Six years ago Jane McGonigal, the game designer and creator of several extremely popular TED talks, had what she calls a “stupid household accident” that changed her life. McGonigal knocked her head against an open cabinet door and sustained a traumatic brain injury, with effects that lasted for a full year. She was in a mental fog—unable to concentrate or remember things—and experienced headaches, nausea, and vertigo. Her doctor put her on cognitive rest to help her brain heal quicker, which meant for months she couldn’t read, write, work, run, drink coffee, or play video games. “Obviously there was no reason to live,” she joked to the crowd she was telling her story to at the New York Public Library last week.

But it began to actually feel that way for her. Like many people who experience serious brain injuries, McGonigal was also feeling depressed and anxious, which only increased as she avoided doing the things that made her happy. In a vicious cycle, her doctors warned her that it would be harder for her brain to recover if she stayed feeling depressed. And so McGonigal, who has big blonde curls and was wearing sparkly tennis shoes to her speaking event, disclosed that she starting having suicidal thoughts. “My brain began telling me that I would like to die.”

Jane the Concussion Slayer

During this time she was supposed to be writing her first book, Reality Is Broken, not that she was able to work on it. The book would argue that games make us happier, more creative, and more resilient. She was surrounded by research claiming this, so she started to think maybe a game could be the answer for her. Working in short bursts, and with the help of family and friends, McGonigal began making a game to help herself get better. She called it Jane the Concussion Slayer, in honor of her hero Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over time her symptoms began to leave, and while she says she can’t totally credit the game, she does know that her mood improved as soon as she started playing.

She has since renamed the game SuperBetter and turned it into an app that other people can play to help them with things they are struggling with—anything from weight loss and lowering stress to mental health issues like depression or anxiety. The game isn’t therapy, and shouldn’t be used in place of therapy for people who have real mental health concerns. But McGonigal says it could be considered a good supplement to treatment, and anyone who has participated in cognitive-behavior therapy will see that it has some similarities.

How the game works

To play the game you have to identify and then battle “bad guys,” or the obstacles or triggers in the way of your goal. There are “power-ups,” which are specific positive things that you do to break negative cycles that you are in. For a confidence boost, players get to create a powerful secret persona—a version of yourself that is strong and capable of undertaking heroic quests. And as McGonigal wrote in her blog, “If you can’t be yourself (due to your symptoms), why not be someone secret and awesome?”

You also need to enlist “allies,” which are family and friends who will help you on your quest to get better. Supportive family and friends are a big part of getting better for anyone struggling with a mental health disorder, but asking for their support as part of a game is a novel way of helping them understand what you are going through and also helps bust through some of the stigma.

Gamers are often accused of being lazy couch potatoes more invested in an alternate reality than their own. McGonigal would contest this, and it’s clear that SuperBetter requires the opposite of that mentality—to play the game you have to become an active, motivated player in your own life.

It seems clear that the game could have a lot of appeal for kids struggling with mental health disorders. If you are interested in checking out the game, you can download it in the app store or check out McGonigal’s new book, SuperBetter, which is about the game and some of the research backing it up.