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What is SuperBetter?
SuperBetter is a super-hero themed online game that helps people improve their resilience, meet their health goals, recover from illness or injury, and have fun along the way.
Jane McGonigal, a renowned game designer, came up with the concept while battling a concussion. She had been researching recovery strategies, and was struck by how similar they were to playing multi-player games:
“You have clear goals; you track your progress; you tackle increasingly difficult challenges, but only when you’re ready for them; and you’re connecting with people you like. The only thing missing from these recover strategies, really, was the meaning – the exciting story, the heroic purpose, the sense of being a part of something bigger.
This realization led to the conception of SuperBetter, her recovery, and the super-hero story Jane created for players.
Gamification of health
By packaging everyday occurrences into elements of a super-hero story, SuperBetter offers people a new perspective from which to tackle their challenge.
Friends are Allies, health goals are Quests and Epic Wins depending on size,and obstacles are Bad Guys who need ass kicking. Power Ups help increase strength, and Future Boosts keep you motivated.
The parallels to video games are obvious, and these help people get excited about meeting their goals. As iPhone app user Shookiez commented:
“Although I don’t always actually use the app, the very idea has changed the way I approach work – as a challenge to defeat and earn my reward (pride).”
The gaming lingo also makes being health, and talking about health, a cool thing to do. As Nikki Botsford Mestas commented on Facebook:
“Getting superbetter today. Tackling the bad guys.”
Backed up with science
To combat the common perception of adult gaming as a ‘waste of time,’ Jane McGonigal emphasized the amount of scientific research that went into the design of the game and her collaboration with scientists, doctors and researchers in her Ted Talk, on the SuperBetter Blog and within the game itself.
This helped SuperBetter reach people who ordinarily wouldn’t have accepted the idea of gaming for health. As Kathy Hartzell commented on Facebook:
“Listened to Jane on NPR Sunday partly because of the promo….no way said I to myself on the way to Berkeley that morning….games for healing or social connections?? Well, I listened…I read more and I am going to take the journey as a 63rd birthday present. My first foray into on line games, unless Angry Birds counts!!”
Upon completion of a Quest, people earned resilience points in one of four categories – mental, emotional, physical and social – and could see how the quest helped them get SuperBetter.
The game is universal in its reach, appealing to people of different ages in different places with different goals.
42 year old Eric from Colorado uses SuperBetter to manage his weight and gain confidence:
“My challenge is that I have gained a bunch of weight and gotten out of shape, partly as a result of a number of major life stressors happening all at once. … Plus, when I’m ready to go back into the dating world, I think it will help me if I feel stronger, more confident and happier with my appearance.”
29-year-old Lucy from Aberdeen uses SuperBetter to combat sleep issues:
“My challenge is to feel better about my sleep – and that could be having happy dreams and waking up feeling refreshed, or it could just be accepting bad dreams and that my not feeling refreshed is simply how I am, or that there is something else I need to change.”
The game also appeals to people who with non-health goals, such as combating procrastination, planning finances and preparing for parenthood. Author Cheryl Reif applied the concept of Power Ups to overcome writer’s block, with a list of fun Writing Power Ups that include taking a reading break and picking up a fancy pen.
Power of perception
Players were prompted to choose a Secret Identity, a persona based on their personal heroes. This helped them set goals they previously considered impossible and to persevere – as they wanted to stay true to their inspiration.
Player Courtney Sloan wrote about her experience adopting the hero mindset:
“My willpower skyrocketed. You know why? My game persona would have done those things. The gaming aspect allowed me to step away from myself and do things not because I wanted to, but because my hero self would not take no for an answer. She had the willpower, so would I.”
Player Lady Pele even set personas for her Bad Guys to motivate herself:
“I’m currently working on losing weight and getting fit, so one of my Bad Guys is “Bo, the Gluttony Demon.” Coming up with the names/descriptions is really fun, and then I have something physical to imagine when doing battle; I can actually visualize myself kicking a demon in the face”
Stigma against asking for help
According to medical journals, support of family and friends is essential to recovery. However people are generally against asking for help, as is evident in the SuperBetter forums. By making allies a key part of the game, people were encouraged to overcome their stigma and reach out for support.
As radio show producer Alex Goldman explained:
“I hate asking for help… It was actually a lot easier for me to recruit listeners to help me play Superbetter than it was for me to play with people who I see every day, because it felt less like asking for help. That’s kind of a fascinating feature of the internet age, that I can find a dozen people out in Cyberspace who are willing to be my internet booster club. “
Player Snellopy shared the benefits of gaining a social support system:
“It’s great, especially since we’re scrawling all over each other’s activity streams with questions and comments. So no matter whose page I’m looking at, I see the same names popping up, being encouraging and getting encouraged.’
Importance of allies
Allies keep players engaged and motivated by suggesting quests and doling out achievements.
As Alex Goldman commented:
“I suppose this is a bit of a no-brainer, but I was shocked at how motivating it was to have other people designing quests for me. The quests I created for myself seemed so pedestrian by comparison.”
However, the game has received some criticism for not doing enough to keep Allies engaged and active. Player Jamie commented on this:
“Besides my partner, none of my allies has checked back to the site, assigned quests, or the like. I had wondered if the game would periodically email allies (if I completed their quests, to prompt that we were overdue for a check-in, whatever), but it doesn’t.”
Achieving epic wins
SuperBetter helped several people achieve epic wins such as writing novels, learning languages, and overcoming shyness.
Player Amanda shared how the game helped her overcome her obsession with weight loss:
“This morning, as I checked off quests and power-ups in SuperBetter, I realized that fitness and health have truly become my goal. It is no longer about my weight… My [SuperBetter] HQ now reads, that I am getting SuperBetter at ‘Getting Fit’ in order to ‘Feel SuperHealthy.’ And I mean it.”
Tim Maliyil shared how SuperBetter helped his mother recover from a stroke:
“She is someone who has never used a computer before, but she was able to engage with [SuperBetter] on the iPad in a matter of minutes. Now she uses the iPad and [SuperBetter] every day. Her doctors and therapists expect a full recovery within a few months, and your products keeping her mind engaged partly contributed to her recovery success thus far.”
Trend: shift to mobile
That players have actively been campaigning for mobile apps shows their preference for mobile.
As SuperBetter player Apollo Lemmon commented:
“I’m moving to using only a phone as my computer throughout the day, and having an app for Android would make this site one I can easily use.“
Not only would a mobile app help them play more frequently, it would also help them play more effectively –several players had set goals to reduce computer use and to increase activity levels. As player William commented:
“Sometimes, it doesn’t work for me to sit down in front of a computer to use SuperBetter (as one of the things I’m struggling with is RSI, on my bad days when I really need a power-up or two it’s not always good for me to do).“
Note: While the iPhone app launched in April 2012, an Android app is still in the making.
Future of SuperBetter
SuperBetter is one among several games and applications that aim to address healthcare issues through play. Competitors include starts ups like Fitocracy, and major brands such as GE, which has a suite of social apps to help people live healthy.
With a core community of over 10,000 players using Facebook Connect and 4,500 members on the SuperBetter community, and with more success stories being shared, SuperBetter definitely has potential to play a wider role in healthcare.
As acupuncture student Jason Lay envisioned:
“I see healthcare professionals of different strokes being very interested in SuperBetter. The potential for hands-off delivery and training of health-promoting habits and attitudes is tremendous using this gaming model.”
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