with you periodically to hear how your SuperBetter efforts are going (in person, on the phone, by email, by video chat, on a social network, or however you feel most comfortable communicating)
That’s it. There are lots of other incredibly helpful things your allies can do for you once they’re on board—and we’ll talk about that in just a bit. But to make someone an ally, all it takes is for you to share your game and for them to accept the invitation to play.
It helps if your ally understands a little bit about SuperBetter. But most SuperBetter players I’ve interviewed have found it very easy to explain the concept of real-life power-ups, bad guys, and quests—it only takes a minute. And if you’d like to give your allies a chance to dig deeper, sharing this book is one way to get them up to speed; a faster way is to send them a link to the video of the TED talk I gave on SuperBetter (search online for “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life”).
Here are some tips for talking to potential allies about SuperBetter:
· Start by sharing your challenge. “I’m playing a game to help me [your challenge here]. If you’re up for it, I’d love to have you as my ally in the game.”
· Explain what it means to be an ally: “You’ll give me advice and encouragement and let me tell you about all my adventures.”
· Set some time boundaries for the game. For example, “I’d love for you to be my ally for the next thirty days,” or “Would you be willing to play with me until I go back to school?” or just “Let’s try this together for a week!” Providing clear boundaries makes it easier for your ally to accept the invitation.
· Give each ally a quest of their own to help them get started. Tell them, for example, “The best thing you could do for me this week is to just text me once a day to remind me to not give in to the bad guys.” Or “Your first mission as my ally is to think of a new power-up for me. Preferably one I can do in bed.” Or “I have a quest to pick a new mantra. Will you send me some of your favorite inspirational quotes?” Giving your ally quests is a way to tell them exactly what you need—and solves the problem of them wondering on their own what they can do to help. Once they get the hang of the SuperBetter rules, most allies have little difficulty coming up with their own quests.
Once your ally accepts the invitation to play, there’s no limit to what they might dream up to do to help! For example, when Jens, a player in the Netherlands, made it his SuperBetter challenge to quit smoking, his ally surprised him with an extra source of motivation: a friendly bet. “He proposed that if I went one hundred days without smoking, he’d turn over all the soil in my garden and prepare it for planting. If I failed, I’d have to clean his house all winter.” Jens won the bet.
If your allies would like some ideas about how to help you get superbetter, share the following advice with them. (You’ll notice that the advice describes SuperBetter players as “heroes.” So if someone is your ally, you are that person’s hero!)
HOW TO BE AN AWESOME ALLY
If someone in your life is tackling a tough challenge or trying to make a positive change, you can help them. With your support and encouragement, they’re much more likely to achieve their goals.
You’ll benefit, too. Being a good ally means practicing and mastering important skills that make you a better friend, parent, coach, or partner. Plus, every time you take action as an ally, you increase your own social resilience—the strength that makes you more likely to get support in the future when you need it most.
Here are the top ten ways to be a powerful ally.
1. Know your hero. Being an ally always starts with getting to know your hero’s current challenge, power-ups, and bad guys. (And their secret identity, if they’ve chosen to adopt one!) Ask your hero to give you a quick rundown.
2. Bring your hero power-ups. Now that you know your hero’s power-ups, offer to activate one together. For example, if your hero has a five-minute dance party as a power-up, invite them to throw a dance party in person or over video chat with you. Or send favorite power-ups your hero’s way. If your hero has dark green veggies as a power-up, bake your hero some cheesy kale chips. If one of their favorite power-ups is looking at photos of baby animals, share one by email or social media. And if you have an idea for a new power-up, suggest it—and ask your hero to let you know if it helped!
3. Help your hero battle a bad guy. Pick a bad guy on your hero’s list, and try to think of a strategy to help him or her successfully battle it. Do some research online to find tips and tricks that have worked for others facing a similar bad guy. Or use your creativity! Whatever strategies you suggest, ask your hero to report back on how well they worked.
4. Give your hero a quest. It’s not always easy to see the path forward. You can help your hero by challenging him or her to accomplish a task of your choosing in the next twenty-four hours. Remember, a quest is any tiny way your hero can get stronger, happier, healthier, or closer to a big goal. Be sure the quests you give him or her are realistic—and it’s always more fun when you offer to go on a quest together! (If you’re stuck for ideas, just give your favorite quests from this book, including the adventures at the back!)
5. Get a report. Ask the simple question “How is your SuperBetter journey going?” You can spark conversation by asking specifically about different things. “What’s your favorite power-up so far?” “Is there a bad guy you feel you’ve made a lot of progress with?” “Have you done any interesting quests lately?” “What quest is coming up next for you?” You can get a report by phone, email, video chat, in person—whatever feels natural. If you’re really close with your hero, you can ask for a daily report. It can give him or her a huge emotional and motivational boost to know that every day will end with the chance to connect and reflect. Otherwise, just reach out and ask for a report whenever you can. Many allies find that touching base once or twice a week is plenty.
6. Hunt the good stuff. One of the most important things you can do is to shine a light on your hero’s hard work and accomplishments. Think of yourself as a detective—your mission is to hunt the good stuff they’re doing, then make a big deal out of it. You’ll want to do more than just say “Good job.” When he or she makes a heroic effort or accomplishes a tough goal, ask questions about how they did it. What were their strategies? Where did they find the strength? Ask how it feels now that they’ve done it. Ask what it inspires them to do next. Or tell them what it inspires you to do!
Psychologists call this active constructive responding. It means taking someone’s good news or success and helping them really savor and celebrate it. Active constructive responding is a skill—the more you practice it, the more naturally it will come to you. Just remember, it’s not about over-the-top praise or positive feedback. Just try to ask three questions about any good thing that happens. Then reflect back to them what you’ve heard!
7. Celebrate their secret identity. If your hero has adopted a secret identity, find out the inspiration behind it. Were they inspired by a character from a book, a movie, a comic, a play, mythology, or history? Or is there another story behind its creation? Asking your hero to tell you how they came up with their secret identity is a great way to learn more about what they value and the strengths they want to develop.
Once you know more about their inspiration, see if you can have fun with it. Look for a digital image online that relates to their secret identity, and share it with your hero. Dig up some quotes from the book, movie, or story that inspired them, and deliver one each week—by email or text if you’re long distance, or you can handwrite the quotes and slip them somewhere to surprise your hero! If you’re artistic, draw a doodle of your hero in their new secret identity. There are infinite ways to show your hero that you truly see them as the powerful, awesome person they want to be.
8. Stay tuned. Sometimes the best way to show support for someone is just to pay attention to what they’re doing and saying. It’s kind of like when you’re having a conversation with someone. When they’re talking, you want to nod your head and say “Mmm-hmm” occasionally—so they know you’re still with them. It’s good to develop the same kind of habit the rest of the time, too—little cues that let your friend know you’re paying attention. This is thankfully made easier if your hero is active on social media or has a blog. If so, like, favorite, or comment on your hero’s posts often—especially ones about getting superbetter! Think of your likes, favorites, and comments as virtual nods and “mmm-hmms!” They let your friend know they’re not alone—and that you’re with them every step of the way.
9. When the going gets really tough, have a heart-to-heart. Scientists have found that when it comes to feeling deeply supported, three kinds of social interaction build those bonds best: voice, face to face, and touch. So when your hero really needs a boost, you have three options. First, you can speak up. Research shows that when it comes to expressing support, a phone call is more powerful than the written word. Second, you can show your face! It turns out that we convey friendship, love, and encouragement through our facial expressions more than any other way. So when it’s time to connect, how about a video chat? Finally, you can reach out—literally. Scientists have shown that physical touch—like a hug or a high-five—boosts confidence, eases pain, reduces stress, and strengthens relationships. In order to give this kind of support, you’ll want to actually see your friend in person whenever possible.8
10. Be a rock. This is the toughest ally skill to cultivate. It means that even when you’re busy, you take the time to touch base with your hero, every single day you can. Touching base can be as simple as sending a text message, or posting a comment on their social media feed, or asking a single question about their SuperBetter day when you see them. Studies show that when it comes to social support, quantity counts as much as quality.9 So don’t wait until you can devote a lot of time to your hero. Just take thirty seconds out of your day to give support, and it will add up to a huge positive impact, one day at a time.
Remember, forging a powerful alliance doesn’t benefit only you—it helps your friends and family better understand what you’re going through. It lets them discover concrete ways to give you support that will actually make a difference.
This is especially important if you’re facing a huge obstacle or going through a really tough time. Your loved ones can feel powerless to help in the face of your challenge—even though they desperately want to. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A meta-analysis of seventy different psychology and medical studies revealed that when the friends and family members of someone going through an illness, injury, or tough crisis are given suggestions for improving communication and support with their loved one, the friends and family experience less stress and less anxiety, report happier moods, and have more physical energy.10
One SuperBetter player, Joe, a senior advertising executive who lives near Tampa, saw this benefit himself when he started a familywide SuperBetter game. “We’ve started a SuperBetter Great-Grandmother Program for my mother, who has two children, five grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren,” he told me recently. “The two aims of the program are, one, to support and comfort her with loving messages and phone calls as she adjusts to assisted living, and two, to teach the extended family how to set up their own SuperBetter games, to help them build their own healthy networks of friends and family. It’s been a huge blessing so far.” Twenty-seven family members in total joined up as allies for Super Great-Grandmother Jeanette, and they are all working together to make sure she receives one phone call, letter, or photo every single day. More important, Joe told me, “everyone in the family is now thinking about their own power-ups, bad guys, and how they can help each other. It’s been a great bonding and learning experience for all.”
Joe’s game isn’t just multiplayer—it’s practically massively multiplayer! You don’t need to be so ambitious yourself. But when it comes to games, the more the merrier—and social resilience can ripple through your entire social network. Inviting allies to play isn’t good just for you—it’s good for them, too.
Joe’s experience is not unique. As you’ll see in the next story, a gameful approach to social support can give your allies more power, courage, and optimism—and as a result, you get stronger, not only individually but also together.
A SuperBetter Story: Long-Distance Allies
It took three months of collecting power-ups, battling bad guys, and completing quests for Kate, twenty-six, to finally feel superbetter from her latest battle with depression. But for Kate to experience a major breakthrough in her relationship with her girlfriend, Laura, it took only three days of playing.
Kate and Laura have a long-distance relationship. Kate lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she works in IT support at a small nonprofit. Laura lives a three-hour drive away in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The couple met on a popular online dating site and felt such a strong connection, they decided to try to make it work, even though they could see each other only on weekends.
“I was honest with Laura about my struggles with depression and anxiety, right from the beginning,” Kate told me when I interviewed her about her SuperBetter experience. “But telling someone you struggle with depression doesn’t mean they’ll really understand what you’re going through. Even though Laura knew about it, I think my depression was like a black box to her. She couldn’t see inside. She never really knew how it was affecting me day to day.”
Laura’s distance made it hard for her to know when Kate was having a particularly tough day. But SuperBetter changed that, almost overnight—as soon as Kate decided to show Laura her lists of power-ups, bad guys, and quests. “I was a little embarrassed to ask my Laura to be my ally and play with me,” Kate said, “but she was excited to play. She told me she was happy to have a concrete way to help.”
What kind of help did Kate ask for? She kept it simple: she wanted to talk with Laura every night for a couple of minutes about which bad guys she had battled, which power-ups had helped, and what quest she was hoping to tackle next. They were already video chatting every night, so checking in about the game was an easy ritual to introduce.
It took a few days for Laura to pick up the lingo of SuperBetter, but once she caught on, it was easy for them to start talking for the first time in detail about Kate’s mental and emotional challenges. “The game talk let her see all the specific ways I was struggling,” Kate said. “I could say, well, ‘I’m having a tough time with the Self-Critic today, because I look in the mirror and only see flaws.’ Or I could say, ‘Help me put down the Warped Magnifying Glass, because I’m beating myself up about a small thing that happened about work.’”
This kind of conversation was new to the couple, even though they were already quite close. “I have all this negative self-talk inside my head that doesn’t really come up in conversation, despite the fact that I struggle with it daily. The daily game check-ins gave me a way to share it.”
As Laura started to understand the daily effects of Kate’s depression better, questing became an important part of their alliance. “She could see exactly what I was struggling with, and she would give me quests that encouraged me in the right direction.” Laura gave Kate, for example, a List Your Best Attributes quest that challenged her to list as many good qualities about herself in one minute as she could. She also gave Kate a You Are Beautiful quest, which required her to allow Laura to tell her “You are beautiful” for a full minute without any interruptions or negative self-talk.
Kate looks back now at the three months that she and Laura had daily SuperBetter check-ins as a crucial growth period for their relationship. “No one wants the world to see their weaknesses, struggles, and dark places. But the SuperBetter rules let me put these issues on display in a safe, constructive, and positive way. They let me show myself that I’m working to move past struggles and to improve myself, and for my girlfriend to see that as well.”
“There’s no question, as a result of playing together, we got so much stronger. There was so much more emotional intimacy. I think it’s because the SuperBetter rules reward emotional honesty and vulnerability—something the world as a whole does not often do. ”
With Laura as her closest ally, Kate made so much progress that she no longer considers depression the primary challenge in her life. “It’s something I’ll always have to deal with, but it doesn’t have to define or limit me.” So she is turning her gameful superpowers toward new goals. “SuperBetter has been such a positive way of looking at things that I’ve started tackling a whole other set of changes I want to make in my life,” she told me. Her current SuperBetter challenge is to jump-start her career: She wants to learn more computer programming so she can move out of her current role in IT support to become a systems administrator. And, she is happy to report, Laura is still a powerful ally, encouraging her every step of the way.
If you’re still feeling unsure about inviting someone you know to be your ally, let me leave you with one final piece of encouraging data.
Our SuperBetter players have invited many thousands of allies to play with them online. And our data show that these friends and family absolutely relish the opportunity to help. How do we know? People who initially joined SuperBetter as allies logged in, on average, twice as often as people who signed up to play for their own challenge! And they took more game actions, on average, every time they logged in than did players working on their own challenges—leaving supportive comments, suggesting quests, and so on. In other words, most allies are more than just willing to play along—they are excited to be a part of your journey. As one SuperBetter ally put it, “It means a lot when a friend or family member asks for help, and it means a lot to be recognized for the support you give.”
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. There’s always the chance that you’ll invite someone to play who will be too busy right now, or too focused on tackling their own challenges, to fully embrace the experience. Or someone you invite may be biased against games and not bring enough enthusiasm to the occasion. It’s natural to feel hurt or disappointed if this happens. But the potential benefits of social support are so enormous, I encourage you to be willing to risk a little disappointment in order to pursue something that will truly make you stronger. (If you’re unsure who to recruit as your first ally, it certainly doesn’t hurt to invite someone who already plays a lot of games—or someone who has offered to help or expressed their support for you in the past.)
And remember, you don’t need a lifetime commitment from your allies. Interviews with SuperBetter players have shown that even if your ally fully engages with you around the game for only as little as one week, you will still both reap significant benefits. It takes only a little bit of play to spark feelings of closeness, improve communication, and strengthen your mutual understanding.
AN ALTERNATE STRATEGY: RECRUITING ALLIES ONLINE
As important as it is to have at least one ally whom you can see in person, that may not be the best way for you to start your game. In fact, roughly one in five new SuperBetter players says they would rather start their game with virtual allies than with everyday friends and family.
If you’re a very private or introverted person, you may feel this way, too. Or you may have a very practical reason for not wanting to recruit close friends and family. As one player explained on the SuperBetter discussion forum: “I’m working through painful feelings about some of the people in my life, and it would be really awkward for me to say to someone, ‘Hey, I think you are one of my bad guys!’ So for now, I think it’s better to share this stuff with strangers.”
Virtual allies are particularly helpful if you’re looking to connect with someone who has already been through the same challenge you’re tackling right now.
Or you may simply be one of the 25 percent of Americans who say they have no confidants with whom they feel comfortable discussing important personal matters.11 (This number has more than doubled over the past two decades—so if you don’t have any obvious candidates for allies, don’t worry. You’re not alone.)
If you fall into any of these boats, you can start recruiting allies today—online. There are discussion forums and social media groups online for just about any challenge you can imagine. Not sure where to start? At Areyougameful.com, I’ve gathered links to popular forums and groups for the most common SuperBetter challenges. You can also discover fellow players by searching for the hashtag #superbetter on social media networks, like Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. (I’ve made a surprising number of virtual allies doing that!)
Experienced SuperBetter players frequently rave about their virtual allies. As one player puts it, “I could never have guessed that I would start to feel so close to my allies—people that I’ve never met in real life, who I don’t even know what they look like—and really care about them, about their dreams and their struggles, and feel happy and proud when they do well. The ally experience has been far more personal, invigorating, and valuable than I had ever guessed when I started. I love my allies! We are a family of sorts—the good kind.”
Better yet, research suggests that virtual allies can increase your social resilience, even if you only ever communicate by screen. As one meta-analysis of forty-five different scientific studies shows, most people experience a genuine increase in perceived social support by participating in online communities dedicated to giving one another advice and encouragement.
As your social resilience increases, you may find yourself more comfortable with the idea of recruiting allies from your everyday life. Think of online allies not as a substitute for everyday allies but rather as a springboard for you to eventually create more powerful alliances in the rest of your life.
I hope you’re convinced, and now it’s time to take this game from single-player to multiplayer. Let’s make that happen right now—with a very important quest.
QUEST 34: Recruit Your First Ally
What to do: Pick one person in your life to invite to be your first SuperBetter ally.
If you’re not sure who, these brainstorming questions can help:
· Who do you feel you can really be yourself around?
· Who can you ask for help if you really need it?
· Who do you have great conversations with?
· Who do you play games with?
· Who makes you smile whenever you see or talk to them?
· Who gives you good advice?
· Who do you admire and would love as a coach or mentor?
· Who makes things more fun when they’re around?
When you’ve picked your first ally, all you need to do to complete this quest is to reach out.
“I’m playing a game to help me [name your challenge]. I’d like you to play the game with me. It will only take a few minutes a week, and we can play over the phone, by email, online, by video chat, or in person.”
Alternative quest: Post a message on any online forum or social media group introducing yourself and your challenge.
Good luck—and may your allies always have your back!
Skills Unlocked: How to Supercharge Your Social Support
· Instead of asking someone for help with a problem, invite someone to play a game with you.
· Explain how the game works. Share your challenge, power-ups, and bad guys. This is all it takes to turn any friend or family member into an ally.
· Be sure to report to your allies often about your progress in the game, so you can get tons of advice, encouragement, and support.
· Give your allies their own specific quests to keep them motivated and inspired. Remember, a quest is a teeny-tiny task they can accomplish in the next twenty-four hours—like sending you an inspirational quote by text message or choosing one power-up from your list to do together.
· If you’re not comfortable inviting friends or family to play with you yet, start with virtual allies. Online discussion forums and social media support groups are the perfect place to make new friends who’ll understand exactly what you’re going through.
· Remember, just a week of gameful interaction is enough to reap huge benefits in your relationships and boost your social resilience. So don’t worry if one of your allies gets busy and forgets to play, or if a long time passes between SuperBetter check-ins. Just keep living gamefully, and try to share your adventures with many different allies along the way.