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Capital Acumen Issue 31

In Conversation With Jane McGonigal

Shall we play a game? The author and video game designer talks time, gaming and the future.

Headshot of Jane McGonigal

Photograph by Matthew Stylianou

Jane McGonigal is a New York Times best-selling author and the creator of SuperBetter — a video game and smartphone app designed to help users stay strong, motivated and optimistic in the face of difficult situations or obstacles. McGonigal, who has delivered two popular TED talks on the potential benefits of gaming, earned a Ph.D. in performance studies from the University of California at Berkeley and is director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto, Calif. Capital Acumen spoke with McGonigal in advance of her presentation at U.S. Trust’s Investment Symposium in Florida earlier this year.

Capital Acumen: You’re a video game designer who believes we should spend more time gaming. How do people respond when they hear that?

Jane McGonigal: Typically they worry that video games are a waste of time. But how do we use time, and are there easy ways to use it that can make us happier and healthier? In my talks I often highlight an economic theory called “time affluence.” That’s the feeling that you have an abundant amount of time to spend on all the things that matter most to you: family, home, passions, projects and career.

The opposite is “time poverty,” which is the feeling that you never have enough time to spend on your personal goals. With time poverty, it doesn’t matter how motivated you are to achieve your goals, you are less able to actually follow through. There is stress associated with time poverty and it can have a negative effect on your focus, creativity and ability to reach out to others. Studies show that people experiencing time poverty tend not to eat as well as those with time affluence. They also tend to exercise and sleep less.

How do these experiences of time correlate to the actual amount of free time people have?

There appears to be little correlation. People with incredibly busy schedules, where every minute of the day is packed, can still feel like they have all the time they need to do what matters to them. They can make spontaneous choices and be in the moment. Other people may have a lot of free time but feel restless or frustrated — often due to poor mental, emotional, physical or social habits.

How can people increase their sense of time affluence?

One simple way is to approach something differently than you normally would. For example, try using your left hand for tasks you’d normally use your right hand for. When you do that, your brain has to pay more attention. That can slow down your perception of time so that you’re more engaged in the moment.

Studies show that people experiencing time poverty tend not to eat as well as those with time affluence.

There’s a mini game on the SuperBetter app that focuses on increasing the player’s time affluence. Playing video games in general can help you feel more time affluent. It’s a way of wresting control of your time, it’s fun, you’re often playing with friends, and it can help lower your anxiety.

You were a “traditional” game designer for years. What inspired you to create SuperBetter?

I suffered a concussion in 2009 and experienced symptoms common to brain injuries, including depression, anxiety and migraine headaches. I began to study the biomechanics and biochemistry of the brain, hoping to learn how my own brain could heal. That led me to take a closer look at how gaming can give us more control over our minds, thoughts and feelings, as well as our overall well-being, which is what SuperBetter is all about.

Jane’s Guide to Assessing Time Affluence

If you are rich, you’re more likely to agree that:

☐ I am in control of how I spend my time
☐ I have enough time to do all the things I want to get done

If you’re time poor, you’re more likely to agree that:

☐ There are not enough minutes in the day
☐ Time is slipping away
☐ I’m not in control of how I spend my time

You’ve been using games to help “crowd source” the future, so to speak. What does this mean?

At the Institute of the Future, we’re forecasting what the future might look like by asking thousands of people about their futures. To give an example, we asked a large group to play a game involving a scenario in which they’d worked for one employer for years, but are now faced with a gig-based economy where people move from job to job. We asked them, What are the challenges? How would your lives be different? We think that large groups of college students or stay-at-home moms often have a very different, and more accurate, set of ideas than a dozen experts on the future.

All studies referenced can be found at . This interview was made possible with the help of New York Life & MainStay Investments.

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