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 3. You Are the Hero of Your Own Story
Rewire your brain so it’s easier to motivate yourself, persevere, and succeed.
In video games, we play as heroes. We become conquering space cowboys, warrior princesses, daredevil racecar drivers, or the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Even in nondigital games, we strive to be the hero of the day, accomplishing epic feats that amaze. Think about scoring a last-second goal in soccer, or marching a pawn across the chessboard to win a second queen after losing your first.
But do games actually develop our heroic potential? Can games make us more likely to be an inspiration to others, and to achieve extraordinary goals in real life? The evidence suggests yes.
In this chapter, we’re going to explore how games of all kinds increase our character strengths—like grit, perseverance, compassion, and work ethic. We’ll uncover the science behind how games strengthen our real-life willpower and help us change our real-world behavior for the better. We’ll look at the neuroscience of game play—how it changes the way our brains respond to challenge and effort, making us less likely to give up when things are difficult for us. And we’ll explore why certain games make us more likely to rise to the heroic occasion when someone else is in need.
By understanding exactly how games tap into your natural determination and compassion, you can become better able to tap into these heroic qualities—anywhere, anytime.
Let’s start with a game that has a truly audacious goal: to help young people beat cancer.
At first glance, Re-Mission looks like a typical fantasy shooter game. You control a superhero robot named Roxxi, who flies through a twisting-and-turning landscape, using powerful weapons to blow up the bad guys. But despite the 3-D graphics and immersive sound effects, Re-Mission isn’t a typical video game. Look closer, and you’ll notice that Roxxi is flying inside the human body, the bad guys are cancer cells, and her weapons include chemotherapy blasters and antibiotic grenades.
Re-Mission was created by the nonprofit HopeLab for a special purpose: to improve young patients’ adherence to difficult, but life-saving, chemotherapy and antibiotic regimens.
To fight childhood cancers like leukemia, most patients will take oral doses of these medications for two to three years. It’s extremely important for patients to try to never miss a dose. Eighty percent of cases where childhood cancer comes back (instead of staying in remission) are associated with missed medication. Fewer missed doses means lower rates of infection, fever, and hospitalization—and most important, better survival outcomes.
Families and patients know this, but young people miss doses anyway, for many different reasons. They can’t stand the side effects, such as nausea and fatigue. They get busy with school or sports as they start to feel better, making it harder to follow a strict medication routine. Or after years of treatment, they subconsciously rebel and forget to take the drugs, because they are just “sick of being sick.”
Re-Mission was designed to prevent these lapses, by helping young patients feel more optimistic and motivated to take their medications. As senior HopeLab researcher and UCLA professor of medicine Steve Cole told me, “Thirty percent of kids miss twenty percent of doses or more. Those kids have twice the risk of having a rebound of the leukemia. This is a completely avoidable risk. We have to somehow get across the message: No matter how bad the disease is, you are fundamentally in control of your health, and no one can save your life if you don’t do your part.”
Cole and his collaborators hoped that patients would become more committed to their treatment plans if they learned more about chemotherapy in the empowering context of a video game. These lessons were integrated right into the game play. For example, when the virtual patient in the game skips a chemotherapy dose, Roxxi’s chemo-blaster weapon starts to malfunction, misfiring every third shot. Skip another chemotherapy dose, and more virtual cancer cells survive each blast. Skip again, and cancer cells become drug-resistant, further increasing the challenge of each level.
So did it work? Yes, overwhelmingly. In a clinical trial, patients who played Re-Mission for as little as two hours had greater medication adherence for three months.1
Electronic pill-cap monitors showed that the game players took 16 percent more antibiotic doses over a three-month period than nonplayers. This means the game effectively eliminated a whopping half of the typically missed doses. And when patients’ blood was drawn and tested, Re-Mission players had 41 percent higher doses of the cancer-fighting medication in their bodies. They were significantly more successful in keeping up with treatment—and therefore more likely to stay in remission.2 (The trial was conducted with 375 patients, aged 13 to 29, at 34 medical centers across the United States.)
Interestingly, a full quarter of the study participants reported that they rarely played video games before the trial. Another third had previously played just one or two hours per week. In other words, these were not hard-core gamers who were benefiting from the game. The game worked equally well for novice or infrequent game players as it did for lifelong players—and it is continuing to work for patients worldwide. As a result of this successful clinical trial, Re-Mission has been distributed to more than 250,000 cancer patients. And recently HopeLab released six follow-up cancer-fighting games online, including Stem Cell Defender and Nanobot’s Revenge. (They are free to play at www.re-mission2.org.)
HopeLab’s games are an incredible, potentially life-saving resource. But even if you aren’t battling cancer, the Re-Mission research offers a powerful, life-changing insight: motivation alone is far less important to success and willpower than you think.
Before the cancer patients played Re-Mission, they were already fighting for their lives—presumably a highly motivating state. This was not a group that simply needed more motivation. They had it in spades, yet they nevertheless regularly failed to do the things they knew could dramatically improve their chances for a cure.
Somehow the video game Re-Mission intervened in a way that converted mere motivation into a much more powerful psychological resource. But what is that resource? And how did the game create it so quickly?
This is exactly what the HopeLab team was wondering after they saw the success from their first clinical trial. Originally, they had hypothesized that thirty hours of play would be necessary to make a positive impact on medication adherence. They were amazed when just two hours made such a significant difference. And they had expected players to need continual reinforcement and reminders from the video game every day in order to keep up their behavior change. Yet it turned out that playing the game just once was enough. It was truly a surprising result. What could explain such long-term, real-life behavioral changes after such a short time of virtual play?
The key to solving this puzzle was found in another set of data that the researchers collected during the clinical trial. They weren’t just monitoring medication adherence. They also tracked psychological changes during the trial. Players and nonplayers reported the same levels of motivation, stress, cancer symptoms, and physical side effects, but the game players differed remarkably in one area. They reported feeling significantly more powerful, optimistic, and able to positively impact their own health than nonplayers.
Psychologists call this state of mind self-efficacy. It’s the belief that you, yourself, can effect positive change in your own life.
Self-efficacy is not the same thing as self-esteem, which is a more general positive feeling of self-worth. Self-efficacy means having confidence in the concrete skills and abilities required to solve specific problems or achieve particular goals. It is usually context-specific: you might have high self-efficacy at work but low self-efficacy about public speaking or losing weight.
Self-efficacy is the crucial difference between having lots of motivation but failing to follow through, and successfully converting motivation into consistent and effective action. With high self-efficacy, you are more likely to take actions that help you reach your goals, even if those actions are difficult or painful. You also engage with difficult problems longer, without giving up. But with low self-efficacy, no matter how motivated you are, you’re less likely to take positive action—because you lack belief in your ability to make a difference in your own life.
So where did the Re-Mission players’ new self-efficacy come from? Well, all games are intentionally designed to increase players’ feelings of competence, power, and skillful ability over time—in other words, to build up their self-efficacy. Like all video games, Re-Mission challenges players to achieve a difficult goal: navigating through a complex, 3-D space and destroying all the virtual cancer cells before time runs out. This goal requires skill, practice, and effort. Players of Re-Mission, like players of all games, are typically unsuccessful at first. But quickly, with repeated effort and as they learn how the game works, they start to improve their skills and strategies. Eventually they master a few challenges. And because it’s a video game, it gets harder. The challenges get more difficult and complex with each new level. This constantly escalating challenge requires a willingness from players to keep trying, even when they fail. It instills a belief that if they keep practicing and learning, if they put in the hard work, they will eventually be able to achieve more difficult goals.
This is the classic path to increased self-efficacy: accept a goal, make an effort, get feedback on that effort, improve a concrete skill, keep trying, and eventually succeed. You don’t need a game to set off on this path. But because it is the very nature of games to challenge and improve our abilities, they are an incredibly reliable and efficient way to get there.
And here’s the good news: once you have a feeling of self-efficacy about a particular problem, it tends to persist. It’s a lasting mindset shift, permanently changing what you believe you are capable of and what goals you believe you can realistically achieve. And this is exactly why Re-Mission worked so well. The game created a new source of self-efficacy for young patients, in a situation where it is easy to otherwise feel powerless or overwhelmed. Instead of seeing chemotherapy as a negative experience they were forced to undergo, they came to see it as a powerful weapon they were fully in control of. They understood exactly how it worked, and they weren’t afraid to use it!
This shift in mindset alone—from powerless to powerful, from feeling weakened to feeling successful—was enough to supercharge the players’ willpower and determination throughout the long course of treatment.
Self-efficacy is increased anytime you learn a new skill or master a new challenge. So let’s increase your self-efficacy right now—with another quest!
QUEST 11: The Power Breath
You’ve probably tried deep, slow breathing to calm yourself down. But there’s actually a more useful breathing technique, one that can reduce stress, decrease pain, increase concentration, halt migraines, and prevent panic attacks.
What to do: Breathe in while you count slowly to 4. Exhale while you count to 8.
In for 4, out for 8. Repeat for at least one minute. This is a bit more challenging than it sounds! The trick is to always exhale for twice as long as you inhale.
Give it a try right now. You don’t have to do a full minute right away. Try to do it just once: in for 4, out for 8. Got it?
Okay, now try to do it twice in a row.
Good? Now try three in a row. If you can, count a little bit slower, and draw the breath out even more.
Excellent! You’ve mastered the trick. When you can keep this up for at least one full minute, you will be able to help yourself feel better, almost immediately, in many different stressful or painful situations.
Why it works: Breathing at this rhythm increases your heart rate variability,3 the slight differences in the length of time between your heartbeats, from one to the next.
The more variation, the better. In the long term, high heart rate variability protects against stress, anxiety, inflammation, and pain. In the short term, increased heart rate variability has a huge impact on your nervous system. It shifts your body from what scientists call sympathetic stimulation (which, when activated by stress, pain, or anxiety, triggers a fight-or-flight mode) to parasympathetic stimulation (a calm-and-connect mode).4
Just by changing how you breathe for one minute, you can shift your entire nervous system from a stressful state to a highly relaxed state. Muscles relax, heart rate decreases, digestion improves, and state of mind improves. If you’re feeling any kind of bad, this powerful shift is sure to help.
But you’re not finished with this quest yet! I want you to think of two different situations where this power breathing technique could help you feel better, immediately. For example, I personally use this technique to stop migraines in their tracks, and to calm my anxiety during turbulence on flights. A collaborator of mine at Nike uses it to relieve muscle cramps after tough workouts. SuperBetter players have reported using the power breath technique to control their tempers with their kids, to battle the nausea of morning sickness, to fight insomnia, before going into a stressful meeting, and even to put themselves in the mood to make love. How will you use it?
What to do: Predict two situations in your life where power breathing for one minute could help. Make a decision now to use this technique the next time you find yourself in that situation.
Quest complete: That’s it—congratulations! You’ve increased your self-efficacy when it comes to battling stress, anxiety, discomfort, or pain. You’ve learned a new skill, and you’ve anticipated two specific problems it can help you solve. You’ve got a superpower—and you know exactly how and when to use it.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see how self-efficacy is created—and how it can supercharge your ability to do what’s difficult. However, there’s still one puzzling thing about the Re-Mission clinical trial results. It makes sense that participants in the study would develop more confidence and belief in their video game skills by playing Re-Mission. Playing a video game makes you better at that particular game and probably other games as well. But how did confidence in their ability to beat a video game translate into confidence to beat cancer in real life? It’s a hell of a lot harder to win the battle against a real life-threatening disease than it is to destroy virtual bad guys on a computer screen.
To solve this mystery, we need to turn to the neuroscience of video games. Because it turns out that while there are many ways to increase confidence in individual skills, nothing primes the brain for general self-efficacy—or the belief that you have the ability to conquer any problem you put your mind to—faster or more reliably than video games.
Video games create a rush in the brain as pleasurable and powerful as intravenous drugs. It was the first major breakthrough in the neuroscience of gaming, and it was rather shocking. The year was 1998, and a group of British scientists had just found that playing video games leads to a massive increase in the amount of dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, in the brain.5 To their astonishment, they found that the increase in dopamine from game play was equal to the boost experienced when scientists injected amphetamines intravenously into the same study participants.
Games impact the brain in nearly an identical fashion to highly addictive drugs?! On the face of it, this finding might seem alarming—particularly given that, depending on the study, anywhere from 1 to 8 percent of video game players consider themselves at least periodically “addicted” to their favorite games.6 (The most common percentage reported in these studies is 3 percent; in Chapter 4 we’ll look at the factors that can lead to excessive game play and the most effective techniques for treating it.) Indeed, if you’re already familiar with the neurotransmitter dopamine, you’ve probably heard about it in the context of addiction. The pleasurable effects of many drugs, from nicotine to cocaine, are thought to stem from the large amount of dopamine they release in the mesolimbic pathways, the “reward circuitry” of the brain.
But the mesolimbic pathways are involved in many brain processes, not just pleasure and addiction. Dopamine in this region also stimulates memory, motivation, learning, emotion, and desire. In fact, for the vast majority of people, in the course of ordinary everyday life, increased dopamine in the reward circuitry is not a sign of addiction. More commonly, it’s a sign of increased motivation and determination.7
Here’s how it works. Every time you consider a possible goal, your brain conducts a split-second, unconscious cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth the effort to try to achieve it.8 How you conduct this analysis depends less on the facts of the situation than on how much dopamine is present in your brain.
When you have high dopamine levels in the reward circuitry, you worry less about the effort required, and you find it easier to imagine and predict success. This translates into higher determination and lower frustration in the face of setbacks. Meanwhile, when dopamine runs low in the reward circuitry—something that happens during a period of clinical depression, for example—you weigh more heavily the effort required, often magnifying it, and you discount the importance of your goals.9 You also tend to anticipate failure rather than success, which can lead you to avoid challenges altogether.10
Obviously, then, when you’re tackling a new goal or facing a tough obstacle, it’s a huge benefit to have high levels of dopamine. And the benefit extends beyond motivation and determination. High dopamine levels in the reward circuitry are also associated with faster learning and better performance.11 That’s because when we’re goal-oriented, we pay more attention to what we’re doing. We also respond more quickly and effectively to feedback, which makes it easier to learn and improve. This is the neurological basis of self-efficacy: high motivation to achieve a goal, combined with the increased determination and faster learning required to master new skills and abilities. This powerful combination makes you more ambitious and justifiably more optimistic about your odds of success.
For many video game researchers (and video game players!), these neuroscience findings make perfect sense. Gamers, after all, spend on average 80 percent of the time failing when they play their favorite games.12 Without the dopamine rush during game play, surely they would give up much sooner. But the high level of dopamine in the reward circuitry ensures that gamers stay focused, motivated, and determined to succeed. Meanwhile, thanks to the faster learning that occurs with continuous dopamine release, gamers are more likely to improve their skills and eventually achieve their goals.
No wonder frequent gamers work so hard, hour after hour, at their favorite games. Their brains are being primed for increased self-efficacy with every move they make. Scientists know that dopamine is released every time we anticipate feedback from a goal-oriented action—whether in daily life or in games. We get a rush of excitement to find out how we did. It just so happens that when we play video games, we take so many goal-oriented actions, so quickly, and get such immediate feedback, that the dopamine rush is as powerful as amphetamine drugs.
It’s not always beneficial to be optimistic and determined. In some contexts, a predisposition to try harder for more unlikely or difficult rewards can be counterproductive or even pathological—particularly when greater effort is unlikely to actually help. When it comes to gambling, for example, where luck is more of a factor than hard work, this mindset can lead to terrible consequences. Or in the case of a dopamine rush created by a drug like cocaine or nicotine, extreme motivation to achieve a reward (more of the drug) can lead to a dangerous discounting of the health costs involved with actually getting what we want.
But in many more everyday contexts, especially where hard work is likely to produce better results—such as trying to learn something new, completing a difficult assignment, training for a sport, rehabilitating from an injury, or even just trying to pull ourselves out of depression—a neurological bias toward effortful action can produce powerful and positive results.
But does the dopamine rush translate from video games to real-life challenges and problem solving? Do games rewire our brains to be more motivated and work harder only when we’re playing? Or can we translate our increased ambition and self-efficacy to the rest of our lives?
Researchers have found that frequent video gamers do indeed put more effort into difficult problem solving outside their favorite games. One recent study showed that gamers exhibited “a dispositional need to complete difficult tasks” and “the desire to exhibit high standards of performance in the face of frustration.”13 When given a series of easy puzzles to solve and difficult puzzles to solve, frequent game players spent significantly more time on the difficult puzzles. Infrequent players, on the other hand, gave up much faster and showed less interest in mastering the challenging task. Overall, the researchers reported, gamers showed much higher persistence and perseverance. They showed a habitual thirst for challenge and a striving to succeed even under difficult circumstances.
What accounts for this trait development? Previous studies (not on video games) show that individuals who engage successfully in any task requiring high effort will continue to extend high effort in future tasks. Working hard and then achieving our goal primes us—neurologically, with more dopamine—to work harder. It’s the same biochemical process of addiction, but it’s a virtuous rather than a vicious cycle.
As a result of these findings, scientists have proposed that higher dopamine levels in the brain may actually be the most important driver of a solid work ethic.14 This is a crucial rethinking of one of the most universally valued and admired character strengths. Work ethic is not a moral virtue that can be cultivated simply by wanting to be a better person. It’s actually a biochemical condition that can be fostered, purposefully, through activity that increases dopamine levels in the brain. This explains precisely how challenging video games—like Re-Mission—could prime us to tackle other everyday challenges with higher effort and more determination.
Adding further evidence to this theory, another recent study suggests that frequent video gamers’ brains are indeed changed in a long-term way by the heightened dopamine response. A team of twenty-five scientists from Germany, Belgium, France, the U.K., and Canada reported together that frequent gamers—defined as people who play at least nine hours a week on average—have higher gray matter volume in the “left ventral striatum,” part of the reward-processing area of the brain.15 More gray matter, in general, means that the brain is bigger and more powerful. More gray matter in the left ventral striatum, in particular, means you have more cognitive resources to devote to motivation, determination, optimism, and learning.
It’s possible that people who are naturally more motivated by challenge and who are better learners are more attracted to video games—rather than video games increasing these strengths over time. However, most neuroscientists who study games believe this is not the case. They attribute differences between the brains of frequent and infrequent game players to neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire itself and strengthen different regions based on frequent activity.16 Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D., and her cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, for example, have been studying the effect of action video games on brain plasticity and learning. After more than a decade of research, she believes that games lead to significant neural reorganization, resulting in increased attention, faster decision making, and more effective learning.17 Indeed, Dr. Bavelier has identified video games as potentially the single most effective intervention for increasing neuroplasticity in adults.18
Judy Willis, M.D., is another neuroscientist who believes in the power of games to rewire players’ brains for the better. A former chief resident at UCLA’s neurology clinic, she spent fifteen years seeing patients in her own pediatric neurology practice. Today she works with schools and educators to teach cognitive habits that lead to lifelong success and psychological well-being. Her primary strategy: provide students with daily experiences of self-efficacy, including frequent video game play.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” she likes to say, quoting one of the basic principles of neuroscience.19 The more you repeat a thought pattern, the stronger the neural networks that drive it become. And the stronger the neural networks, the more likely you are to repeat that thought pattern in the future. The pattern becomes easier to access, with neurons firing up to one hundred times faster—and because the patterns are repeated so often, the neural networks are less vulnerable to cognitive decline over time.
This means that the self-efficacy we experience when we play games frequently is not just a belief, according to Dr. Willis. It’s a way of thinking that is hardwired into the brain—a result of repeated activation of specific neurological circuits that train the brain to be motivated by challenge, rewarded by feedback, and more resilient in the face of temporary failure. “This is why nothing builds a success mindset faster or more effectively than video games,” Dr. Willis told me. “When you have constant opportunities to try different strategies and get feedback, you get more frequent and more intense bursts of dopamine. Not only do you get minute-to-minute pleasure, but the mindset starts changing in long-term ways. Your brain starts looking at things that weren’t achievable before and starts to think they might be achievable with a little effort. It expects to learn and improve and eventually succeed, because that’s what it’s used to doing.
“When you’re constantly experiencing successful goal achievement,” she explains, “your brain’s cost-benefit analysis changes entirely. You can overrule your brain’s default mode that wants you to avoid wasting energy on difficult tasks or challenging goals. Your brain adapts to seek out more challenge, to be less afraid of failure, and to be more resilient in the face of setbacks.”
Fifteen years’ worth of neuroscience research on games adds up to one big idea: if you want to change your brain for the better—to turn motivation into self-efficacy, to learn faster, and to cultivate more resilience—play more games. Or at the very least, provoke your brain with challenging learning opportunities in the same ways that good games do.
Here is one of Dr. Willis’s favorite ways to spike dopamine in the brain. It’s not a game, but it’s very gameful. She uses this simple technique with patients and clients to help them recover from mental burnout. And it’s your next quest!
QUEST 12: Make a Prediction
What to do: Make a prediction about something—anything—that you can personally verify the outcome of sometime in the next twenty-four hours.
It can be big or small, silly or serious. Just make a prediction—and see if you’re right!
Examples: Here are some things SuperBetter players have made predictions about.
· The winner of a sporting event
· “The exact amount of money in my bank account at this moment, down to the penny”
· “The number of emails I’ll receive in the next hour”
· “What mood I’ll be in this exact time tomorrow”
· “Whose snoring will wake me first tonight: husband versus dog. I predict husband!”
· “What song my favorite band will play first at their concert”
· “What score, on a scale from 1 to 10, my best friend will rate the movie we’re watching together”
· “How fast I can put the dishes away without breaking anything. Prediction: two minutes, fifteen seconds!”
· “How many hugs I will get from former teachers, coaches, and friends in the next twenty-four hours. I’m visiting my hometown, from thirty years and many miles away, so I think it will be a very high number!”
Why it works: Making a prediction is one of the most reliable and efficient ways to prime the reward circuitry of the brain. “Every prediction you make triggers an increase in attention and dopamine,” says Dr. Willis. That’s because every time you make a prediction, two highly rewarding outcomes are possible. You might be right—which will feel good! Or, you might be wrong—which will give you information that will help you make a better prediction next time. Surprisingly, this will also feel good—because your brain loves learning. In fact, “the dopamine boost is often greater when you learn something new and useful than when you succeed,” Dr. Willis says.
Dozens of scientific studies back up this claim. Gamers get a dopamine hit even during failure and losses—as long as they have a chance to try again.20
So go ahead and make a prediction—any prediction! Whether you’re right or wrong, you’ll get a dopamine boost. It’s a win-win game. Use this trick whenever you’re bored, frustrated, or stressed. It’s a quick and natural way to provoke curiosity and attention, while strengthening the neural circuitry that promotes determination, ambition, and perseverance. (And if you’re with someone who is bored, frustrated, or stressed, ask them to make a prediction!)
Tip: For an extra dopamine boost, try to get someone else to make a competing prediction. The added social stakes will increase your anticipation of a potential reward.
A SuperBetter Story: The Job Seeker
A few weeks ago I heard from my good friend Calvin. He’s thirty-five years old, married, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. We’ve known each other since graduate school at UC Berkeley. Over the past decade, Calvin has worked both in the tech industry and in university research labs. Recently, he decided to take a leap of faith and look for a full-time academic position.
“Career adventures are coming fast and frequent at this point,” he wrote me in an email. “I’ve landed interviews at five universities.” He sounded upbeat in the letter, but he admitted to being pretty stressed out about one of his interviews at a top research university.
“A friend of mine who interviewed there last year said he was practically crying by the end of the meeting. Apparently, this one professor had started the interview by telling my friend that his dissertation work was complete crap, and that the university had made a huge mistake in inviting him to interview.” Not the most encouraging story, considering that Calvin was slated to meet with the same professor!
Job interviews are stressful even in the best circumstances, but when Calvin got to campus for the two-day interview, the tension only increased. “The first few people I met with all warned me about my upcoming interview with this same professor, telling me how notoriously vicious he is with junior researchers. Everyone had a war story about meeting with him. Even the chair of the hiring committee said they had second thoughts about including him on my schedule.
“Needless to say, the night before that day I was pretty nervous. I had to get a grip. I thought ‘How can I make this meeting into a game, rather than into something I’m dreading?’ So I decided to create a bingo game. I tried to predict the worst possible things he could say to me, whatever would upset me most. I wrote them down, plus the ‘free square’ in the middle. I folded that bingo card and put it in my pocket when I went in for the interview.”
Calvin sent me a photo of the card so I could see his gameful solution for myself. His custom bingo squares included the kinds of moments that would make any interviewee cringe: “Personal attack/critique,” “Tests my knowledge/skills,” “Points out flaw/error/mistake in my work,” “Cites references I’m not familiar with,” “Says my work is derivative, obvious,” “Dismisses it as not important,” “Accuses me of being unprincipled.”
And did it help? Unequivocally, yes. “Turns out, he did say lots of those negative things to me, but it didn’t bother me at all,” Calvin said. “Every time he tried to make me feel small, I got to mentally check off a bingo square. It brought a lot of humor to a really stressful situation.”
Calvin won twice. First, he scored a bingo. “The professor got the whole middle horizontal row,” he told me. “He really was as bad as everyone said!” But later Calvin scored the real victory: he got a job offer from the university. Ultimately, he decided to take a job somewhere else, but having multiple offers helped him negotiate the best deal.
I’m so impressed by Calvin’s clever solution to a nerve-racking situation. He might not have been intentionally hacking into his dopamine pathway, but he was definitely giving himself a dopamine boost every time he filled in a bingo square. And because the mere act of making a prediction heightens attention and boosts dopamine, just creating the bingo board put Calvin in a much more determined and optimistic state of mind.
“Worst-case-scenario bingo” may not be a game you look forward to playing—because really, who wants to be in a stressful or unpleasant situation? But if you do need to tap into your determination and grit, this gameful intervention is a brilliant way to prepare your brain for resilience and success. While you’re at it, why not create a “best-case-scenario” bingo card for your next big day? Think of all the good things that could happen to you on a trip, or at a big work event, or on a special occasion. After all, you can benefit from determination and optimism on fun days just as much as on tough ones!
Now you know: game play supercharges self-efficacy, work ethic, and determination. So what kinds of real-life goals can you accomplish with these gameful strengths?
One leading-edge research lab at Stanford University has dedicated the past ten years to investigating this question. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), founded and directed by cognitive psychologist Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, specializes in research on how virtual reality experiences can change our real-life attitudes and behaviors for the better. Through dozens of ingenious experiments, they’ve discovered that just a few minutes in the right virtual environment can increase our willpower and compassion, changing how we think and act for the next twenty-four hours or even the next week.
Here are a few of their most intriguing findings.
Want to exercise more, but can’t quite seem to summon up the willpower? There may be a gameful way to trick your brain into moving your body. It’s called vicarious exercise. All you have to do is watch a video game doppelgänger, or an avatar designed to look just like you, exercising in the virtual world.
It’s true. You can build exercise-related self-efficacy without doing a single push-up or taking a single step. You just need to spend a few minutes watching your avatar do all the hard work.
In a study conducted by the VHIL, researchers found that participants who watched their virtual doppelgängers running on a treadmill reported feeling significantly higher confidence that they could exercise effectively. More important, after they left the lab, they exercised a full hour more than participants who watched their virtual doppelgänger stand around doing nothing. Over the next twenty-four hours, the participants with running avatars walked more city blocks, climbed more stairs, and spent more time in the gym.21
However, this technique worked only when the avatars were specially created to look like the participants. Watching a generic male or female avatar exercise had zero effect on participants’ real-life movement.
Can seeing a virtual version of yourself succeed trick your brain into believing you’ve actually done it yourself? This study suggests it can, and that it’s an effective shortcut to boost self-efficacy. The Stanford researchers theorize that the virtual doppelgängers create a “mirror neuron effect.”22 (As you’ll recall from Chapter 2, our mirror neurons mimic the neural activity of people around us, particularly when we are doing the same activity or feel closely connected to them.) Because participants felt more closely connected to avatars that looked just like them, the mirror neuron effect was stronger. It’s quite an astonishing finding—we can create mirror neurons not just with other people but with virtual people as well!
On the heels of this promising study, the same lab decided to try to create an even more effective exercise booster. They kept the virtual doppelgängers and added a new, interactive element. This time participants were asked to lift weights while observing their avatars. Every time they completed a successful lift in real life, their virtual avatar changed shape, appearing more muscular and fit. During mandated breaks in the participants’ exercise, however, the avatars changed shape again, becoming heavier and flabbier.
After just a few minutes of this interactive workout, participants were invited to stay for up to thirty minutes and continue their workout. Compared with a group that lifted weights without a virtual doppelgänger, they completed ten times as many exercises. Imagine if you could motivate yourself to do ten times as many push-ups, or climb ten times as many steps, every time you exercised—just by spending a few minutes working out with a virtual version of yourself!
Like many of the other studies we’ve looked at in this chapter, dopamine bursts seem to be a major factor in creating this positive change. Dr. Bailenson calls it the “instant gratification” of immediate virtual weight loss. “Working out with a virtual doppelgänger means you can see physical rewards of exercise right away,” he says, “which is something that doesn’t typically happen in the real world. In the real world, it takes days or weeks to notice any positive physical changes.” But game avatars that respond to physical activity right away can trigger dopamine boosts that trick the brain into feeling rewarded immediately. This process enables players to build self-efficacy much more quickly than in normal life. And greater self-efficacy, even if it’s from a virtual experience, leads to more real-world exercise, right away.
To confirm this surprising phenomenon, the Stanford researchers have conducted five different studies to date. They all show the same thing: vicarious exercise and vicarious weight loss significantly increase self-efficacy, and as a result, real-world exercise.23
So what does this mean for you, today? The VHIL virtual doppelgängers aren’t available to the public yet—although undoubtedly, vicarious exercise technology will become widespread in the future. In the meantime, this research should be a powerful reminder that self-efficacy, not motivation, is the key to building up your willpower and determination to do things that are difficult. If you need to boost your own self-efficacy without the help of virtual reality, focus on specific skills and abilities that you can increase, even if it’s only the tiniest bit each day. Run for one minute longer. Do one more push-up. Walk one more block. The key is to commit to a specific improvement at the start of each workout. Every time you set a slightly more challenging goal and successfully achieve it, you’ll activate the neural networks that support increased self-efficacy and determination.
If you want the full avatar experience, however, a simpler version of vicarious exercise may be available to you today. Meredith, forty, an elementary school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, discovered this trick by accident when she started playing the computer game The Sims, a kind of computerized dollhouse in which you create custom avatars and help them achieve their career and family goals. “Not sure what to make of this,” she wrote me recently, “but my Sim seems to have inspired me to exercise and talk to my neighbors more.” It turns out that Meredith had created a Sim version of herself—same hair color, eye color, height, weight, and even fashion sense. And watching her virtual doppelgänger work out and socialize in the computer game triggered the motivation and self-efficacy to do it herself. “The instant results that my Sim gets when she works out or chats with neighbors is so satisfying!” she told me. “Seeing the immediate reward the avatar gets makes it look so easy.”
As in Dr. Bailenson’s lab, the instant gratification of virtual feedback seems to have triggered real-world self-confidence in Meredith. It also triggered a helpful awareness of priorities. “I think it’s the panel that shows the Sims’ needs that really inspired me,” she said, referring to the way Sims games keep score by reminding you that your Sim characters need things like exercise and social activity to be happy and healthy. “I started thinking of what my own panel would be like,” Meredith told me. “I realized I needed to spend more time doing the things that make me feel good. Funny how a computer game can teach you something important about yourself!”
We’ve looked so far in this chapter at heroic qualities like determination, grit, and perseverance. These character strengths help you overcome the kind of tough obstacles and achieve epic goals that can make you an inspiration to others. But there’s another kind of heroic quality that increased self-efficacy can provoke: altruistic qualities.
In another series of experiments at Dr. Bailenson’s Stanford University lab, participants were invited to learn how to “fly like Superman,” using a special virtual reality flying simulator.24 Players would fly through a city landscape, controlling their flight path through their own physical gestures. To give you an idea of what it might feel like to interact with this kind of simulator, here are the game play instructions given to the study participants:
Lift your hands over your head to take off. To land, drop your hands to your side. Where you point your hands is where you will fly. To move faster, move your hands together. To fly slower move your hands apart.
Players were instructed to search the city streets for a crying child. That child, they were told, is diabetic and needs you to deliver insulin to save his life.
The physicality of the experience was an essential component of this game’s design, for two reasons. First, the researchers wanted to give participants the chance to learn a new and unfamiliar skill. By following the instructions and successfully learning how to control the simulator, players would experience a burst of self-efficacy. Second, the researchers wanted to evoke classic mental associations with superhero characters. The ability to fly through the air using only your own power evokes, for most people, the idea of a benevolent superhero like Superman. The researchers’ hypothesis was that by having a firsthand experience of effectively developing a superpower usually associated with superheroes, participants would be more likely to behave heroically toward others in everyday life.
To test this hypothesis, another set of participants were invited to play the same game, but with a different set of rules. They were told that this game would take them on a helicopter ride through the city. Instead of directly controlling their own flight, they passively experienced a tour of the same streets. Like the other participants, however, they were instructed to look for a crying child, so they could land the helicopter and deliver life-saving medicine.
All participants were allowed to keep playing until they successfully completed their rescue mission. Then—and here comes the clever part of the experiment’s design—the researchers staged a fake accident, which happened after the participants had finished playing the game but before they left the lab. Would they notice a person in need—a young woman who suffered a spill—and would they come to her rescue?
It turned out that participants who controlled their own flight in the simulator jumped up to help three times faster, and helped for twice as long, as participants who simply wore the same virtual reality headset and enjoyed a passive helicopter ride through the city landscape. In fact, every single person who learned how to fly helped the struggling person, whereas a full 20 percent of the helicopter passengers completely ignored her.
The important take-away from this study is that players who had direct control over their rescue mission were significantly more inspired to help others. Even though all the participants received the same prosocial “help others” messaging, self-efficacy was ultimately a much more powerful boost of altruistic behavior.
This finding was confirmed in another twist of science, when the Stanford researchers invited yet another group of participants to use the flight simulator without a rescue mission. This group of players learned how to “fly” but were not asked to find a crying child or deliver life-saving medication. This nonrescue group, despite not receiving any “help others” messaging, also was quicker to jump to the rescue and spent more time helping than were the helicopter passengers with a rescue mission. The direct experience of a superpower was enough to change their real-life behavior, even without the subconscious priming of a fictional rescue mission.
The superhero story, it turns out, doesn’t matter as much as the super-empowering experience of having full control over a successful outcome. If you want to tap into your own heroic nature, give yourself the chance to master new skills and experience success—whether it’s in a game or a sport, in the kitchen or the garage. Whenever you feel strong and capable, you’re more likely to use those strengths and capabilities to help others.
Superpower simulators aren’t the only gameful way to unleash your heroic altruism. Here’s a quest inspired by one of my favorite scientific papers from the past decade, written by researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and New York University’s Stern School of Business, and conducted with Princeton University psychologists. The paper, titled “From Student to Superhero,” documents a simple psychological trick you can use anytime, anywhere, to increase your own real-life heroic behavior.
QUEST 13: The Superhero Mirror
Your quest instructions come straight from a psychology lab at Princeton University:
“For this task we would like you to describe the characteristics of a superhero. Think of a superhero, and list the behaviors, values, lifestyle, and appearance associated with these characters.”25
Go ahead and do this now.
What to do: Take at least two full minutes to list everything you can think of that describes a generic superhero: what motivates them, how they treat others, what they do in the face of danger—you get the idea.
You don’t need to be a comic book genius to complete this quest, just do your best! And remember, don’t describe any superhero in particular. Instead, try to list characteristics that describe many, if not most, superheroes.
For the biggest impact, don’t just think of your answer. Write it down, or record it into your phone. At the very least, talk out loud to yourself—it will help you focus and fully lock in the benefits of this quest.
Why it works: Just thinking about what it takes to be a superhero makes you more likely to act like one in the future. You’re more likely to volunteer to help others and donate your time to a worthy cause.
Here’s the data on this quest: the MIT and NYU researchers found that study participants who completed the same quest you just completed were far more altruistic afterward. When asked to sign up to tutor local at-risk youth, twice as many participants who thought about superheroes volunteered as participants who did not think about superheroes (51 percent compared with 24 percent). Among those who volunteered, the superhero group volunteered twice as many hours (an hour a week versus half an hour a week, on average). Most surprisingly, a full three months later, the superhero participants were four times as likely to actually show up for a volunteering session.
How could just a couple minutes’ worth of reflection trigger significant behavior change over a three-month period? Well, psychologists know from numerous studies that when we’re asked to think about the positive traits of a particular social group (such as the selfless, fearless behavior of superheroes), we invariably compare ourselves to the admirable group—and we usually start by looking for similarities. We subconsciously measure ourselves against their values and virtues—and because almost everyone wants to live up to highly admired social standards, we naturally look for ways to fit the bill. It’s like holding up a mirror that reflects back only the best parts.
It’s a bit of a “positive bias”—we all want to think that we’re amazing, wonderful people, even if we’re not. But it’s still a neat and useful psychological trick. Take advantage of your own bias by spending a few minutes thinking about the values and virtues of a group of people you admire—whether they’re professional athletes, firefighters, emergency room nurses, teachers, activists, CEOs, or artists. Every time you do just that, you become twice as likely to jump at the chance to be like these heroes when the opportunity arises.
One important caveat: This quest seems to work only when you think about an entire group of heroes, not one in particular. If you single out one particularly amazing person, you are more likely to compare yourself unfavorably with his or her virtues or achievements. That’s because, psychologists have found, we tend to look for similarities between ourselves and admirable groups, but we tend to notice differences between ourselves and admirable individuals. Thinking about these differences can actually decrease your motivation and self-efficacy! So be sure to focus on general qualities of groups you admire and not on individual heroes.
Tip: To really benefit from this quest, you should look for an opportunity right now to be more like your heroes (or superheroes, whoever inspires you most!). If you make a mental commitment to do something concrete while the positive social standard is still at the top of your mind, you’re more likely to follow through in the future. Researchers describe this as “committing yourself to future behavior while a temporary goal is more salient,” or top-of-mind. If you’re thinking about heroes or superheroes right now, you’re more motivated to adopt an altruistic goal. Adopting that goal right now makes it much easier for you to make the time and energy to achieve it, whether it’s tomorrow, next week, or even months from now. So make a tiny commitment right now to do some good in the world, and you’ll fully reap all the benefits of this quest.
The science of games reveals that we have more power to motivate and improve ourselves than we realize—to make positive change, to adopt new habits, to be better people, to do what is otherwise hard. Games show us how to strive for epic goals that inspire us—and in doing so, they help us build the strengths that inspire others.
Skills Unlocked: How to Build Heroic Character Strengths
· If you want to make a change for the better or achieve a tough goal, don’t worry about motivation. Instead, focus on increasing your self-efficacy: confidence in your ability to solve your own problems and achieve your goals.
· The fastest and most reliable way to increase your self-efficacy is to learn how to play a new game. Any kind of game will do, because all games require you to learn new skills and tackle tough goals.
· The level of dopamine in your brain influences your ability to build self-efficacy. The more you have, the more determined you feel, and the less likely you are to give up. You’ll learn faster, too—because high dopamine levels improve your attention and help you process feedback more effectively. Keep in mind that video games have been shown to boost dopamine levels as much as intravenous amphetamines.
· Whenever you want to boost your dopamine levels, play a game—or make a prediction. Predictions prime your brain to pay closer attention and to anticipate a reward. (Playing “worst-case scenario bingo” is an excellent way to combine these two techniques!)
· You can also build self-efficacy vicariously by watching an avatar that looks like you accomplish feats in a virtual world.
· Whenever possible, customize video game avatars to look like you. Every time your avatar does something awesome, you’ll get a vicarious boost to your willpower and determination.
· Remember, self-efficacy doesn’t just help you. It can inspire you to help others. The more powerful you feel, the more likely you are to rise to the heroic occasion. So the next time you feel superpowerful, take a moment to ask yourself how you can use your powers for good.