Character sheet: Jane McGonigal, the Super-Optimist!

Play to save yourself, that’s the idea of the game designer Jane McGonigal. After experimenting in her own life, she shared how to get better from a physical or emotional condition. Games, she argues, also give us a collective intelligence to solve problems that are threatening mankind.


Green, orange and pink clothes. Blond hair and sparkling sapphire-blue eyes. Jane McGonigal is a colorful american game designer.

She taught game design at Berkeley University and San Francisco Art Institute. She then was Director of Game Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group that identifies and helps to develop emergent tendencies. Jane McGonigal is currently Creative Director and consultant for Avant Game.

There was not enough pink in the feature picture.


Her speciality: alternate reality games. They tell a story through an interactive narrative which can take place both on your screen and outdoors.

She uses this support base to give positive messages, personal motivation tools, or test our ability to tackle serious issues on a planetary scale. It’s not really serious games, but it’s pretty close.


Save yourself

The biggest influence on my game design is the science of positive psychology”, she explains on her website. A domain in which she finds a close and reliable source with her twin sister, Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.

Jane gamified her own life when she suffered a severe concussion. One day at the office, after she had bent down to pick up some documents, her head met a cabinet on the way up. The cabinet would win this confrontation.

As a consequence, Jane suffered slurred speech, nausea and vertigo, coupled with – obviously – headaches.

Doctors said she would recover within a week. Wrong. They proposed to wait for a month. Still nothing. And so that one week stretched into several months.

Stuck in bed, depressed, Jane saw only two possibilities: to end her life right there, or turn this into a game. She chose the second option and asked her relatives to give her small daily missions: walk a bit more than the previous day, make cookies, enjoy the view by the window…

Side quests in this big role-playing game that is life.

And it worked! Once better, even Super Better (a joke that works only if you know that the game and book she authored after this experience are entitled SuperBetter), she would share what she lived through and the methods she used to recover.



In 2012, Jane released the game SuperBetter, in which she offers users the same kinds of daily missions she had herself. They are divided into 4 groups: physical, mental, emotional and social.

Go shake a colleague’s hand, 5 points in Social. Take the stairs and not the elevator, 5 points in Physical. Look at an online picture of your favourite baby animal, 5 points in Emotional.

A lot cuter than a baby kitten, right? I tried with a baby koala, it works too.


The game also contains tips to make you feel better. Tips written under the expert control of Jane’s sister, Kelly.

She wrote a book about it, published in September 2015, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games.


Save the world

On a larger scale, games allow us to save much more than only ourselves. Just as Bruce Willis, games  ̶p̶r̶a̶c̶t̶i̶c̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶m̶o̶n̶i̶c̶a̶  can SAVE THE WORLD!

Yeah, no kidding.

Statement: on the planet, we nowadays spend 3 billion hours a week playing online video games. To solve problems knocking at our door such as famine or global warming, Jane estimates that we should increase that time to 21 billion hours a week!

Sounds crazy? Does she suffer some kind of “cabinet after-effect”? She prefers to say that it’s counterintuitive. She explains.

Make a better world with games, Jane McGonigal believes it. And as I fell a little bit in love, I believe it too!


Today’s young people, by the age of 21, have spent 10,000 hours playing online games. Which is roughly the time spent at school in the U.S. from 5th grade to high school graduation.

And according to Malcolm Gladwell (based on the work of Anders Ericsson), if you spend 10,000 hours practicing an activity, you’ll be a virtuoso at it.

Thus, people aged 21 are game virtuosos. There are as many as 500 million gamers globally who possess such prowess and superior skills. How can we use this resource? And what are they good at?

Well, gamers know how to solve problems. They take up challenges by cooperating. It would be silly not to use this collective intelligence.

So Jane proposes that we try, all together, to address issues that exist or will soon come up.

In World Without Oil, the player has to imagine alternative solutions for the exhaustion of oil resources. More precisely, “had to”, since this game was planned to be limited and is not playable anymore.

In EVOKE, another limited time game (it lasted 10 weeks), the player is immersed in a dystopian future, in 2020, when a major human crisis threaten humanity.

One page of a graphic novel was published every Friday at midnight.

In the first episode, the topic is a famine that should happen within a month. The game allows you to investigate the topic via real sources from online journals and Wikipedia. You then have to submit your way to solve the problem and unlock achievements.

The best players over the 10 weeks were rewarded with online mentorships from experienced social innovators and business leaders and scholarships to travel to a conference in Washington to share their vision of the future.


Amongst all the ideas developed by the players, there must be one or two able to inspire us (or to save us) in case we’d have to face one of the situations evoked in the game.

Let’s just hope that Jane McGonigal keeps all her data safe.

Despite all she did, she still has a rather critical view of gamification:

“I don’t do ‘gamification,’ and I’m not prepared to stand up and say I think it works,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should make games to try to motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”


So, are you intrinsically motivated by saving the world?


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