SuperScholar – A game idea for developing productive academic habits

Jane McGonigal is coming to Penn State for a keynote address in the spring. Jane is into gaming, rubella especially games for good. She was one of the people behind World Without Oil, which is an alternative reality game that people “play” by living and producing media as if the world had run out of oil.

Since Jane is coming to Penn State, I was looking at some of Jane’s other work. Hannah Inzko pointed me to SuperBetter, a game that Jane created after suffering a brain injury and being faced with the long road to recovery. SuperBetter is currently in beta and has many options from recovering from other things (like surgery, illness, addiction, or depression) or working toward a health goal (like losing weight, run a marathon, sleeping better, or going vegan). I created a profile on SuperBetter with the goal of completing a Tough Mudder event in April.

Image showing the SuperBetter interface

Here are the interesting elements of the game:

  • Your secret identity in the game is someone that you want to be like. I picked Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series. What I like about Neville is that he’s often overlooked and underrated, but comes through as fiercely loyal and willing to fight for what he believes in.
  • The goal is something that you decide upon for yourself, not something pre-determined by the game designers.
  • The power-ups are things that get you motivated. For example, I make some killer eggs before long workouts that get me motivated: sauteed garlic in olive oil, egg whites, spinach, salt, pepper, and a little parmesan cheese – good stuff. When you use a power-up, you track it in SuperBetter.
  • The enemies are things that get in your way and divert you from your goal. When you battle an enemy and win, you can track it in SuperBetter along with the difficulty of the battle.
  • Allies are people that help you along the way – friends with profiles in SuperBetter who can post achievements to your profile, give you quests, and help in other ways. When you check in with an ally, you can track it in SuperBetter.
  • Quests are tasks that you can do to work toward your goal – either one-time quests or ones that repeat on a regular basis. When you complete a quest, you can track it in SuperBetter.
  • You can take inventories in SuperBetter to track your mental outlook and other factors that can help you achieve your goal.
  • There are other elements in the game such as audio recordings explaining why all of the above are important to establish positive health behaviors

As you can see, SuperBetter is not about playing a character and achieving fictional goals. It’s about you, your life, and your goals.

SuperBetter is great for what it is, but since I work for a university, I was thinking of ways that it could be expanded and adapted for academic purposes. For example, I have a nephew who is in his first year at Penn State and who is learning how to live on his own and establish good study habits without parents looking over his shoulders. So I was thinking of version of this game called “SuperScholar”, which would essentially be like SuperBetter, but focused on “workouts of the mind” – studying, homework, forming study groups, doing research, etc… It would also be applicable for younger students (probably middle school and higher), college students, grad students working on research and dissertations, and faculty who are working toward publications and tenure.

There could be a kind of reminder personal agent to keep everyone on task and completing small steps toward a distant goal. A timer system as well – so students who are taking a break don’t turn a 15 minute break into hours playing games or watching TV. You could use a mobile version to track a check-in with a tutor or a meeting with a faculty member during his or her office hours. It could help you balance free time between homework and the kinds of activities that make college life truly memorable (student government, THON, team sports, etc…). This would be similar to the work that RIT is doing on a student achievement system where students track progress and “level up” through their college experience except that, similar to SuperBetter, students and young faculty would set their own goals and milestones, making the whole game experience much more personal.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this idea. Technically, it doesn’t sound implausible. The question is: would people use it? I think I would. It would help me organize the steps that I need to move from where I am now toward the completion of my PhD. In fact, I might try using SuperBetter for this purpose. It’s not meant for academic goals, but it’s so customizable, that I think I can use it for that purpose.

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2 Responses to SuperScholar – A game idea for developing productive academic habits

  1. Kate M says:

    I think it's a great idea to use a game like SuperBetter for academic achievement, with two caveats: 1) A mobile app of the game would make it a lot easier to integrate and use more regularly, and 2) some students would need support/modeling to learn how to break down long-term goals into enabling tasks, and to honestly assess the "enemies" to winning.

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