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Seeing Recovery in a “SuperBetter” Way

You’ve likely heard a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a devastating consequence of harrowing life events.  However, a recent TED talk sheds light on PTSD’s much happier cousin: post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Like PTSD, PTG occurs after highly stressful and challenging life events, challenging the adaptive resources of the affected individual.  However, unlike PTSD, individuals who experience PTG do not simply achieve a return to baseline from the dark period; instead they tend to experience a significant life improvement that can be deeply meaningful.

In her TED Talk, video game developer Jane McGonigal explains how she experienced PTG of her own in a way that, in her own words, “may sound crazy at first”.  While recovering from a serious concussion, she developed an alternate reality game to help her heal.  The game, dubbed SuperBetter, involves completing individualized missions to achieve the player’s overall goals and encourages the participation of family and friends to play the part of allies who help their player along the way.  Allies assist in fighting the things which slow healing or generally contribute to a negative mental state, known within the game as “the bad guys.”   The game also provides various methods of “powering up,” which can be as simple as a walk around the block.  Using this video game psychology, McGonigal and her avatar, “Jane the Concussion Slayer”, achieved confidence and eventually, a full recovery.

This approach raises a number of fascinating questions about the power of an active, optimistic brain to influence a damaged or struggling body.  Citing four kinds of resilience that contribute to post-traumatic growth: physical, mental, emotional, and social, McGonigal names specific ways that a person can build on these strengths on a daily basis and how the gaming mentality makes it easily accessible.

In her talk, McGonigal claims that when we play a game, “we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we’re more likely to reach out to others for help”.  More recently, in an April 29th article by the New York Times, she expands on her philosophy stating  that “games successfully help individuals to tap into and build upon traits such as optimism, resilience, and enhancing their ability to learn from failure”.  And McGonigal is not alone in these views.  Over the past few years, studies have been done showing how Tetris can be used as a “cognitive vaccine” against PTSD reducing the occurrence of flashbacks, to using a virtual reality game entitled Virtual Iraq as a part of exposure therapy to treat the symptoms of PTSD experienced by war veterans.  Both approaches have shown some initial positive results in reducing and/or treating symptoms.

By Mary Beth Klinger

What Do You Think?

Can serious problems and mental conditions be better treated when we add a little fun and creativity to the mix?

Can the positive benefits of virtual reality or alternate reality games outweigh the potential downsides of becoming immersed in a game?

We’d love to hear from you.

Further Reading:

For information on ongoing research into post-traumatic growth:

For the science behind SuperBetter:

From Wired article “Games for Change: Teaching With Portal, Fixing Brains with iPhone”, from their website Blog Game Life on July 17, 2012:
SuperBetter completed beta testing with over 35,000 registered users, and became available in the App Store for iPhone in late June. The game is involved in a clinical trial at Ohio State for use in traumatic brain injury and is under corporate testing at Zappos, primarily for the field of weight loss.”


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