By Ofier Sigal, General Studies Principal

As a child of the 1980s, I, along with millions of other kids, was enthralled with video games. Game consoles like Atari, Sega, Nintendo all held us hostage to our televisions while our parents wanted us to spend more time being more “productive.” Now that gaming is increasingly untethered from our televisions and more portable, kids are playing video games more than ever. When Rabbi Kobrin handed me his copy of the book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, I was captivated by renowned video game designer Jane McGonigal’s almost simple idea of how playing video games can cultivate emotional well being and help players gain practical skills applicable to real-world situations. 

The impetus for Ms. McGonigal’s research was a concussion she suffered that limited her ability to lead her everyday life and ultimately led to debilitating depression. While recovering, she discovered that playing games in her head to complete small “quests” helped her recover faster and stronger. She realized that others who experienced a traumatic event could play games to aid in their recoveries too. Based on her experience, she designed a game called “SuperBetter” specifically to aid individuals to recover from traumatic experiences but can also be used by anybody who wants to strengthen certain core psychological strengths. “SuperBetter” refers to McGonigal’s theories on three crucial qualities for success and resilience in both gaming and in life, especially in trying situations: 1) harnessing one’s ability to control his or her attention to the task at hand, 2) identifying the allies in one’s environment and building relationships and 3) increasing self motivation so one can become the hero of his or her own story. Broken down like this, one can clearly understand the connection between a strong gamer and a successful real-world problem solver, one of the core traits we are trying to instill in our students. 

In one example, she describes how burn victims suffering incredible pain can reduce their pain dramatically by playing virtual reality games like Snow World while having their burn wound dressings changed. McGonigal indicates that our brains are wired to handle one task at a time, and if you heavily concentrate on playing Snow World, you cannot feel the pain of your burns. The book has many challenges or “quests” that the author explains can help you emulate video game play in real life. 

The book led me down the proverbial rabbit hole. I watched all of Jane McGonigal’s TED Talks, which I highly recommend, and found myself visiting my local library to read many other “gamification” books and learn how we can apply similar techniques here at North Shore Hebrew Academy. I’ve already used specific quests with a couple of students who needed an alternative to unstructured time in school (recess) or who were having some crises that were mitigated by playing a game. In these scenarios, I found that shifting focus helped our students engage in a quest in which they were able to exercise a degree of control over their surroundings and outcomes. 

When I ride the New York City subway, I estimate that over 90% of the people in the subway car are playing games on their devices. Our children, too, are playing hours of games, and so long as the content promotes age-appropriate social and emotional well being, and playing time is not excessive, that may not necessarily be a negative. Learning and development in adolescence can take place in a variety of ways. As McGonigal’s groundbreaking research shows, the potential benefits of gaming include increasing our physical resilience, mental resilience, social resilience, and emotional resilience. To understand why our children find these games so engaging and how they might be growing from them, I encourage you to play along with your children – play multiplayer games like War of Witchcraft in which players need each other to complete levels or challenge them in FIFA Soccer. Gaming in moderation can be beneficial, so instead of fighting the video game culture in your child’s life, consider embracing it. Studies show that you’ll be “Superbetter” for it!