Friday, September 25, 2009

Super Better - or how to turn recovery into a multi-player experience

I’m either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game. After the four most miserable weeks of my life, those seemed like the only two options left.

It was the summer of 2009, I was about halfway through writing my book, and I got a concussion. It was a stupid, fluke accident: I was standing up, and I slammed my head straight into a cabinet door I didn’t realize was still open. I was dizzy, saw stars, and felt sick to my stomach. When my husband asked me who the president was, I drew a blank.

Some concussions get better in a few hours, or a few days. Others turn into a much longer post-concussion syndrome. That’s what happened to me. I got a headache and a case of vertigo that didn’t go away. Any time I turned my head, it felt like I was doing somersaults. And I was in a constant mental fog. I kept forgetting things – people’s names, where I put stuff. If I tried to read or write, after a few minutes, my vision blurred out completely. I couldn’t think clearly enough to keep up my end of interesting conversations. Even just being around other people, or out in public spaces, seemed to make it worse. At the time, I scribbled these notes: “Everything is hard. The iron fist pushes against my thoughts. My whole brain feels vacuum pressurized. If I can’t think, who am I?”

After five days of these symptoms and after a round of neurological tests that all proved normal, my doctor told me not to worry, I would be fine – but it would probably take a entire month before I really felt like myself again. In the meantime: no reading, no writing, no working, and no running, unless I was completely symptom-free. I had to avoid anything that made my head hurt or made the fog worse. (Sadly, I quickly discovered that computer and videogames were out of the question; it was way too much mental stimulation.)

It was tough news to hear. A month seemed like an impossibly long time to not work and to feel this bad. But at least it gave me a target to shoot for. I set the date on my calendar: August 15, I would be better. I believed it. I had to believe it.

And then that month came and went, and I’d barely improved at all.

That’s when I found out that if you don’t recover in a month, the next likely window of recovery is three months.

And if you miss that target, the next target is a year.

Two more months living with a vacuum pressurized brain? Possibly an entire year? I felt more hopeless than I could have ever imagined. Rationally, I knew things could be worse – I wasn’t dying, after all. But I felt like a shadow of my real self, and I wanted so desperately to be myself again and get back to my normal life.

My doctor had told me that it was normal to feel anxious or depressed after a concussion. But she also said that anxiety and depression exacerbate concussion symptoms and make it much harder for the brain to heal itself. The more depressed or anxious you get, the more concussed you feel, and the longer recovery takes. Of course, the worse the symptoms are and the longer they last, the more likely you are to be anxious or depressed. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle. And the only way to get better, faster, is to interrupt the cycle.

I knew I was trapped in that cycle. And the only thing I could think of that could possibly make me optimistic enough to break it was a game.

It was a strange idea, but I literally had nothing else to do (except watch television and go on very slow walks.) I’d never made a healthcare game before. But it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out my alternate reality theories in a new context. I might not be able to read or write very much, but hopefully I could still be creative.

I knew right away it needed to be a multi-player game. I’d been having a lot of trouble explaining to my closest friends and family how truly anxious I was, and how depressed I felt, and how hard the recovery process was. I also felt awkward, and embarrassed, asking for help. I needed a way to help me say “I am having the hardest time of my life, and I really need you to help me.” But I also didn’t want to be a burden. I wanted to invite people to help me. Make it optional. Make it fun.

As with any alternate reality project, I needed to research the reality of the situation before I could re-invent it. So for a few days, I spent the limited amount of time I was able to work (about an hour a day at this point) learning about post-concussion syndrome online. From various medical journals and reports, I pieced together what experts agree are the three most important strategies for getting better and coping more effectively – not only from concussions, but any injury or chronic illness.

First: Stay optimistic, set goals, and focus on any positive progress you make. Second: Get support from friends and family. You can’t do it alone. And third: Learn to read your symptoms like a ‘temperature gauge’. How you feel tells you when to do more, do less, or take breaks, so you can gradually work your way up to more demanding activity.[i]

Of course, it immediately occurred to me that these three strategies sound exactly like what you do when you’re playing a good multi-player game. 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.

So that’s where SuperBetter comes in.

SuperBetter is a superhero-themed game that turns getting better in multi-player adventure. It’s designed to help anyone recovering from an injury, or coping with a chronic condition, get better, sooner – with more fun, and with less pain and misery, along the way.

The game starts with five missions. You’re encouraged to do at least one mission a day, so that you’ve successfully completed them all in less than a week. Of course, you can move through them even faster if you feel up to it.

Here are excerpts from the instructions for each mission, along with an explanation of how I designed it and how I played it.

Mission #1: Create your SuperBetter secret identity. You’re the hero of this adventure. And you can be anyone you want, from any story you love. So pick your favorite story – anything from James Bond to Gossip Girl, Twilight to Harry Potter, Batman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’re about to borrow their superpowers and play the leading role yourself.


I chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the late 1990s television series) as my storyline. That made me Jane the Concussion Slayer, and that made my symptoms the vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness I was destined by fate to battle against. The point of this mission is to start seeing yourself as powerful, not powerless. And it underscores the fact that you are heroic for choosing to persevere in the face of your injury or illness. Plus, it’s just plain fun take on a secret, heroic identity. If you can’t be yourself (due to your symptoms), why not be someone secret and awesome?

Mission #2: Recruit your allies. Every superhero has an inner circle of friends who help save the day. Pick the people you want to count on most, and invite them to play this game with you. Ask each one to play a specific part: Batman needs a Robin and an Alfred, while James Bond needs an M, a Q, and a Moneypenny. If you’re Bella, you’ll want at least an Edward, a Jacob and an Alice. Give each ally a specific mission, related to their character. Use your imagination – and feel free to ask for anything you need! When you’re saving the world, you can’t be shy about asking for help. Be sure to ask at least one ally to give you daily or weekly achievements – these are surprise accomplishments they bestow upon you based on your latest superheroic activities.


As Jane the Concussion Slayer, I recruited my twin sister Kelly as my “Watcher” (that’s Buffy’s mentor). Her mission was to call me every single day and ask for a report on my concussion slaying activities. She should also give me advice and suggest challenges for me to try. It was a huge relief to me when she accepted this role because I didn’t know how else to explain that every single day was really hard for me, and that I really needed daily contact, and not just checking in on the weekends, to get through it.

I recruited my husband as my “Willow" (that’s the smarty-pants best friend who’s also a computer geek) His mission was to do all of the score-keeping and record-keeping for me, read me interesting articles, and in general to help me with anything I wanted to do on the computer without getting a headache. And finally, I recruited my friends Natalie and Rommel, and their miniature dachshund Maurice, as my “Xander” (he’s the comic relief character). Their mission was to come over once a week and just generally cheer me up.

Why recruit allies? Social psychologists have long observed that one of the hardest things about a chronic injury or illness is asking our friends and family for support. But reaching out and really asking for what we need makes a huge difference. It prevents social isolation, and it gives people who want to help, but don’t know how, something specific and actionable to do.

And why have achievements? Every fiero moment helps increase optimism and a sense of mastery, which has been proven to speed recovery from everything from knee injuries to cancer. But achievements feel better when someone else gives them to you – that’s why it’s important to have a friend or family member bestow them upon you, instead of making them up yourself. Kiyash gave me my achievements based on the titles of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (For example, I unlocked the “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” achievement for ignoring my email for an entire day, and “The Harvest” achievement for eating vegetables for dinner instead of cookies and ice cream, which was one of my favorite post-concussion ways to drown my sorrows. Honestly, both of those felt like epic struggles at the time – so fiero well-deserved!) We figured that by the time we’d gone through a four or five seasons, I would be fully recovered!

Mission #3: Find the bad guys. To win this battle, you need to know what you’re up against. Pay attention all day to anything that makes you feel worse, and put it on your bad guys list. Some days, you’ll be able to battle the bad guys longer – some days not so long. But most importantly: every time you do battle, you’ll want to make a great escape. That means getting away from the bad guy before he knocks you flat.

You can always add more bad guys to your list as you discover them – and if you vanquish one forever, you can take it off and claim the permanent victory.


My list of bad guys at the start of the game focused on things I kept trying to sneak in even though I knew they made me feel worse: reading and responding to email; running or doing any kind of vigorous exercise; playing Peggle; and drinking coffee.

The better you can identify triggers of your symptoms, the more pain and suffering you’ll avoid. And making a great escape turns a potential moment of failure – something is harder than it should be, or I can’t do something I want to do – into a moment of triumph: I succeeded in recognizing a trigger and vanquished it before it did too much damage.

One of the highlights in my recovery was when I enlisted the entire crew at the Peet’s coffee down the block into helping me modulate the amount of caffeine in my morning iced coffee, which I was really reluctant to give up. It was their idea to start me off with 90% decaf with just a splash of caffeine, working my way up to half and half, and eventually full caffeine when my brain was finally ready to be stimulated again. Take that, bad guy! I totally pwned caffeine!

Mission #4: Identify your power-ups. Good thing you’ve got superpowers. Maybe they’re not your typical superpowers – but you definitely have fun or important things you can do for yourself at a moment’s notice to feel better. Make a list, and be ready to call on them whenever the bad guys are getting the better of you. In fact, try to collect as many power-ups as you can every day!


For my concussion recovery, I focused my fun power-ups on things I could do with my senses that weren’t affected by my head injury: Touch was fine, so I could sit and cuddle with my Shetland sheepdog. Hearing was fine, so I could sitting by the window and listening to a podcast. And the biggest superpower I discovered had to do with my sense of smell: I really got into smelling different perfumes. I would go to a perfume counter, spray samples of a dozen perfumes on cards, and take them home and smell them throughout the rest of the evening, to see how they changed, and to learn the different notes. It was one of the most fun things I could without hurting my brain at all. And eventually, once my vertigo was improved, I was able to add long walks up San Francisco hills with my husband to my power-up list.

The power-ups are meant to help you feel capable of having a good day, no matter what. Having specific positive actions to take increases the odds of doing something that will break the cycle of feeling negative stress or depression.

Of course, I had serious power-ups too: the most important of which was a big handful of walnuts, every single day, to get Omega-3s for my brain. I felt like I was really helping when I did it.

Mission #5: Create your superhero to-do list. Not every mission is possible, but it doesn’t hurt to dream big. Make a list of goals for yourself, ranging from things you’re 100% positive you can do right now to things you might not have been able to do even in your wildest dreams before you got sick or hurt. Everything on your list should be something that would make you feel awesome and show off your strengths. Every day, try to make progress toward crossing one of these superhero to-dos off your list. Be sure to get your allies’ help and advice.


This final idea – the “super hero to-do list” was inspired by a question I found on the website of a New Zealand occupational therapist. “If I can’t take your pain away, what else would you like to improve in your life?”[ii] It’s one of the abiding features of a good game: the outcome is uncertain. You play in order to discover how well you can do – not because you’re guaranteed to win. SuperBetter has to acknowledge the possibility of failure to achieve a "perfect" recovery. But it also can make it less scary to fail – because there's an abundance of other goals to pursue and other rewarding activities to undertake along the way.

That’s why it seemed essential to make part of the game a project to discover as many positive activities that it’s still possible to do. It increases real hope of success of enjoying life more, no matter what else happens with the recovery or treatment.

One of my easiest superhero to-dos was baking cookies for people who live in my neighborhood. I liked it so much, I did it three times! A more challenging to-do was finding an opportunity to wear my favorite pair of purple leather stiletto boots, which meant getting up the energy to go out and see people. (I crossed this one off my list by going to see a movie with a big group of friends. I was a bit overdressed, but I felt awesome anyway.) The biggest superhero to-do on my list was, of course, to finish my book. So far, I have 82K words written out of 100K. FIERO!

Now that you completed the five big missions, your challenge is to stay in constant contact with your allies, battle the bad guys and make great escapes, collect power-ups, and tackle items of your superhero to-do list. You might want to “lock in” your gameplay by keeping a game journal, or posting daily videos on YouTube, or using Twitter to announce your achievements.

As you play, be sure to do follow these three rules:

1. Near the end of the every day, hold a secret meeting with one of your allies. Add up your great escapes, your power-ups, and your superhero points.

2. Talk to your other allies as often as possible, and tell them what you’ve been doing to get superbetter. Ask them for ideas about new things to add to your to-do list.

3. Be sure you have at least one ally who is giving you daily achievements. Share these achievements with your friends online, using Twitter or Facebook status updates, to keep them posted on your progress.


So that’s how you play SuperBetter. But does it actually improve the reality of getting better?

The first few days I was playing, I was in a better mood than I had been at any time since I hit my head. I felt like I was really doing something to get better, not just lying around and waiting for my brain to hurry up and heal itself.

My symptoms didn’t improve instantly – but I was so much more motivated to get something positive out of my day, no matter what. I would score at least one great escape, grab at least one power-up, rack up some points, and unlock an achievement every day, no matter how bad I felt otherwise. Doing these things didn’t require being cured; they just required making an effort to participate more fully in my own recovery process.

There’s not a whole lot you can prove with a scientific sample of one. I can only say that for me, the fog of misery lifted first, and then soon after, the fog of symptoms started to lift as well. Within a two weeks of playing Jane the Concussion Slayer, my symptoms were improved by 80%, and I was up to working as many as four hours a day. And within a month of starting to play, I felt almost completely recovered. In fact, as I’m sitting here writing this now, it has only been five weeks since I invented the game, and I am myself again.

I can’t say for sure I got faster any better than I would have without playing the game – although I suspect it helped a great deal. But I can say for sure that I suffered a great deal less during the recovery as a direct result of the game. I was miserable one day, and then the next day I wasn't; and I was never that miserable again as long as I was playing the game. Before I started playing, I felt like no one understood what I was going through. But when my allies joined the game, I felt like they really got it, and I never felt quite so lost in the fog again.

In many cases of post-concussion syndrome, anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants are prescribed. I personally wanted to avoid taking new medications unless it was absolutely necessary. The game gave me an alternative, a way to try to treat the anxiety and depression without drugs. If it hadn’t helped, I would have been open to medication, without a doubt. But it did help – enormously.

SuperBetter, of course, isn’t meant to replace conventional medical advice. It’s meant to augment good advice, and to help make it easier to take.

Why I'm sharing all of this now:
After posting my initial videos and then later declaring my victory over the concussion in a Twitter post, I received dozens of requests to post all of the rules and missions, so that other people could game their own injuries and illness, everything from chronic back pain and social anxiety to lung disorders, migraines, the side effects of quitting smoking, and even their teenager’s mononucleosis.

I would suggest using the hashtag #SuperBetter for players to tag their own videos, blog posts and Twitter updates, in case you want to find each other online. But I don't think it's necessary to play "in public" unless you want to. It's really good to play mostly just with your closest friends and family, which I did for the most part.

Right now, I don't have plans to build a web application, or develop an automated scoring system, or even setting up a social network for playing the game. A game doesn’t have to be a computer program. It can be like Chess, or Hide and Seek, a set of rules that one player can pass on to another. I would like to make a website eventually with the missions beautifully laid out with awesome, inspiring visuals and such. So hopefully, the official SuperBetter site is coming soon. (But first, I have to finish my superhero to do, my book!)

One more thing I'd like to add: An alternate reality game can be as simple as a good idea, a fresh way of looking at a problem.

When you’re sick or in pain, getting better is all you want. But the longer it takes, the harder it gets. And when the tough reality we have to face is that getting better won’t be easy, a good game can better prepare ourselves to deal with that reality better. In an alternate reality linked to our favorite superhero mythology, we’re more likely to stay optimistic, because we’ll set more reasonable goals and keep better track our progress. We’ll feel successful even when we’re struggling, because our friends and family will define fiero moments for us every day. We’ll build a stronger social support system, because it’s easier to ask someone to play a game than it is to ask for help. And we’ll hopefully find real meaning and develop real character in our epic efforts to overcome what just may be the toughest challenge we’ve ever had to face. And that’s how we get superbetter, thanks to a good game.

UPDATE: I celebrate the one-year anniversary of my concussion, with video!


Here are a couple of videos from the early design phase of this project. As you can see, I was struggling a bit to think and speak clearly -- but I'm happy to say I'm pretty much fully recovered now.

Why I'm making a concussion recovery game

Designing the first mission

[i] The British Journal of Psychiatry (2003) 183: 276-278 Post-concussion syndrome: clarity amid the controversy? NIGEL S. KING, ClinPsyD

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New York City - CRYPTOZOO games this weekend! WITH PHOTOS

CRYPTOZOO is a fast, strange, heart-pumping adventure. It's literally the most fun game I've ever designed. If you're in New York City this weekend (June 12th and 13th) please come play with me!

This is your chance to learn to run with cute and creepy creatures... It's free, it's in and around Times Square, and it will be strange and unforgettable.

Reserve your spot in the game now! FRIDAY 11 PM to 1 AM

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Play CRYPTOZOO! SAN FRANCISCO games June 5, June 7

The cryptids are out there. Are you chasing them?

NIGHT CHASE - Friday June 5, 2009 downtown San Francisco 8-10 PM

DAY CHASE - Sunday June 7, 2008 along the Embarcadero 2 - 4 PM

Join the network and RSVP so we know how many secret runners to expect...

What to expect at a chase:

First, you'll follow mysterious tracks through the city on 1-mile chase through city streets and gardens.

You can chase alone, with friends, or join a team when you arrive. (If you're doing a night chase, bring a flashlight.) Be prepared to duck under rails, swing around poles, leap up steps, run along low ledges, and slalom through urban obstacles.

Successfully finish the chase, and you'll discover our secret-meetup spot. Together, we'll see if we can lure a few more species out. Design your own 1-block team chases... and earn achievement badges for each species you chase. Can you collect all 13?

It's very possible that we'll actually encounter 1 or 2 real, giant cryptids in the wild. So be prepared to interact with creatures unlike any you've seen before... we'll take your photograph with them if you don't startle them off!

Up for the adventure?
  • Come alone, or bring adventurous friends!
  • Wear sneakers and clothing you can run around in.
  • Bring a bottle of water. You WILL get thirsty.
  • DON'T bring too much gear -- you'll be running, and there's nowhere to safely stash your stuff.
You DON'T have to be fast, athletic or coordinated to chase the cryptids. You do have to be adventurous, and willing to sweat.

Consider yourself warned: There are no on-lookers at a cryptid chase... only adventurers.



CryptoZoo is a non-commercial, indie game created by Jane McGonigal for the American Heart Association. The game is part of an AHA initiative in collaboration with the Institute for the Future.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Prototype a new outdoor game with me this Saturday in downtown San Francisco!

Prototyping is fun!
Originally uploaded by superkiy.
Wanted: 4-6 adventurous players to prototype a new outdoor game with me and Kiyash this Saturday April 11 in downtown San Francisco. Reward: Bragging rights that you helped invent the game.

The prototyping session will involve some running, jumping and sweating. Anyone willing to play hard and break a sweat is welcome. You don't need any special athletic abilities or coordination. In fact, you can be pretty much totally unathletic and uncoordinated, as long as you're willing to try anyway. :) But wear sneakers and bring a bottle of water.

This is going to be a super-interesting session, because it's really early phase design work. Prototyping is the phase that preceeds playtesting, so the game itself hasn't been designed yet.... I have a set of possible mechanics in mind, we'll try them out, and we'll make up some new ones on the spot. We'll just be asking the question: "Is this fun?" "Okay, is THIS fun?" as we try different core mechanics. Some will probably turn out to be no fun at all, we'll figure that out quickly and move on. With any luck, others will be awesome and we'll be totally thrilled to discover them and play with them.

So: If you can make it THIS SATURDAY to downtown San Francisco (think Embarcadero area) for about 90 minutes in the morning or afternoon (I'll schedule it whenever folks are available) please email me at Jane at the name of this blog dot com! And let me know when on Saturday you could make it. Feel free to bring a friend, as long as they're adventurous and open-minded!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

INTERN with me and Top Secret Dance Off!

I am looking for an intern to help me run Top Secret Dance Off! It's an open-ended internship (starting ASAP, averaging 10-12 hours a week, and ideally continuing for 3-4 months). You can be anywhere in the world, in school or not in school, doing the internship for experience, or for school credit or just for something really interesting to do.

TSDO is a personal project and small (but growing) global player community of ~300 players from about 15 different countries currently. It's not affiliated with any game company; I'd like to develop the community and the content and the platform over the next 6 months and see what it turns into.

Here are a couple of trailers introducing you to TSDO:

Find more videos like this on Top Secret Dance Off

Find more videos like this on Top Secret Dance Off

You will be working on Top Secret Dance Off as the official community catalyst, or animateur. That means you'll be helping to:
  • lead, guide and "animate" the player community
  • update and manage the player database
  • design new dance quests
  • track the most interesting player content
  • run discussions, chats, etc.
  • help high-level players invent their own quests and missions
  • welcome new players
  • work with me to create and implement new alliance systems and dance-off challenges
  • write community updates (blog, Twitter, newsletters)
There will be a lot of practical, everyday, routine management stuff alongside the more creative stuff -- in particular, I need someone to immediately take charge of the continual updates of the database as players advance through the ranks and such, and possibly help me implement hacks to Ning to get that part of the game automated the same way our leveling up system is automated.

I am about 6 weeks behind on player mission tracking, so to start, there will be a lot of just crunching and grinding to get everything updated and back on track. :) After that is all caught up, there will be much more room for the creative mission design, alliance quests, and other fun, new stuff.

It's an unpaid internship, as the project is completely unfunded -- but it's also super-flexible with pretty much unlimited potential creative opportunities once you get the hang of managing the day-to-day game management stuff. Also, I'd like eventually for TSDO to be entered into game festivals and such, and whoever joins me as my community catalyst and animateur will be officially credited on the project as part of the design & development team. Yay!

The kind of person I'm looking to collaborate with and hopefully help mentor will be someone who is generally optimistic, takes an idea and runs with it, super-reliable, and really enthusiastic about the idea that games can make people happy, give people real-life adventures, and just generally make us more satified with our everyday lives. And of course, you don't have to be any kind of a good dancer at all. :) You just have to think that dance quests are awesome.


1) Spend some time on the Top Secret Dance Off site making sure you love the project and would be excited to work on it!
2) Make sure you have at least completed DQ1 on Top Secret Dance Off, and include a link to your DQ1 video (and any others you've completed) in your email to me.

Then, send me an email with the following information:

Basic stuff:
  • Where do you live?
  • What do you do with most of your time right now (school? where, studying what? or work? what kind?)
  • What is your schedule is like over the next 3-4 months? When would you be putting in your 10-12 hours? (ideally, it would be something like 3 hours a day 3-4 times a week)
  • What are you hoping to learn and gain from this internship?
  • Do you have a website/blog/Twitter account/anything I could look at online?
Fun stuff:
  • What's exciting to you about the TSDO project?
  • What are some of your favorite games these days? Why?
  • What are you good at?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • Send me a few ideas for new Dance Quests or Dance-Offs.
No need for a formal resume or such... send it all to jane at the name of this blog .com!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Have you had the dream?

If you've had the dream, you will know it.

  • Strings, tubes, wrinkles, branches, or flowing lines..
  • Massive
  • Small
  • The dot

You probably had it multiple times, and it probably started when you were young. It may have been while you were asleep. It may have been while you had a fever. It may have sometimes been a waking dream, like a trance.

You've often wondered what the dream was. and if anyone else had it.


We are looking for others who have had the dream.

Tell us about your dream.

  • What did you see, or what was happening, in the dream? It might defy words, but try.
  • How did the dream make you feel?
  • How old were you when you first remember having the dream? How many times would you guess that you had it? Did you stop having it at some point in your life?


The rules:

Send an email to: Describe your dream.

We probably won't write back for awhile. We need time to collect dreams and compare them.

We won't publish comments that describe the dream, because we want people to describe it in their own words. If they see yours, it might change or influence their memories.

We may share your dream (anonymously) with someone else and ask them if your dream sounds like theirs, or not. We may send you someone else's dream (without sharing their name) and ask you if it sounds like yours, or not.

After we build up a collection of dreams that we think are the same, we may post them (anonymously) on our blogs.


Have you had the dream?

Jane McGonigal & Ze Frank

Monday, March 09, 2009

Take the Outlier Challenge

This week from the Institute for the Future and the Signtific Lab: it's the third and final trial in our Free Space trilogy!

The experiment (PLAY NOW!)starts at 7 PM Pacific Time Monday March 9, and ends 2 PM Pacific Time Thursday March 11.

Join the lab or log in now!

The experiment is headquartered at Etech 09 -- but you're welcome to play with us at Etech from wherever in the world you happen to be!

For this final trial, we're issuing the Outlier Challenge. Here are the guidelines! (originally published on the Signtific Lab blog.)


Here at the Signtific Lab, we love outliers. That's why we want you to take the Outlier Challenge.

In future forecasting terms, outliers are the most surprising ideas. They are what scientists call "non-obvious", and they're the opposite of "wisdom of the crowds" consensus. They take the crowd by surprise. Outliers might not be the most likely ideas, but they would have a huge impact if they actually occurred. They're especially hard to see coming, but when they do come, they disrupt everything -- precisely because so few people anticipated them.

The main benefit of a platform like the Signtific Lab is that we can expose each other to many more outliers -- and avoid getting blindsided by the future.

To help you uncover new outliers, we've created the Outlier Challenge. Your mission: Avoid "Outlier Fail" and steer towards "Outlier Win."


This is a list of apparently obvious ideas about the future of free space. We call them "outlier fail", because they have shown up literally 100 times or more in our forecast feed. You can feel free to create new micro-forecasts about these ideas, but you'd better say something extremely surprising if you want to avoid the outlier fail! Don't just tell us this stuff will happen. We've got that already. Can you say anything surprising or non-obvious about these topics? If not, AVOID! AVOID! AVOID!

• Junk in space
• Falling junk from space
• Porn in space
• Terrorists in space
• Stalking from space
• Reality TV from space
This is a list of the topic we think have the most potential for non-obvious ideas about the future of free space. So use these as springboards to surprise yourself and the other Lab members. The more you explore any of these topics, and the deeper you get down the chain of forecasts, the more potentially outlier you'll get! WANT! WANT! WANT!
* DIY space research
* Crowdsourced eco-monitoring
* Disaster spotting & response
* Hacking democracy
* Cubesat entrepreneurs
* Social capital in space
* News from space
* Serious games in space
* Climate change applications
* Food/agriculture innovation
* Chemical/materials research
* Bio/life sciences research
* Oceanographic research
* Tracking and protecting all living things (migration patterns, etc)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This is my Free Space future. Show me yours!

Our first massively multiplayer thought experiment is LIVE, and will end in ~ 36 hours!
If you have ideas about the future of Free Space or the Interstellar Internet, play with me...

Monday, February 02, 2009

Free Space is coming...

I've been working on a new future forecasting platform at IFTF. It's called the Signtific Lab, and it's designed as a kind of crowd-sourcing, micro-content, forecasting MMO.

Here's the trailer for the first experiment we're running. It's called Free Space, and it's based on scenario that is both mind-boggling and probable.

We've inviting scientists, engineers, researchers, designers, developers, hackers, and makers of all kinds to participate.

If you're attending Webstock (in Wellington, New Zealand), Etech (in San Jose, CA), or CeBit (in Hannover, Germany) this year, you're automatically invited!

If you're not attending any of these conferences and you'd like to participate, you can pre-register now at the Lab!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

I need to game-ify writing my book

Writing a book does not provide me with the same kind of real-time feedback, scaffolded challenges, and network of potential allies that a well-designed videogame does.

Also, it is harder than playing a videogame. ^_^

So, I am trying to game-ify my writing process a bit.

One of my methods is to start writing the book with the chapter that I think I am best prepared to write, aka "level one", which in this case happens to be Chapter 3. So I'm not starting the book at the beginning.

I'm taking the same approach with the chapter itself. I've mapped the chapter pretty much, and I'm not forcing myself to write the parts in order. I happen to think that the final few paragraphs of "Survival of the Happiest" are going to be the hardest, so I'm skipping it and moving on to "The Halo Paradox". I'll come back to the "boss" parts of the chapter after I've killed all the other parts.

Also, since the manuscript of the entire book isn't due for another 8 months, and I may not have actual readers until as long as a year after that (!) I am creating my own real-time feedback loops by twittering chapter titles and sub-sections and blogging various breakthroughs. By sharing stuff in real-time, it feels more real and productive. Writing 18 months into the future is just too much like writing in the void!

So here is what you can expect, unless my editor hates it, which is something I'm trying not to think about, ha ha, from Chapter 3.

Chapter 3: Collaboration Superpowers

How online games connect us, and the 10 ways they amplify our individual potential

Ya know if it weren't for this game it’s possible that we would never have had something in common.
–overheard in an online chat room
  • Introduction
  • Survival of the Happiest
  • The Halo Paradox
  • The Zombie Apocalypse Solution
  • Little Big World Building
  • Getting on the Global Frequency
  • 10 Collaboration Superpowers
  • Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals (SEHIs)

  • All together, this chapter will be about 10,000 words. I've written roughly half of that already, but I'm only final-draft-happy with about 3200 of them.

    Putting this out there and thinking about it structurally like this somehow makes writing less scary. I guess that's why I love games, I have pretty much an insatiable appetite for helpful structure.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009

    UPDATED: I am not a game evangelist.

    You know, it's funny. I used to think of myself as a game evangelist. That's because for years now, I have been spending a lot of time talking to people who don't play a lot of games, or who don't take games seriously at all. Some people are there because they are curious if they should start to take games more seriously. Some people are there because someone else invited me to talk to them. They're not necessarily interested in hearing about games, but there I am, and there they are.

    Whoever I'm talking to, I try really hard to show them things about games that might reveal something useful to them. I try to share with them the real social support you get from playing games with other people, the real sense of learning and accomplishment, the real feelings of awe and wonder and curiosity that stimulate your vagus nerve in the ways that religion and great art do, the power of the opportunity to be valued by a community for effort you put forth, the totally calming effect of being focused and immersed in a feeback-intensive system, the long-term benefits of becoming better at something than you thought possible, the way games can change the way you look at the world differently and push you to seek out more opportunities for engagement in everyday life... And I'm really enthusiastic about games, and it shows.

    But the more optimistic I become about the potential of games, and the more "mainstream" this message gets, the less and less I want to be any kind of evangelist for it.

    As you may know, I practice Zen Buddhism. There is no "evangelism" in Zen Buddhist practice, because, as they say "It's too hard of a practice to be talked into. You have to be already willing on your own." So there just isn't any kind of active persuasive aspect to it. The only thing that is persuasive is that it seems to work. So, you know, a Zen Buddhist might invite you to try it, to see if it works. That's it. No argument, no debate, no evangelism. Just see if it works. Don't take my word for it. Reach your own conclusion.

    This the approach I would like to take regarding the use of games to improve our experience of reality. It is my experience that people are happier and quality of life goes up when we make the real world work more like our best-designed games. I really believe this. But I don't want to evangelize for this POV.

    When I talk to people about games, I feel like I am offering people a way to look at things that they might benefit from. But I don't want to argue with them whether or not it's a helpful POV. I don't want to get into a debate. I don't want to convince everyone. They can decide on their own. I feel like the maximum gains in this space are going to come from working with and talking to people who either intuitively grasp this and are ready to dive in, or who accept the premise that it might work, and the only way to find out is to try it. That's the best place to invest time and energy for me and others working in this space. My goal isn't to change how many people think, exactly. Not in the near-term. It's to find like-minded allies who are willing to do something. Trying to convince as many people as possible of this POV is just not a good investment of time and energy.

    So I find myself in the wake of high-exposure, general audience lectures and interviews and articles wishing I could respectfully tell people something like this:

    "I am not here to convince anyone of anything. I don't really want to debate the 'finer points' yet, because we are just starting. I'm not trying to get YOUR money or YOUR resources or YOUR action. Intead, I offer you this POV in the spirit of service. I believe it may be of service to you to share that I have found in my experience this thing about games is true. But I have no ultimate stake yet in whether you agree with me or not. That may change eventually, and I might have to work harder then to explain myself better. But right now, there are enough people who do share this experience of games, and we are just trying to find each other. We just want to work with other people who have had similar experiences, to try to amplify it for the good of as many as possible."

    I'm not claiming that my ideas about games are self-evident. On the contrary, they strike me as non-obvious and counter-intuitive. Which is why I understand that many people will, naturally and inevitably, argue against them.

    But here's my back-of-the-envelope estimate. Right now, even if 95% of people exposed to the idea that we should make the real world work more like our best-designed games disagrees, the 5% who do agree are more than enough to make changes on major scales.

    It only takes one proof-of-concept city, one proof-of-concept hospital, one proof-of-concept election, one proof-of-concept airline, one proof-of-concept school, one proof-of-concept museum... if this idea is a good one, then the results will be persuasive on their own. It will work for a lot of people, and evangelism won't be necessary.We don't have to evangelize for penicillin or cell phones.

    In the meantime, it's better not to try to convince everyone to think this way because 1) We still have to determine exactly how, when, and where this is a good idea and 2) when we do figure that out, then the rest will come in time. Because it's hard to argue with demonstrated improvements to quality of life. There will always be naysayers (many people complain about cell phone etiquette, even though cell phones are obviously a force for good in developing countries and everyday family life, just for example) It's just not my goal or my business to persuade the naysayers. It's my goal and my business to work with the people who are optimistic about the potential applications.

    The people who are in the best position to make these ideas a reality are the ones who are the least resistant to it. I just believe that. Because like Zen Practice, this is too hard of a project and too big a leap of faith to have to talk anyone into it.

    UPDATE: Thanks everyone for this terrific feedback. These are some very thoughtful points and I'm grateful for the opportunity to mull them over! I'll keep mulling and in the meantime, the one thing that I do think bears mentioning here -- it's something I say often elsewhere, but for people encountering me for the first time I guess it's not immediately obvious: Gaming is not a monolithic system. I in no way believe that one specific game, or one kind of game, fits all. There are so many different kinds of games to play, and so many different positive emotions or kinds of collaborative communities they can create. Its true that I do believe gaming, in general, has already turned out to be an incredibly powerful method for many different efforts to improve quality of life, decrease suffering, aggregate human action for the good, and to amplify our individual human potential. And we are going to discover many, many more examples where this turns out to be true. But specific games will work better in different contexts for different people, and a diversity of games and game-like experiences is of paramount importance, and some spaces or experiencs may never benefit from game-like approaches. I've laid all of this out in an essay, the final chapter of my disseration, "Specifying Play", which you're welcome to download if you are intersted in this argument (warning: it's over 500 pages. ^_^. But in short: There's nothing monolithic or rigid about the idea of games benefitting humanity, that's like saying "literacy benefits humanity" or "medicine benefits humanity" are monolithic ideas, when in fact, there is still a diversity of things to read and write, and myriad medical approaches to any given condition. Games are an incredibly powerful tool and they are currently being wasted on solving the problem of boredom. My suggestion is that we use them for other things as well.

    Saturday, January 03, 2009

    The Secret Guilty Sign

    This is my video for Top Secret Dance-Off #1. Rules of the dance-off below. There is some major trash-talking and hip-waggling happening in this video. This is part of the awesome new dance MMO Top Secret Dance-Off.

    Find more videos like this on Top Secret Dance Off

    Each alliance will need a SECRET SIGN.

    The secret sign is a super-short dance move that alliance members will embed in EVERY future quest or dance-off.

    The sign should take 3 seconds or less to flash. It should be awesome. But it should also be learnable by all of your alliance members. No black belt ninjitsu moves or fancy turns, okay?

    The first four alliance members to accept this dance-off challenge should conspire together secretly. When you are ready to propose a sign to your alliance, you will each post videos (in disguise of course) embedding the secret sign.

    Alliance members will have to spot the secret sign that appears in all four videos and reply in kind.

    DO NOT GIVE INSTRUCTIONS TO THE SECRET SIGN. Your alliance members must spot it on their own and perform it back to you embedded in their own dance.