A SuperBetter You, A SuperBetter Me: Gaming the New Self-Help

In certain sectors the news couldn’t have been bigger. Yet I’m afraid it missed the […]

David Zahl / 9.17.15

In certain sectors the news couldn’t have been bigger. Yet I’m afraid it missed the mocking-orbit completely. I’m referring to the announcement back in March that Steven Spielberg would be directing the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 book Ready Player One. After the author showed up in the Atari documentary driving a restored Dolorean, I checked with certain genre experts to see if the book was as fun and fresh as the hype indicated. Did it really deliver on the “Willy Wonka meet The Matrix by way of Tron” promise? The answer is, basically, yes. With the possible exception of Ender’s Game, I can’t remember ever reading a more enjoyable novel about video games (which isn’t saying much).

021915_ReadyPlayerOne_CoverThe conceit of the book works surprisingly well: the year is 2044 and America has descended into a dystopian quagmire. Faced with social disintegration, more and more people have retreated to the OASIS, a massive online gaming interface that has come to substitute for the Internet. People shop there, go to school there, essentially live there. The plot involves a contest set up by the OASIS designer, a Bill Gates-like mastermind obsessed with 80s pop culture. It’s really more of a treasure hunt.

ANYWAY, none of that is really germane to this post. The reason I mention the book is for the way it dramatizes the gamification of the everyday, which we’re seeing more and more. Cline evinces tons of compassion for those who would run from flesh-and-blood realities to the more manageable and exciting world of the OASIS/Internet. He understands why people would want and even need to retreat, and he does not judge them for doing it. In fact, he seems to question the whole real/virtual dichotomy, suggesting that it is more fluid than detractors might claim. The one place where the distinction cannot be avoided, though, is when it comes to love. You cannot love an avatar any more than you can a social media profile. Without bonafide unguarded weakness–or, to use the current buzzword, vulnerability–affection is received as mere affirmation. It cannot go below the surface.

Of course, you don’t need technology to turn life into a game (to be won). Nathan Heller just wrote an incredible review for The New Yorker of a new book that seeks to help to do just that–Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter, what sounds like a fascinating amalgamation of self-help, pop social science, and Warcraft. In exploring the phenomenon, he touches on a number of our favorite themes: play (and the way we turn it into work), demand, (the cult of) productivity, false ideas about happiness.

The idea that life’s challenges can be turned into a game in seven steps is the premise of Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter” (Penguin), a new book that seeks to bridge the gap between video-game culture and what is now called happiness research. Games, whether played on coffee tables or on digital screens, are usually described as escapist diversions; we don’t expect those hours of sweet nothingness to help us find fulfillment in our work, build strong relationships, cultivate confidence, or nurture other traits that serve the more amorphous cause of happiness. McGonigal, however, thinks that she can transform game-playing passion into a balanced life. She calls it “living gamefully,” and, according to her, it’s a regimen that has the power to fix almost everything that aspirin can’t…

According to people who track the nation’s behavior, we are halfway there already. The Entertainment Software Association, an industry coalition, reports that forty-two per cent of Americans play video games for at least three hours every week. Three-quarters of players are adults, and forty-four per cent are female. Turning the appeal of games toward useful ends would be like harnessing the energy of nuclear fission: the power is tremendous, and the mechanism seems simple and clean…

Her first book, “Reality Is Broken” (2011), reported that the amount of time people had collectively put into World of Warcraft was 5.93 million years, which is roughly the time since our ancestors first stood erect. Imagine, she suggests, if that level of engagement had been turned to real-world problems!..

“SuperBetter” is our culture’s biggest foray yet into the gamification of the self, and, unsurprisingly, it goes down like a milk of twenty-first-century aspirations. It is pure, productive, upbeat, crowdsourced, putatively data-driven—proof that, in a world of knowledge and technology, the only obstacle to happiness is your own state of mind…

51oHuRxOgILMcGonigal follows the philosopher Bernard Suits, who defined games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Golf’s whimsical constraints, according to Suits, are exactly what make it gameful. McGonigal, building on the idea, holds that life’s challenges become more entertaining if we add new, fun constraints to their basic demands…

In the SuperBetter realm, though, every leisure act must have a purpose… This is the crest point of a culture that holds “productivity” to be a value in itself. It doesn’t really matter what you are producing, as long as you’re doing it constantly; it’s fine to sit in rocking chairs with a friend or buy your wife flowers, provided that you’re getting something measurable from the transaction. “SuperBetter” lies at the intersection of self-improvement and selfishness. It channels human strength so beautifully that most things human in it gradually fall away.

As sympathetic as I am to the point about productivity, Heller’s take may come off as tad too negative, especially for those of us who heard Jamin Warren in NYC this past April. From what I can tell, Jamin comes to games from theories about play, whereas McGonigal starts with games themselves. One approach stresses enjoyment, where the other stresses accomplishment (process vs. result, Huizinga vs. Suits). Heller hints at such a distinction when highlighting some of the more encouraging elements of SuperBetter:

In [one] experiment, patients were made to play the 3-D virtual-reality game Snow World while having their severe burn injuries cleaned and dressed. The game reduced their sensation of pain by thirty-five to fifty per cent (a greater effect than morphine, in some cases). It seemed that the demands of a fast-paced 3-D challenge monopolized the patients’ cerebral resources. Their brains didn’t have the bandwidth to process all the pain information coming from their nerves.

Ready-Player-One-Fan-Art-03192015Discoveries like these make a powerful case for the effects of certain games on minds and bodies. They’re refreshing in McGonigal’s book, too, because they are actually about using games in life, rather than about turning life into a game…

Gamification flies the flag of innovation, but its effect is the opposite. Far from freeing the mind, the approach habituates us to the tidy mechanisms of effort and reward, to established paths, and to prefab narratives. In life, most stories do not climax in the third act and end in heroism…

But here’s where the connection to Ready Player One and the nature of love comes in. The way Heller describes it, this kind of gamification not only, er, plays into our habit of projecting upward-sloping, self-aggrandizing narratives onto our lives, it both trivializes and stigmatizes suffering, turning it into a stepping stone to glory. Weakness becomes an occasion for improvement rather than grace. Not surprisingly, it all maps pretty seamlessly onto Gerhard Forde’s description of The Glory Road:

ernest-clineWhen McGonigal urges us to pave over real life with the smooth surfaces of her laminated play scripts, her goal is to hide the bad stuff. Is that heroic? Say a family member dies. According to the SuperBetter method, you should turn your regret into a bad guy, do your power-ups, tell trustworthy people that you need their gameful help to lick the grief and move on with your life. Maybe you’re successful; you feel better quickly and go back to work. Have you, in that case, won the game? “SuperBetter” aims to eliminate unpleasant feelings or weakness—anything, really, that gives human character its distinctness and depth.

Speaking of self-aggrandizement, though, how could I pass up the opportunity to score some bonus points and hand the mic over, once again, to the man behind the curtain, the guy who taught us these lessons in the first place? You win again, Billy Mitchell:


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5 responses to “A SuperBetter You, A SuperBetter Me: Gaming the New Self-Help”

  1. Tim Peoples says:

    I also picked up one of Cline’s books after watching the Atari documentary, but I think I picked the wrong one. It was “Armada,” and I returned it to Audible after the fifth or sixth nerd fantasy was fulfilled in the main character’s life (the breaking point was the entree of his smoking hot mom who loves video games and science fiction). Maybe I’ll go for “Ready Player One.”

    Anyway, I have always found the tension between loving and hating the transition to gamification/the singularity interesting. I’ve read a few of Cory Doctorow’s stories, which seem to fall on the loving side; honestly, I found them so abstract that I had trouble following the plot. My favorite example of the hating gamification/the singularity camp is the “Star Trek: TNG” episode, “The Game.” Even my then-7-year-old daughter recognized Candy Crush Saga and Bejeweled in the alien game/mind control device! From the mouths of babes, right?

    • David Zahl says:

      Wow. Never seen that episode – sounds rich. I haven’t read Armada, but if the legions of online Cline fans are to be trusted, it’s nowhere near as fun as Ready Player One.

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