What does it mean to be a friend? How do I manage strong emotions so I can meet my personal goals? Who am I? These are the questions my students explore at the therapeutic school where I teach. Developing social and emotional skills is hard work, and traditional talk therapy or skills work face-to-face does not reach every student. When maladaptive skills “work,” students may be less motivated to change. Finding a supportive community to explore these changes is hard, too, especially when a student’s family context is challenging. We need more creative ways to approach this therapeutic work.
We often hear hear about how online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are ruining our ability to communicate with one another. Teens get into texting fights, parents struggle to keep up with the latest form of communication, teachers try to balance technology integration. But what if we looked at online communities from a strengths-based perspective? How can online communities actually help people develop social and emotional skills? What are the ways in which we can use technology to our advantage in building our ability to have positive, meaningful relationships with others? There is not a large field of work on this topic, but I can offer some related thoughts and insights from the research and my own experience.
What can technology offer that face-to-face conversations or supports cannot? One of the most powerful uses of technology for social and emotional learning is the feedback loop. Thomas Goetz in a 2011 Wired Magazine article described the feedback loop this way:
The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction. It’s the operating principle behind a home thermostat, which fires the furnace to maintain a specific temperature, or the consumption display in a Toyota Prius, which tends to turn drivers into so-called hypermilers trying to wring every last mile from the gas tank. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality. (Goetz 2011)
The basic cycle of a feedback loop is data collection, meaningful feedback, consequences, and action. Say you want to impact your weight. You might collect data about how many calories you eat each day. After collecting for a week, you turn this data into a chart of calories consumed – a chart that takes on emotional relevance through your ability to understand and relate to the data. The consequence of your actions become clear: maybe you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight, or you need to eat more to support your workout routine. Finally, you take action and adjust your behavior based on this new information. The feedback loop starts all over again.
Feedback loops are possible without the use of technology, but collecting, displaying, and interpreting data are much easier with the use of the supercomputers we carry around in our backpacks and pockets. Sites that use the feedback loop to positively impact social and emotional behavior could become powerful communities for change, especially with teenagers who often lament, “but how does this apply to me?” Inherent in the feedback loop is relevance, and relevance breeds motivation.
One such website I believe uses the feedback loop to its advantage is SuperBetter.com. SuperBetter was developed by Jane McGonigal, a game designer who created the game when dealing with suicidal thoughts after a traumatic brain injury. The game originated as “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which she invited her sister and partner to play with her. When McGonigal asked her sister to play a game with her, it was “an easier way to ask for help” (McGonigal 2012). I think about my students and how difficult it is sometimes for them to ask for others to help them work on social and emotional goals, but how easy it might be for them to text or message a friend an invitation to a game.
“Jane the Concussion Slayer” grew into SuperBetter, a free online game (with a paid iOS app) that uses quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies to help anyone get “superbetter” from anything. The game is customizable to a specific challenge, such as quitting smoking, or can be broad: you can set your objective in the game to “I’m just getting SuperBetter!” Once you create a “secret identity” for an avatar, you then specify your “Epic Win” – or why you want to improve. Behind each of these elements of the game is scientific research supporting how playing the game truly improves your health and wellness. Players can find this research distilled into easy-to-digest articles in the “Secret Lab” section of the website interface.
The game itself focuses on developing players’ resilience in four different research-based areas: emotional, social, mental and physical. Players use “power-ups” for small coping strategies, “quests” to learn new skills, and “battle bad guys” for reflecting on larger, overarching challenges. These categories are exactly the ways that we support students at my therapeutic school, but we do not use the feedback loop as effectively as SuperBetter. In SuperBetter, you gain points as you complete quests and power-ups in each area of resilience. You can go into your Secret Lab and view how your resilience has changed over time and the progress you are making in your well-being. SuperBetter collects the data from your actions in the game, presents it to you in meaningful ways through the gamification/”points” approach, and then you can make your decision on further actions based on how you see the activities supporting or not supporting you. The player then takes actions and the feedback loop starts over again.
However, the true power of SuperBetter is in the community it creates. You can do SuperBetter on your own – but the game encourages and rewards for you for enlisting “allies.” Through the design of the site, you essentially create a social network that is focused on you and your wellness. The set-up of the site allows for only people you have specifically invited to support you to access your activity. Your allies can comment and “like” your progress, award you achievements, and recommend tasks for you. The process brings your allies in and transforms them into part of your feedback loop, adding extra data to the set, making feedback more meaningful, and helping you to consider your consequences.
In SuperBetter’s “secret lab” section about allies, the research about social relationships is synthesized: “having at least two strong social relationships dramatically increases positive health outcomes and helps us succeed in our goals” (SuperBetter Labs 2012). Furthermore, SuperBetter defines what makes a positive social relationship: one that includes positivity, honesty, support and closeness. For students like mine, saying “strong social relationship” would not be sufficient to understand what types of allies one needs in the journey to bettering oneself. The research synthesis on SuperBetter (developed from peer-reviewed papers also linked to in the secret lab) describes those characteristics as well as the benefits of developing a strong relationship with an ally. In this way, SuperBetter not only supports the social and emotional growth between people, but actually teaches how to do this.
There is currently wide support in the field of education for “gamification.” In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Farber describes how gaming elements such as leveling up, achievements, badges, and Easter eggs are used in the classroom. Farber concludes that gaming is “the very definition of constructivism” (2013). The Mozilla Foundation further supports elements of gamification in a paper collaborating with Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation. Learning today takes place across multiple settings, not just a classroom, and in multiple means, not just rote memorization and testing. Yet, “institutions still decide what types of learning ‘count’, with little room or innovation, as well as who gets to have access to that learning” (2012). Badges are a “bridge between contexts” and support motivation, flexibility, and community-building. In SuperBetter, badges are called “achievements” and can be awarded from an ally to their “hero,” further supporting the social and emotional connections in the community.
In addition to the impacts of classroom integration, the act of playing games in itself can have positive emotional impacts. In one study, after playing “casual” video games such as Bejeweled, subjects experienced less physical and emotional stress. (Russoniello et al 2009). However, these casual games are not social – and do not teach a regulation skill, they are in themselves a coping mechanism. Different research suggests that social online games can impact “real-world” relationship. In a study from Michigan State University, researchers found that people playing games on social networks could practice relationship skills such as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing relationship. They also found loose evidence that certain behaviors reinforced by Facebook games in particular – such as reciprocity – had a positive impact on relationship. (Wohn et al, 2011).
Can SuperBetter and gamification replace traditional means of building social/emotional skills? I doubt it, but I do have faith that using elements of gamification in therapeutic work can engage students. Gamification is another way of making learning visible, tangible, and putting it in the hands of the learner – and in my experience those traits lead to successful learning outcomes, both in content areas and in social/emotional skills. I plan to try SuperBetter with some of my students in the upcoming semester, and to encourage my teachers to use visible markers of learning to support our students’ growth.