SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games - Jane McGonigal (2015)

Part 1. Why Games Make Us Superbetter

Chapter 2. You Are Surrounded by Potential Allies

Your Mission

Discover just how many people are ready to help you with any problem, at any time.

What if you were surrounded by people ready and willing to help you with any problem at any time? How much more could you accomplish? How much more ambitious could you be?

You already have this power. You can turn almost anyone into an ally—even a stranger, even someone who thinks they don’t like you—just by playing a game with them.

In this chapter, we’ll examine the unique properties of games that make them the perfect platform for learning how to strengthen real-life relationships and find more common ground with others. You’ll see how the benefits of playing a game with others last long after the game is played. Plus, you’ll learn practical strategies for bringing the positive ways we interact in games into the rest of your daily life.

Hedgewars is a cute and funny video game, despite the word wars in its title. Players are invited to commandeer an army of pink hedgehogs for intergalactic space battle. (Think Angry Birds but a bit more challenging—and with flying spiny mammals instead of birds.) It’s relatively simple to learn, playable on any computer or mobile phone—and as researchers at the University of Helsinki recently discovered, it has a powerful effect on our bodies and brains.

When two people play Hedgewars together in the same room, they experience what Dr. Michiel Sovijärvi-Spapé and Dr. Niklas Ravaja describe as “neurological and physiological linkage.”1 The two players start to make the same facial expressions, smiling and frowning in unison. Their heart rates adapt to the same rhythm. Their breathing patterns sync. Most astonishingly, their brain waves sync, as their neurons start to “mirror” each other—a process that helps each of them anticipate what the other will do next. All these changes happen almost immediately, within minutes of starting to play.

Surprisingly, this synchronization occurs whether the two players are cooperating or competing with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you consider your fellow player a teammate or an opponent. When you play Hedgewarstogether, your minds and bodies start to operate in near-perfect harmony.

What makes these biological linkages so interesting to researchers? As psychologists have recently discovered, all four types of synchronization—facial expression, heart rate, respiration, and neural activity—are strongly correlated with increased empathy and social bonding. The more we sync up with someone, the more we like them—and the more likely we are to help them in the future.2

It’s not surprising, then, that in surveys conducted afterward, Hedgewars players do indeed report feeling high levels of empathy and connection with each other—again, regardless of whether they played cooperatively or competitively.

Hedgewars, as it turns out, is not special in this regard. In fact, as an expanding field of research shows, any game played simultaneously by two people in the same physical location creates this same kind of “mind meld” and body synchronization—laying the foundation for a more powerful and positive relationship after the game is over.3

How do games trigger a mind-and-body connection so quickly and effectively—and is there anything else you can do to achieve a similar effect? Let’s dig into the science of synchronization to find out.

Humans unconsciously mirror and imitate each other constantly. We fall into lockstep when walking together. We return someone’s smile naturally, without thinking. We shift our body language to match the posture of people we like. And it’s not just a one-on-one phenomenon. At sporting events and concerts, we make the same facial expressions and move in unison with other fans, creating entire crowds of biologically linked individuals.4

Not all synchronization is visibly obvious. Research shows, for example, that a mother’s heartbeat synchronizes with her infant’s when she holds her.5 And when a close friend tells you a story about his day, you experience what scientists call neural coupling. Your brain activity mirrors your friend’s as closely as if it were your own experience he was describing.6 It’s quite amazing when you think about it: your brain processes your friend’s story as if what happened to him had actually happened to you.

Why are these spontaneous biological connections so common? Scientists argue that without them, survival—let alone successful social interaction—would be impossible.

In order to interact with other people, we have to be able to understand them. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What action are they about to take? Do they want to hurt you or help you? But it’s not easy to read someone else’s mind or guess what they’re feeling. In fact, the only way we can do it is by re-creating their thoughts and feelings in our own minds and bodies.

Consider this example: A stranger is smiling at you. Does he mean you well, or does he mean you harm? You involuntarily smile back—with the same kind of smile he just gave you. Your smile may be fleeting—maybe it lasts just for a microsecond, barely detectable. But now your brain understands the stranger’s intentions. It knows whether the smile you just gave back is the kind of warm, genuine smile you typically give people you intend to be nice to, or a pained, insincere smile you give to people you don’t like. Only by becoming a mirror for someone else are you able to accurately deduce his intentions.

Here’s another example: You run to catch up to someone and start walking beside her. You naturally fall into lockstep, and in doing so, you get important information about her state of mind. Perhaps your stride feels slightly longer and faster than usual—you physically start to feel her sense of urgency. Or perhaps you notice yourself relaxing, walking more slowly than usual. You start to feel the same sense of calm as your partner. By unconsciously mimicking her physical movement, you suddenly have access to her emotions!

We synchronize like this hundreds of times every day without thinking about it. People who do it more tend to score higher on measures of empathy and social intelligence. That’s because the more you mirror and mimic, the better you understand the people around you.

That just leaves one important question to answer: why do we like people better when we mimic and mirror them? It’s not just a matter of better understanding. Countless studies have shown that we become closer to, more affectionate toward, and more likely to help the people we sync up with. Why?

Scientists theorize that syncing up creates an “upward spiral” of positive connection between two people.7 It helps us understand each other better, which means we have smoother social interactions—and that makes us more willing to interact with each other again in the future. When we’re biologically synced up, studies show, we also perform more effectively together, because we’re better able to anticipate each other’s actions. Experiencing success together makes us more likely to help each other in the future. Meanwhile we more naturally like people who we perceive to be like ourselves. So when we unconsciously notice someone else mirroring us, we start to feel more positively about them. And the more positively we feel about someone, the more time we tend to spend with them, giving us more opportunities to sync up and strengthen our bond.

Not all synchronization leads to positive feelings or stronger bonds. If you intuit through a quick neural connection that someone else means you harm, you’re not going to befriend her. And synchronizing around an emotion like anger or frustration can create more stress, not more empathy. Research suggests, for example, that unhappily married couples actually go into downward spirals of synchronization when they argue.8 The more they fight, the more their minds and bodies align—but with negative, rather than positive, emotions. (More happily married couples, on the other hand, are actually less biologically linked during fights. Researchers theorize that they are better able to quickly mirror and process their partner’s negative feelings without having to fully embody them.)

However, syncing up around negative feelings may have at least one benefit. The increased biological connection when some couples fight may explain why so many attest that a good argument can lead to great sex. If you’re synced up, you’re much more in tune with each other’s mind and body. Still, all things considered, the biggest benefits come from syncing up around positive emotions like interest, excitement, curiosity, and wonder—emotions that are extremely common during game play.

Will you notice the next time you’re on a positive upward spiral with someone? Here’s a quest to help you increase your social intelligence right now.

QUEST 8: The Love Detector

When you understand how synchronization works, you spot it happening all around you. It’s almost like developing a sixth sense—you see relationships sparking and connections strengthening right before your eyes.

I want you to think of your new sixth sense as a powerful love detector.

What to do: Look for the telltale sign of deep biological synchronization between two people.

What’s the telltale sign? When two people are feeling positively connected, their body language starts to mirror each other. When one person leans forward, the other leans forward. When one rests her head thoughtfully on her right hand, the other follows suit. When one sits cross-legged, soon the other does as well.

This kind of spontaneous, unconscious mirroring happens in all kinds of situations: over coffee conversations with friends, during work meetings and job interviews, on first dates, and at parties. It’s what happens whenever you feel like you’re really “clicking” with someone.

Why it works: Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the world’s leading researchers of positive emotion, describes these mirror moments as “micro-moments of love.” Whenever our brain activity and biochemistry align, she says, we lay the foundation for future friendship or even intimacy. While love might seem too strong a word to denote these everyday moments, Dr. Fredrickson’s research shows that every time we sync up in a safe and positive context, we are actually feeling a miniburst of deep human connection. Every time we mirror, it’s like we’re practicing and strengthening our ability to love.9

Some people may advise you to purposefully mimic your boss’s or your date’s body language to help gently nudge the love along, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, it’s much more fun (and definitely less creepy!) to simply become aware of mirroring when it happens—and to delight in these micro-moments of love whenever you notice them.

So here’s your quest to learn how to use your new love detector: for the next twenty-four hours, pay special attention to the body language of people around you (and to your own body language).

Quest complete: If you see body language being mirrored, congratulations—you’ve completed this quest by detecting a micromoment of love!

If synchronization happens all the time, what makes the syncing that takes place during game play so special?

In some regards, there’s nothing special about it—it works exactly as synchronization works during any kind of social interaction. Because you and your fellow player are focusing your attention on the same activity at the same time, your neurons start to mirror each other. And because emotions are contagious, you will pass your emotions back and forth—whether it’s pride in a successful move, or frustration over a difficult obstacle, or surprise at an unexpected outcome. As your feelings align, so do your bodies—from the muscles in your face that express different feelings to the amount of sweat on your skin that reveals how excited or stressed out you are.

All shared activities—such as watching a movie, having a conversation, or listening to music—have a similar potential to create mind-and-body links. However, the intensity of game-based linkage is typically much stronger.

Remember from Chapter 1 the special kind of attention we give to games: when we play, we go into a state of deep focus, or flow. And when two people are in flow together, the synchronization is far greater (and far more enjoyable) than when they participate in less mentally absorbing activities.10 Likewise, because we tend to feel heightened emotions like excitement and joy during game play, the quality of emotional linkage is heightened as well. The stronger our synchronized feelings, the deeper our mind-and-body connection.

But what’s really special about syncing during game play is best explained by what psychologists call theory of mind, which is short for having an accurate theory of what’s going on in someone else’s mind. When you’re playing a game with someone else, you spend a tremendous amount of time trying to anticipate what they’re going to do next. This is true whether you’re playing cooperatively or competitively: the more you can accurately model what your coplayer is thinking, the more successful you’ll be in the game.

Game play requires a powerful theory of mind, much more so than ordinary social interactions.11 Compared with taking a walk together or having a conversation, game play—with all its unpredictability and constant decision making—demands much tighter and more sustained synchronization. It’s due to this high-demand social environment that neurological and physiological links happen so quickly and easily whenever we play. It’s simply the nature of the game.

Because synchronization happens so rapidly, reliably, and deeply during game play, many gamers find it particularly useful for creating stronger social bonds. This is especially true for introverted individuals, who seem to benefit greatly from the easy and powerful social connections afforded by games.

Real-world studies offer even more insight into the benefits of syncing up through game play. Research from Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, for example, shows that playing video games together regularly in the same physical space increases the sense of connection between parent and child.12 And for children with autism, multiplayer video games have been shown to increase cooperation, improve family social interactions, and increase social intelligence.13 Children with autism communicate more directly and confidently with their peers and siblings after playing a game together. They also pay each other more compliments and engage more frequently in positive touching, such as giving each other high-fives.14

If you’re not a frequent gamer but have a gamer in your life, consider taking the time to play together more often. It may be one of the most productive things you could do with your free time—if you want to enjoy a closer, happier relationship.

A SuperBetter Story: The Secret Language Between Father and Daughter

Antonio, a senior sales executive with a Fortune 500 company, doesn’t seem like the kind of man with a lot of time to play video games. When I met him at his company’s annual offsite leadership meeting in Chicago, he was juggling important calls and emails the whole time and flagging down colleagues to touch base about upcoming sales meetings around the country.

Although I was invited to the offsite to speak about how game psychology could improve motivation and productivity in the workplace, Antonio, like most of the executives I met that day, seemed more interested in talking to me about the role that games played in his family.

“I set aside a few hours every week to play games with my daughter,” he told me. “It’s very important to me, especially now that she’s a teenager, that we keep playing together. It helps keep the lines of communication open.”

Antonio’s daughter Julia had just turned thirteen, and her new favorite game was Minecraft, the Lego-like building universe where players gather resources to architect whatever they can imagine. Monsters roam the Minecraft world, requiring players to build safe rooms and craft armor to protect themselves.

Apparently Minecraft was giving Julia a new way to think about real-life problems—and a way to talk to her dad about them. “Just last week I was dropping Julia off at school, and she really didn’t want to go in. She’s had some problems with bullying this year, nothing physical, just verbal. A few friends of hers decided they didn’t want to be her friend anymore and have been giving her a really hard time. It’s been rough on her.

“It’s not something she usually talks to me about—she’d rather talk to her mom about that stuff. But when we pulled up at school last week, she turned to me and said, ‘Dad, you know what I can do? I can put my armor on.’ I knew what she meant immediately. When she puts on her armor in Minecraft, the monsters, the lava, all the bad stuff—it can’t hurt her.

“I told her that was a great way to think about it. ‘You’re going to put on your diamond armor today, and it won’t matter what anyone says to you. It’ll bounce right off you.’ And she said, ‘Yep,’ and smiled, and hopped out of the car. It was a little thing, but now we’ve got this conversation going. It’s like a secret code, where I can ask her if she needs her armor today, and she knows what I mean, and she knows that I’m proud of her for being so resilient.”

As we’ve seen, games are a particularly easy and efficient way to create mind-and-body synchrony. When you play a game with someone, you don’t have to focus consciously on mirroring or imitating—it just happens naturally as a result of your mutual engagement with the game. But even without games, there are lots of other ways you can intentionally jump-start your biological linkage. Find out how in your next quest.

QUEST 9: The Power of a Good Sync

If you want to strengthen your mind-and-body connection to friends and family, all it takes is a good sync.

What to do: Take one or two minutes out of your day to coordinate your actions as closely as possible with another person.

These simple methods work to stimulate mirror neurons and synchronize heart and breathing rates:

·   Take a walk around the block together, and match your stride as closely as possible, in both rhythm and length.

·   Listen to a song together—everyone taps their fingers or claps their hands to the beat.

·   Learn a simple dance routine, and perform it together.

·   Rock in rocking chairs, or swing in swings, next to each other, at the same pace, for at least ninety seconds.

·   Work together to lift and carry a heavy piece of furniture.15

Walking, tapping, clapping, dancing, rocking, and swinging together all work in the same way—they create biological linkage through near-perfect physical mirroring and synchronization. Carrying a piece of heavy furniture together, however, is more like playing a video game: in order to avoid dropping it, bumping it, or hurting yourself, you have to successfully anticipate your partner’s thoughts and movements. This kind of intense neurological linkage stimulates the same increase in connection, affection, and empathy as physical mirroring.

There are countless ways to get a good sync in, and it only takes a few minutes. Be creative and invent your own favorite traditions.

Examples: Here are some ideas from SuperBetter players:

·   “My son and I walk in sync for one minute every day when I pick him up from school. He decides how fast or far to step, and I have to try to match him!”

·   “My wife and I have been taking turns picking a song to listen to each night before we go to bed. We don’t try to move together on purpose, because that feels forced and kind of awkward. But we somehow wind up tapping our feet or swaying together by the end of the song, without even consciously trying.”

·   “Whenever there’s a big disagreement at the office, we have the people who are disagreeing move the conference room table into the hallway and back again. I’m sure the syncing helps, but it also breaks the tension and brings some humor to the situation. Everyone knows what it means when they see the table coming into the hall!”

Tip: Your partner doesn’t need to know all the science for it to work. But if you’re going to make it a habit, clue them in so they can share in this powerful knowledge with you.

Also, it helps if your go-to syncing activity is something you both enjoy doing for its own sake. Don’t force it. Let the synchronizing happen naturally, while you’re focusing on the fun or the challenge.

Being able to strengthen bonds with people you already know is a powerful ability. Starting to see the entire world around you as full of potential allies is another superpower altogether.

Sometimes, to get more support in our lives, we have to be willing to look in the most unlikely places. And games can help us do that—by opening up our minds to friendship with people we would ordinarily overlook. One of my favorite game studies in recent years explains how.

Social scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore have been studying the real-life impacts of video games for more than a decade—and recently they made a major breakthrough. They discovered that playing the Nintendo game Wii Bowling with a stranger not only makes you like that person more—something you’d expect from almost any enjoyable activity two people perform together—but also makes you like more everyone else in the world who you perceive to be like your game partner. Let me explain.

One of the biggest social problems in Singapore today is alienation between young people and senior citizens. According to national surveys, they don’t like each other very much, and they avoid spending time together. The result is that seniors in Singapore are often socially isolated, which is terrible for their mental and physical health. Meanwhile, young people miss out on significant opportunities to be mentored and cared for by seniors.

Could games help solve this widespread social problem? The NTU researchers set up a pilot study to find out. They paired up college students and senior citizens for weekly video game dates lasting thirty minutes each. After six weeks of playing Nintendo Wii Bowling together, the seniors and the young people not only considered each other friends, they had dramatically revised their opinion of the entire other group.

The young people decided they liked senior citizens, in general, a whole lot more. Meanwhile the seniors were much less anxious about interacting with young people. Both groups said they were more likely to seek out social interaction with someone from the other group in the future. This represented a huge psychological shift. They didn’t just make one new friend; they started to see all seniors or young people as potential friends.

Crucially, this powerful change did not occur in the study’s control group, in which young people and seniors spent the same exact amount of time together making conversation, watching TV, or working on arts and crafts together. The individuals liked each other more after six weeks of hanging out, but they continued to dislike other seniors or young people in general. In short, they changed their mind about just one person, not the whole group. They remained, unfortunately, psychologically closed off from a whole world of potential allies.

By now, you can probably guess how the Wii Bowling video game accomplished what other common social interactions could not: deep synchronization was surely at play. And one particular outcome of synchronization—increased empathy—makes all the difference when it comes to reversing prejudice or healing social tension.

Empathy is the ability to imagine and relate to what someone else is feeling—and fortunately, a little bit of empathy goes a long way. Research shows that increasing our empathy for just one person in a group will improve our opinions about the entire group in general.16 However, if we simply like one person in a group without increasing our empathy for them, our opinions about the group as a whole will remain the same.

This is exactly what happens when we play a game with someone we think we won’t like, by virtue of their age or any other prejudicial factor. By increasing our empathy for our fellow player, we increase our empathy for everyone who reminds us of that player.

To feel more empathy with others, people have to have positive social interactions in safe environments. Synchronization can’t happen if you’re preoccupied with negative thoughts or feelings. In fact, research shows that strong prejudice and dislike for someone else’s group can actually prevent us from experiencing neurological linkage.17 But games have an advantage here as well. The NTU researchers theorize that the equalizing nature of games makes it easier to connect in spite of existing social tension, anxiety, or mistrust.

When we play a game, we come together on equal terms and equal footing. We agree and trust each other to follow the same rules, to pursue the same goal, and to treat each other fairly. We accept each other as worthy teammates or competitors, regardless of our outside social status.

The equal status and trust that we experience in games, as temporary and as limited as they may be, makes it feel safer to explore social interactions with people we might ordinarily be anxious around or avoid altogether. And it’s not just the NTU researchers who have figured this out. Groups around the world are starting to harness the power of play to make allies across cultural borders and boundaries. The Middle East Gaming Challenge, for example, brings tens of thousands of children in the Middle East together to play cooperative video games, online and in person. The organizers’ goal is to promote dialogue and confront prejudices that currently exist between Arab and Jewish schoolchildren in Israel. They explain:

Despite being neighbors, these children are all too often exposed to atmospheres of negative stereotypes that, unfortunately, are exacerbated by the two communities’ separate education systems. Without a doubt, for many of them the gaming challenge will be a first positive experience shared with someone their own age, in the same corner of the globe, but from an entirely different religious or ethnic background.18

When you look at the possible stakes of events like the Middle East Gaming Challenge, it becomes clear why research like the Wii Bowling study matters. When we understand how games change relationships, we can see more clearly what it takes to overcome our own biases and prejudices. And we discover just how important it is to synchronize our minds and bodies whenever we want to change someone else’s opinion of us from negative to positive.

Surprisingly, and wonderfully, this kind of change does not take exceptional amounts of time or effort. It does take a willingness to interact gamefully—by seeking out experiences that put us on equal footing and so make deep synchronization more likely to occur.

The spectacular “mind meld” and biological mirroring effects of video games and other coordinated activities require players to be in the same physical space at the same time. You can’t sync over email or text message. But what if you want to strengthen relationships with friends and family you’re not able to see in person as often as you’d like? Although you won’t get the same mind-and-body connection, you can increase your real-life social support systems through online game play. In fact, research suggests that online games are an especially powerful relationship management tool—they make it easier for us to maintain more active social relationships, so we have support from others when we need it most.

Let’s see how online play works to help you find real-life allies—and what online games can teach you about how to get social support wherever you go.

Social network games are some of the most widely played and widely studied video games in recent years. More than half a billion people have played social network games like Farmville (a cooperative farm simulation), Candy Crush Saga (a pattern-matching game in which you share power-ups with your friends), and Words with Friends (a variation on the classic board game Scrabble). These games, most commonly played on Facebook or via mobile phones, allow you to play with anyone in your social network—and you don’t even have to be online at the same time. In competitive games like Words with Friends, players take their next turn whenever they have a spare moment. In cooperative games like Farmville or Candy Crush Saga, players can contribute toward a collective goal or send their friends helpful power-ups even when their friends are offline.

As these games have gained in popularity, researchers have been curious to find out whether playing a social network game with someone makes people more likely to socialize with them in real life. Study after study has found that it does. When you play a game like Farmville or Words with Friends with a friend or family member, you not only feel closer to them, you’re also more likely to see them in person or to have conversations with them about nongame, real-life events. And if you play cooperative games together, you’re more likely to ask each other for, or offer each other, help with a real-life problem.19

The more researchers dig into the way social network games work, the more they seem to agree that these relationship-enhancing benefits stem from three key functions: establishing common ground, increasing familiarity, and modeling reciprocity.

Establishing common ground simply means sharing a common experience that gives you something to talk about. One of the biggest challenges for many people in maintaining relationships with extended family and friends is a lack of common ground in the present. If we don’t have anything in common to talk about, we’re less likely to talk at all. But social scientists have found that even something as simple as a Facebook game dramatically improves our sense of having something in the present moment that actively connects us—and therefore something to talk about. Players report that game-related conversations often expand to topics outside the game, such as work and family life. But the game itself remains the foundation of frequent communication, helping us stay actively in touch with people in our social network we would otherwise grow distant from.20

Increasing familiarity simply means interacting more often. The higher the frequency, the stronger the social bond—as long as the interactions are primarily positive. Social network games seem to be a particularly efficient way to increase familiarity, because they allow two people to interact across time and distance. They remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of face-to-face interactions. And while face-to-face interactions would certainly offer a more powerful social experience (complete with synchronization!), research shows that any increased familiarity improves the odds of offering help or having face-to-face time in the future.

Finally, modeling reciprocity means showing other people that we care about them and that they can trust us to offer help. To model reciprocity, we simply have to return a favor or make a simple gesture of kindness. In everyday life, it can be hard to find simple and effective ways to show we care. But in social network games, it’s easy. Reciprocity typically takes the form of sending someone a power-up or an extra life—something that will make it easier for our friend to advance in the game. In Farmville, for example, you can water your friends’ crops or feed their chickens. In Candy Crush Saga, you can send your friends extra moves to help them complete a difficult level.

These little boosts of help are almost always free to send someone; there is no cost other than the time it takes to click “send,” and the games constantly remind us to do so. Despite the fact that it’s so easy to send this kind of help, players report feeling genuinely assisted and looked after by friends and family who regularly give them in-game boosts. Researchers believe that this kind of continual in-game show of support fosters trust and a feeling of responsibility toward each other. And data backs up this hypothesis: people who play online games together cooperatively or as a team report getting more real-life social support from each other. And the support is meaningful—it includes everything from getting advice on a problem and tangible support like monetary assistance, to emotional support like reassurance and listening. 21

A SuperBetter Story: The Feuding Families

“Don’t go yet! I have to tell you my story!” These words came tumbling out of the mouth of a beautiful young blond woman who seemed quite intent on speaking with me.

I was at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I had just given a guest lecture on game design. Anna, twenty-eight, who was finishing up her bachelor’s degree in communications, had waited until all the other students left to try to catch a private word with me.

“This would sound ridiculous to most people, but I know you’ll understand,” she told me, taking a deep breath. “The Facebook game Farmville saved my marriage. Do you have a minute? Can I explain how?” Of course I wanted to hear more.

Anna told me that she and her husband, Aadil, had married several years ago against the wishes of both her parents and his. “Our families would not speak to each other, not before the wedding and not after. It’s because of our religion.” Anna’s parents were from Ukraine. They practiced a very strict Orthodox Christianity. Aadil was from India, his family, Muslim.

“I smoothed things over with my parents so at least they were talking to me, and Aadil did the same with his parents. But the two families have absolutely refused to have any contact with each other. This has been a huge source of pain for us. It’s especially hard because we live so far apart from both families.” Most of Anna’s extended family was still in Ukraine, and Aadil’s in India. They stayed in touch with everyone primarily through Facebook.

“We had given up on our families ever getting along,” Anna said. “And then one day the strangest thing happened. My mother started harvesting grapes with Aadil’s mother!”

Anna was talking about virtual grapes, of course. She had started playing the farming simulation game Farmville with her parents a few weeks earlier, “just as something fun to do with them every day, since they’re so far away and it’s hard to talk across the different time zones.” Anna was also playing the game with her husband. “Our schedules are so busy, and I’m always in evening classes when he comes home from work. But we played when we could, and it helped us spend a little more time together.”

“So you know how you can improve your farm faster if you get help from your neighbors?” Anna asked me. She was referring to the way Facebook games encourage you to invite your entire social network to play with you, so they can help you in the game. In Farmville, real-life friends and family become “neighbors” who can help feed your virtual chickens and water your virtual crops. “Well, I think my mom got really into the game because she was doing whatever it took to level up her farm faster. First she invited Aadil to be her neighbor and help her harvest some crops. That was amazing already. But then one day I was completely shocked, I noticed she had invited Aadil’s mom to join a co-op mission.”

In a co-op, or cooperative, mission in Farmville, players have a limited amount of time—usually anywhere from a few hours to an entire day—to accomplish a shared goal together, like planting and harvesting one hundred pounds of grapes. “His mom and my mom were in closer time zones, so I guess it was just easier for them to do missions together than to wait until we were awake in the United States.”

By this point in the story, Anna’s eyes were welling up. “You have to understand, this was the first social interaction my mom and his mom had willingly had together in three years. It felt like a miracle.”

Before they knew it, Anna’s parents were regularly inviting Aadil’s parents to do cooperative missions together in the game. “They started leaving notes on each other’s Facebook pages to plan their missions. And then, I guess since they were already on their pages, they started liking each other’s updates and leaving nice little comments. It went from just being about the game to being something more.”

The families aren’t playing Farmville anymore, now that their initial mania for it has died down. But the good news is, they don’t need to. “This game has changed everything for us. I don’t think we’ll ever go back. We’re not two families anymore. We’re all family to each other now.”

Playing games online with extended friends and family helps ensure you have strong social ties and social support when you need it. People you play with are more likely to have your back—and you, theirs. But what if you want to reap the same benefits with people in your life who aren’t on your favorite social network, or who might not want to play a game? Although social network games make it easier to establish common ground, model reciprocity, and increase familiarity, you can still use these three techniques to strengthen any relationship—with or without a game.

Here’s a quest to help you explore how to translate the power of social network games into the rest of your life.

QUEST 10: Plus-One Better

Pick three people:

1. Someone who would like to hear from you

2. Someone you would like to hear from

3. Someone who might be surprised to hear from you

Do you have your three people in mind? Good. Now—you have a choice. You can complete this quest on a difficulty setting of easy, medium, or hard. “Easy” means you’re going to send a message to the first person on your list. “Medium” means you’re going to message the first and second person on your list. “Hard” means you’re going to message all three.

What to do: Ask each of the three people, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how is your day going?”

It may feel a bit out of the blue to the person who receives it. That’s okay. In fact, it’s good. Your goal is to catch someone off guard with a signal that you care, and that you’re thinking about them. Meanwhile, asking for a number from 1 to 10 prompts more reflection than simply asking “How’s it going?”—and it often gets you a more honest and interesting reply. (You’ll see what I mean as soon as you give it a try!)

Send your message now. Make sure you send it privately—through email, text, or Facebook, for example.

Now you wait—and if they message back a number from 1 to 10, here’s what you’re going to reply: “Is there anything I could do to help move it from a 6 to a 7?” (or . . . “from a 3 to a 4” or “from a 10 to an 11”—you get the idea).

I learned this habit from my friend Michael, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who likes to ask this question (and make this offer) to almost everyone he talks to, day in and day out. He asks me to rate my day every single time I see him. He asks it of servers at restaurants when we eat out. He asked my husband the first time they met, too. After a while, I came to the conclusion that this question is completely awesome. You really can ask it of virtually anyone, close friend or stranger. And it’s easy to answer—everyone can think of a number from 1 to 10.

Sometimes they’ll answer with just a number. Sometimes they’ll offer details to explain their number. It’s amazing how much you can learn about what’s on someone’s mind by how they explain their 1, 5, or 10. And when you offer to do something to bump their number up by just +1, it pretty much always makes them smile. You’ll be surprised by how surprised other people are when you take the time to explicitly offer your support. Consider this reply from my friend Chris, when I sent him the “1 to 10” question the other day: “Better now that you asked. Truly makes a difference. Was a 5, just became a 7.”

Why it works: This quest is designed to adapt the best features of social games to everyday life. It’s quick and easy, and like online games, you don’t have to be face to face to do it. It models reciprocity: by offering to make someone’s day +1 better, you’re communicating that you care and that they can count on you for support. And it increases common ground—if they explain their number to you, you’ll know a little bit more about what’s going on, which gives you something to talk about. If they don’t explain their number, you’ve still checked in—and every check-in helps increase the familiarity that leads to stronger relationships.

Tip: Don’t do this quest just once—do it often. Whenever I find myself thinking about someone I haven’t talked to in a while, I text them the “1 to 10” question. It’s an easy and fun habit to develop and a great way to spark conversation. And if it becomes a playful tradition with some of your friends and family, all the better!

There are some ways of playing games that do not cultivate closer ties and stronger bonds. I want to caution here against one kind of game play in particular: excessive competition against strangers online. This style of game play can actually make it harder for you to cultivate positive relationships in the rest of your life.

Winning a game against a stranger—particularly when playing a video game with strong themes of domination and destruction, like Call of Duty—creates distinct physiological and neurological changes. Your testosterone surges, and as a result, you have a diminished neural capacity for empathy.22 You feel more powerful and aggressive, and you’re less likely to be kind or sympathetic to anyone you perceive as weak.23 (Men, it seems, are particularly vulnerable to this effect; women tend to see a smaller spike in testosterone after winning.)24 Note: This happens only when you play against strangers, not when you play against friends or family.

You might be wondering, what’s so bad about feeling hostile toward strangers you’ll never meet in real life? It turns out that the feelings of aggression aren’t limited to the period of play. Studies show that the effects of a testosterone surge can impact your decisions and behavior for hours afterward.25 This means that your antisocial feelings toward strangers can spill over and make you more hostile or aggressive toward your real-life friends, family, and coworkers.

It gets worse: while winning against strangers online can temporarily turn you into a bit of a jerk, losing against a distant stranger isn’t particularly good for your everyday relationships, either. The most recent game research suggests that much of the aggression that has long been associated with “violent video games” is actually related to feelings of incompetence after losing.26 Players who feel embarrassed and frustrated after losing a game are more likely to display anger and hostility toward others. This can happen when you play a game alone, or with friends and family, but it’s much more likely to happen when you play against strangers whom you’re unable to synchronize with, mentally or physically.

It’s important to be clear: games like Call of Duty have not been shown to increase hostility or decrease empathy when you play with people you know in real life. In fact, a recent study showed that playing Call of Dutycompetitively against other players in the same physical space actually decreased aggression and hostility and increased empathy, as much as playing cooperatively did (just as with Hedgewars, the game you read about at the beginning of this chapter). 27 For this reason, you don’t need to avoid Call of Duty or any other game that pits you aggressively against other players. They have a host of other benefits that I’ll talk about more in Chapter 4, such as improved cognitive function and better performance in high-stress situations. Looking at the science, and the potential downside of testosterone-boosting victories, I simply recommend that you spend no more than half of your game play hours trying to beat strangers online. You’re much better off, in terms of generating social resilience, trying to beat your friends and family or playing cooperatively with strangers.

Remarkably, and fortunately, negative social impacts seem to occur consistently under only one condition of game play—aggressive, competitive game play against strangers online. All other forms of game play tend to strengthen the bond between players and make you, generally, a more likable person to others. Gaming—in person or with friends and family online—is the perfect way to practice your synchronization skills, increase your social intelligence, and develop more empathy for others. These are powerful abilities you can use in any social environment, inside and outside of games.


Skills Unlocked: How to Discover New Allies and Strengthen Your Support System

·                To neurologically sync up with someone, play a game together, competitively or cooperatively, in the same physical space. This will activate your mirror neurons, which strengthens your social bonds and increases your social intelligence.

·                As often as possible, make time with friends and family for other kinds of synchronizing activity. Anything that naturally leads to physical mirroring, such as walking together, or that requires significant coordination, such as tossing a ball back and forth, will do the trick.

·                Start looking for evidence of new allies all around you, by learning to spot the telltale signs of social synchronization. When someone is subconsciously mirroring your body language or gestures, it means they feel a strong connection to you and are more likely to help you in the future.

·                To radically increase the number of potential allies in your life, play games or sync up with people who are different from you—in age, culture, gender, or point of view. You’ll not only make new friendships, you’ll also increase your empathy for many more people.

·                Find new sources of social support by demonstrating reciprocity through social network games or playful communications. Asking for or offering a tiny bit of help, even if it’s across time and space, is the most powerful social gesture you can make.

·                Try not to spend too much time alone playing competitive games against strangers online. It won’t give you any social benefits, and it may negatively impact your empathy and likability to others. If you prefer competitive gaming, make sure to do it on a team, or against your real-life friends and family.