Jane McGonigal is a game designer — but she isn’t exactly working on the next Mario. Rather, she brings an academic perspective to gaming and looks at how games can improve our lives and solve real problems.
Her new book SuperBetter dives into scientific research on how we manage stress and challenges when playing games and applies that knowledge to real life. Before the book came about, the SuperBetter project was sparked by a traumatic incident: Jane suffered a severe concussion, leaving her unable to work, depressed, and even suicidal. But she avoided a downward spiral by setting challenges for herself, essentially turning her recovery into a game. That personal challenge eventually became an iOS app and it’s one of her many projects demonstrating that games and life do not need to be treated as separate realms. We spoke with Jane to learn a little more about her work and what games she’s playing these days.
Location: Oakland, California
Current Gig: I’m the Chief Science Officer at the game company SuperBetter, where I just wrapped up an NIH-funded clinical trial of a game designed to help players recover from depression, anxiety and traumatic brain injury. I’m also an author (Reality is Broken and my new book SuperBetter). I spend a lot of the time on the road giving talks, sharing the science of games with the public.
One word that best describes how you work: Exuberantly
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: MacBook Air
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
First and foremost, the Nike+ running app, because whenever I need to solve a design problem or break through writer’s block, I go running. I can solve any work problem with a five-mile run.
Google Scholar, because you can find peer-reviewed research on anything — and usually a PDF of the full article, even if it’s behind an academic firewall.
Skype and Google Hangouts, because my research and design collaborators are based in other parts of the country (Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Ohio State University).
Lately, Candy Crush Saga, because whenever I need a boost to my attention or willpower, I tackle a level in the game. I’m currently on level 678.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I mostly work from home, and (this may sound weird!), I mostly work from bed, or on the couch with sports on TV in the background. I have a very relaxed working style and I like having distractions, like my dogs wrestling on the bed next to me or tennis matches on TV. I mean, I’m writing up this interview right now watching the third set of the men’s semifinals of the Western and Southern Open.
When I really have to concentrate, I go into a room that we call “the future” and sit at a desk that was modelled after the wing of a B-52 bomber jet. My husband — who is a writer, and also works from home — will yell from somewhere else in the house, “Jane, where are you?” and I’ll yell back, “I’m in the future!”
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
If I’m going to fly somewhere, I will procrastinate like crazy the day or two before, so I have a massive to-do list of emails to return, slides to prepare, or articles to write on the plane. I get flying anxiety, and the best way I’ve found for me to deal with it is to have a million things that I absolutely have to do before we land. At home, I am so relaxed about how I work. But when I fly, I am like the most intense, hyper-focused, insanely productive person in the world. While they’re doing the safety briefing, I make a special to-do list I call my “Flight Plan”, and literally map out minute to minute how I’m going to spend the entire flight. It’s kind of neurotic but really effective. So, there’s my life hack: If you have any flying anxiety, procrastinate before your flights so you have to be hyper-productive.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I like to use notebooks. I have a drawer full of old Moleskine notebooks and Sanrio mini-books (Sanrio makes Hello Kitty, Twin Stars, and other happy cartoon characters) that go back literally 15 years. I’m always swapping which notebook I’m using, so I might be making a to-do list for today opposite a to-do list I made ten years ago while I was still in graduate school.
I’ve never thrown out one of these notebooks, and I never will. It’s really an awesome alternative to a journal — if you want to know what my life was like at any given time, looking at the to-do lists is the perfect view. And I’m constantly surprised and delighted, stumbling onto to-do lists from interesting periods of my life. It also helps me keep perspective. I think about how stressed out I might have been when I was making that list on the opposite page 5 years ago, and I realise that whatever is on my list today that seems overwhelming now is going to be just another page in my life that I will look back on with surprise and delight in the future.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Does a foam roller count as a gadget? When I have a really big project I’m working on — like writing a book or launching a game — I usually train for race at the same time. Completing a training run each day helps me feel productive and accomplished, even on days where I hit stumbling blocks or unexpected challenges with the work project. So for example, last year, when I was writing SuperBetter, I also trained for the California International Marathon. I ran the marathon a few weeks after I finished the book. It might seem counter-intuitive, or to be more blunt, like a really stupid idea, to take on a big, challenging personal goal at the same time that you’re tackling a huge professional goal. But I find it keeps me balanced. The harder the work project, the harder the running goal I take on. The momentum in my training gives me more resilience in my work life. And so, the gadget I can’t live without is my foam roller — which I use to roll out sore muscles!
Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what’s next?
I have a really specific hack for this problem, actually. I am constantly tweeting about projects or types of work I would like to do some day. For example, I will tweet, “I’d really like to make a game someday for a Broadway musical that you play at the theatre.” Or I’ll be watching a reality TV competition and say, “This show has great game design! If the producers ever make another show, I’d love to help them run some game theory on the design of the show!” Or if I’m giving a talk, I’ll say, “By the way, I think Nike is doing a great job of using game design in their technology, if anyone is here from Nike, I’d love to work with you guys!” And I just do this all the time. You would be surprised how often it works out. Word gets around. Just this week, I was contacted by the producers of a TV show I tweeted about last year to do some probability stats and game theory analysis on a new show they’re doing. So my advice is to have a long list of people or companies you’d like to work with and just constantly talk about it publicly. Don’t keep your crazy or creative ideas to yourself. Put them out into the world.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
It took me forever to think of an answer to this question, because there are all kinds of normal everyday things I’m not very good at, like cooking or driving. HOWEVER: I’m very good at falling asleep quickly even if I have a lot of things to worry about the next day. My secret is that every single night, my husband and I do “three great things” before we go to sleep. We each have to say three things that went great today, even if it was a horrible day. Most days, I’ll say things like, “I had a great call with (someone I’m working with)” or “I designed a great quest today.” But some days, I have to look at the bigger picture and say things like, “We had working electricity and running water all day,” which actually when you think about it is really freaking amazing.
What do you listen to while you work?
The Tennis Channel or ESPN.
What are you currently reading?
The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease by Marc Lewis, The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates.
How do you recharge? Do you ever play console games?
I don’t believe in recharging — at least not how we usually talk about it, which is taking a break from “stressful” activity. In my own experience — and in the scientific literature! — it’s clear that we get more energy by expending energy, not trying to save it, and more motivation by doing something that’s hard for us, not by enjoying some easy-going activity.
Research shows for example, that if you’re feeling short on time, the single most effective way to feel less rushed and overwhelmed is to spend 15 minutes spontaneously helping someone else. You feel “time richer” by giving away your time, not by hoarding it for yourself. And if you’re feeling physically tired or mentally burnt out, studies show that the best way to get energised is not to relax, but actually to do something difficult, whether it’s trying to solve a puzzle or doing twenty push-ups.
And yes, of course, for me, playing video games is a great way to get a mental or physical energy boost. The key is to play one that is really challenging for you. The harder the game for you personally, the more energizing it will be. (The reason is that a challenging game — or any challenging activity that you choose for yourself — amps up the dopamine available in the reward pathways of your brain, which increases your motivation and willpower.)
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m a new mum with six-month old twin girls. My sleep routine is HELP I NEED MORE SLEEP.
But in general, in “life before babies”, I’ve been happiest and most productive when I go to bed pretty early — 10PM — and wake up at 6AM. Here’s my most reliable “sleep hack” — which I especially use when I travel to different time zones: I go “dark after dark.” Meaning, I will turn off all the lights in the room at sunset so everything gets dark as soon as possible. The earlier I’m sitting around in the dark, the earlier I get tired to go to bed. As an added bonus, if you do this at home, it saves energy and lowers your electricity bill. I freely admit this is a bit eccentric, but I think it’s fun to try these kind of mini personal challenges from time to time. Even if you just go “dark after dark” one day a week, it can help you get at least one night’s better sleep.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Amy Schumer. Serena Williams. Buddhist monk Cheri Huber.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” Those wise words were spoken by Brian Sutton-Smith, a noted researcher of play. It helps me remember that I’m happiest and most productive when I make time to play games every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Or, if I’m not playing a game, I’ll always set at least one gameful goal, or mini-quest, for myself that has nothing to do with work — like “Talk to at least three different people today besides my husband” (always a challenge when you work from home!) or “Send thank-you messages to five different people today.” Games and personal mini-quests help us tap into our ability to be creative, highly motivated, collaborative, and determined to find out what we’re truly capable of.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Every other Wednesday we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips, and tricks that keep them going. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Andy.