SuperBetter Builds Personal Resilience

Then my phone looked me in the eye and said:  "Remember, enjoying positive social contact is the greatest thing you can do to improve your wellbeing".  It's been giving me advice like this a lot lately.  Tips on drinking water, making friends, accepting my body and staying optimistic.  If you're thinking I could do with a good analyst, then you have yet to download the SuperBetter app.

We posted the coming of this Jane McGonigal-designed resilience app a few months ago, when it was still a promise.  Well it's now been available for a while and, when my colleague downloaded it for his son who was nervous about starting high school, I thought it was high time to take it for a drive.

I have to admit I had reservations. Like many others, I was concerned about turning wellbeing into a shallow extrinsically motivated affair.  But I'm delighted to report that these concerns were largely swept away in a wave of playful and intelligent design, manifest in the app's effective structure, carefully constructed content, and a playful and credible user experience.

The app promises to "increase your personal resilience.  Resilience means staying curious, optimistic and motivated even in the face of the toughest challenges."  A big promise, certainly, but why not?  Who couldn't do with some of that?

Sign up was easy and once in, you start with a series of intital "quests, power-ups and bad guys" to choose from.  Sound slightly contrived?  It did to me.  I did a lot of eyebrow raising at first, but soon discovered the game mechanics were rather a reasonable framework within which to place what could be called health and psychology interventions.  I also thought of my colleague's teenage son -- it seemed a fair assumption that the game structure would be particularly compelling for his generation.

Who's in charge?  
Another concern I had revolved around the risk for personal wellness goals to be overgeneralized and decontextualized.  In answer to this, I was pleased to see the level to which the game can be customized.  It's not about losing weight, reducing stress, or beating social anxiety--well it might be, that depends--it's about meeting wellbeing goals that are meaningful to the user.  As McGonigal put it in a New York Times article "If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”   

Autonomy itself has been cited as an essential component of wellbeing in psychological research, so its important that technologies which aim to support wellbeing don't get so prescriptive that they undermine this autonomy. Interestingly, McGonigal's own experience with concussion, which inspired SuperBetter, is a story of her regaining a sense of autonomy.  “The main thing that worked was I stopped feeling helpless,” she said in the Times article, “It made me feel optimistic and like I had agency.”

As a user of SuperBetter, you have control over which goals you select and how you meet them.  The value of the game is not simply in telling you to pick some goals and write them down (a diary would do for that), its in the scaffolding it then provides you for acheiving those goals.  PowerPacks of content can be downloaded that include ideas for quests (larger tasks), power-ups (mini-tasks) and bad guys (obstacles) related to your goal.  You can take them or leave them but there's huge value in the fact that they get you started.  And critically, they are scientifically founded techniques in bite-sized form.

Power-packs, Power-ups and Bad guys

The PowerPacks all have empowering and de-stigmatized names that you don't feel bad associating yourself with.  For example, I chose "lazy exercise", "Better than a chill pill" and "Emotional resilience in 5 minutes" to get started.  The writing style of the content plays a major role in the app's effectivness in that it deftly evades any hints of new ageism, and its playful enthusiasm is all-ages accessible.

In lazy exercise I could do one of the included power-ups, titled "got a block? walk around it." but I was also encouraged to add my own.  This meant my yoga sessions could be slotted in and I was ahead of the game before I started.  Starting you off with activities you already do is a brilliant approach to helping you feel achievements are manageable (here again are game mechanics at work).  But it's not trickery.  It rightly helps you acknowledge and value steps you already take.

In my first week I had selected a few bad guys to battle, like the "Anxiety vampire", and created some new ones myself (the "Vengeful god" and the "Misery dementor").  The act of customizing forced me to identify my own mental hangups and to plan small ways to confront them.

Structure and Scaffolding

People's desire to feel better or do better is easily obstructed by logistics.  Where is the guidance and what can I trust? How do I keep from forgetting? How do I stay on track even though I'm busy?
SuperBetter tackles these logistical issues in an app sized package.

What the game actually does is provide a structure for small acts of wellness and for scientifically founded wellness exercises and content.  It provides support not just for behaviour change, but for attitude change, mindfulness and introspection. Structure is provided in the form of targeted reliable content, time management and tracking, combined with positive reinforcement. Always drawing on the science for credibility, it puts myriad small acts you've been meaning to do, all in one place.

The social bit

In addition to the app, you can play SuperBetter from the website and achievements easily integrate with Facebook or Twitter.  While I'm not personally eager to share every step in my personal battle with laziness with all my connections, I found myself posting to Facebook in the hopes that others I know would be socially persuaded to try it themselves, feeling strongly that it could change their lives for the better.