When a concussion left her debilitated, depressed and yearning for her own death, Jane McGonigal fought her way back using a technique for which she is renowned. She invented a game.
Specifically, it was a “role-playing recovery game,” and it changed her life within a matter of days, said McGonigal, FCLC ’99, one of today’s foremost creators of alternate reality games, in a talk posted online this week.
Her talk was posted on the website of TED, a self-described “nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading,” which hosts conferences featuring talks by notable people in varied fields. TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design, the group’s original focus.
For years, McGonigal has been spreading the word about the power of games to bring players’ creativity, optimism and determination to bear on solving tough problems. She made her name in the gaming field after graduating from Fordham with a degree in English and earning a doctorate in performance studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of the bestselling book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2010).
Her TED talk, delivered last month at the group’s conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, was titled “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life,” in reference to life-extending activities that she studied following her injury.
Two years ago, a concussion left her in a fog of headaches, nausea, vertigo, and memory loss. To cope, she had to avoid all sorts of mental activity—reading, writing, playing games, writing e-mails, working.
As often happens in cases of traumatic brain injury, she said, she grew suicidal.
“My brain started telling me, ‘Jane, you want to die,’” she said. “These voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life.”
She responded by enlisting her sister and husband in a role-playing game, “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” organized around the things that triggered her symptoms and activities that alleviated them. While her symptoms persisted for more than a year, she said, “that fog of depression and anxiety went away” within a few days.
“It just vanished,” she said. “It felt like a miracle.”
The experience led her to design on online game, SuperBetter, that she said has helped people face a variety of conditions—such as cancer, depression and chronic pain—with more bravery and strength.
She walked the audience members through some of the game’s exercises that build physical, mental, emotional and social resilience, citing research showing that those who regularly build these strengths can add 10 years to their lives.
After building these four capacities, “you will have built up the strength and resilience to live a life truer to your dreams” and reach the end of life with fewer regrets, she said.
— Chris Gosier