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Gamifying My Life

How video game principles can make adulting much more epic

Luke Mac
Luke Mac
Dec 10, 2018 · 10 min read
Credit: chuckchee/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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Have you ever wanted to hit the master reset button on the console of life, blow the dust off your cartridge, delete your saved game slots, and see if you can create something new and more awesome?

Well, in the summer of 2012, I decided to play a new game—and you can too. This is the story of how I blended lifestyle and video game design to give myself more epic wins, including seven “cheat codes” on how you can do the same.

Origin Story

I had started seeing a psychologist, who diagnosed me with social anxiety and mild depression. I had no sense of direction. What did I really want besides money, comfort, sex, happiness, and adventures—that is, the basic common denominators that unite all humans?

I won’t pretend it was all bad. Actually, it was pretty damn good. I was living in Sydney’s Inner West area. The city ranks as the second-most-expensive one to live in, but you get plenty of bang for your buck. It’s vibrant and beautiful, frenetic and business-minded but with world-class beaches within Uber distance of everywhere: a work-hard, play-hard environment.

By that time in my life, I’d also clocked some great overseas adventures. I had a phone full of friendly enough Tinder prospects, a wallet padded with ample change for life’s simple pleasures, and a pocketful of half-baked dreams. I enjoyed my humble existence of part-time bar work, long weekend runs, red-wine-infused midnight conversations with friends, and occasional video-game-and-chill sessions.

Video game designers are experts at making things fun and engaging to the point of being addictive. What if I could take the same ideas to get myself addicted to my own life?

I was sitting alone in the kitchen of our shared house. There was a cleaning roster on the wall, and my notebook was groaning on the table in front of me under the weight of 100 to-dos. But frankly, I felt I’d rather be playing Far Cry 3.

But on that occasion, I left the PlayStation in its drawer and started writing.

I decided to start where I was already at—which is still some of the best self-help advice I’ve ever come across. I’d done well at the academic game back in the day and had fond memories of my hitherto completely unutilized major: video game design and development.

Video game designers are experts at making things fun and engaging to the point of being addictive. I thought: What if I could take the same ideas to get myself addicted to my own life? Perhaps if I could just re-engage and get just 10 percent more “in the game,” I could get some momentum and clarity—enough to shake off the fear and depression and at least give my hard-won dollars to the local bartender instead of the local cognitive clinician.

Insert coin: It was time to get more serious about play. Photo: Ben Neale/Unsplash

Tutorial Level

In reality, my quest had begun decades earlier. I’d always been interested in games, digital or otherwise, both the playing and making of them. By the end of primary school, I had written a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook with a fantasy setting and half-written a number of video games. But I didn’t consider taking the ideas into the real world until that otherwise uneventful evening.

Level 1: “Boulder Dash” on Commodore 64, my first favorite game, is where it all began. The goal was to help Rockford the miner collect diamonds without getting crushed.

It would take me several more years to discover that what I was doing had a not-particularly-catchy name: gamification.

My first attempt was written in one sitting. I thought about everything I wanted and tried to break it down into tangible stuff I could control and measure. I explored thoughts like: Why do I want the thing? What would that feel like? How would I act if I felt that way? How can I move even 1 percent toward this?

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #1: Define victory conditions. Write down success and failure criteria. These should be, at least in theory, within your control. If it’s mostly luck, then it’s not a game — it’s gambling.

To my surprise, it was often possible to break down ridiculous dreams into real-world actions. Feelings like “I just want to play Far Cry 3” transformed into “Visit a South Pacific island,” which is the inspiration for that game’s setting and an eminently practical (and exciting) starting point. And “I want 99 points of charisma like the Witcher” became “consistently express candid interest in women I like,” a completely controllable, if occasionally awkward, habit.

I ended up with something looking like a character sheet from an old-school role-playing game, with 55 aspirational “levels” across six “worlds” that corresponded with different life areas.

The worlds in my game, clockwise from top left: City of Villages (social/family), Earthsea (health), Skynest (spiritual), World’s End (adventure), Wicked Isles (romance), and City of Gold (career). Photo: Luke Mac

In addition, I identified “epic players” to look up to and current “quests” to work on. And every video game has “bosses,” particularly challenging bad guys to overcome. I listed them by personifying my inner challenges (including my melancholic tendencies and social anxiety) and specified “countermoves” to unleash against their “special attacks.”

Humble beginnings: Version 1.0 of my game was a mere Word document with several sections, including a strategy guide to defeating “bosses.” Photo: Luke Mac

The first Playbook was born, rendered in glorious MS Word.

My psychologist, who is a complete nongamer—she thinks that Angry Birds is the cinematic sequel to Mean Girls—was bemused but ultimately supported the idea. I stuck with it. At a minimum, it gave me a sense of being in control and that I was working toward something exciting.

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #2: Define clear metrics. How can you measure success with numbers? What are the milestones? Good metrics will give you a sense of forward motion and progress, showing how well you’re doing in the game. Consider putting “playtime” on your calendar (once a day, week, or month) to check in on these over a coffee or beer.

Open World

I’d been working at gamifying my life for a while before I discovered I wasn’t the only one doing it. In fact, there’s an entire industry devoted to it with multiple books on gamification and various apps to help one apply it to their life.

I went back to school, read extensively, and completed a course based on the work of the University of Pennsylvania’s Kevin Werbach. I like his approach; his background is in law, so he brings a certain rigor to what is essentially a hacked-together field of knowledge.

Strategy guides on the subject of gamification include ‘Flowby Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Well Designed Life by Kyra Bobinet, ‘The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick, ‘SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal, and ‘For the Winby Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter.

Through a combination of research and trial and error, I refined my system and introduced new elements. I would user-test them using rough sketches and wireframes, refine them, and finally add them to the official Playbook. For example, I experimented with a reward system based on points with which I could acquire “loot” in the form of predetermined rewards, including various consumables (like coffee), treasure (contributions to a guilt-free fun-money bank account), and—of course—free time to play video games.

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #3: Make feedback immediate and emotional. Putting the metrics in front of you is highly motivating and a key ingredient of the flow state we enjoy when engrossed in a hobby or game. One way to achieve this is with rewards and/or punishments.

Slay the day, get the loot: Have a points-based reward system for daily and weekly tasks. Photo: Luke Mac

One concept that worked particularly well for me was the “dashboard.” There is a kind of magic to having everything presented pictorially on a single page, like a video game’s user interface. I made three: a daily dashboard for everyday organization, a goal or quest dashboard for midterm tasks, and a life dashboard for higher-level direction and focus.

Detailed project planning took place on a calendar, but the quest dashboards were particularly useful in giving me a quick, clear sense of my progress and motivations. I gave each quest an epic title and logo.

A hero’s journey: Various past quests included, clockwise from top left, Black Zone (get out of debt), Make or Die (host a hack-a-thon for creatives), Minimum Effective Dose (naturally increase my testosterone), and August Wagon (endure a sober month). Photo: Luke Mac

A constant challenge was hitting on the right blend of control and flexibility. Many of my abandoned ideas were either too specific to have utility outside the one thing I was working on at the time or too complicated to deal with the vicissitudes of reality. I occasionally fell down the rabbit hole and burdened the system with too many rules and exceptions, such as with a Dungeons & Dragons-esque character sheet concept I’d devised. My inner geek loves playing with this kind of thing, but I had to ask: Was it serving me?

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #4: Keep it simple. And I mean Flappy Bird simple. Don’t overdesign. Life is complex, and you need to be flexible. You can track habits with a good old Excel spreadsheet or even pen and paper; you don’t need a fancy app. Playbook is a humble physical organizer. It can get ideas out of your head and use the magic of a single page to help you move along quickly. I also prefer doing my life-gamifying nondigitally so that I can’t edit eternally — or jump onto Facebook. Also, there are never technical issues.

Overclocked: Don’t let the game play you. Keep it light and fun. Photo: Luke Mac

A related lesson I learned was that it is important to design for failure. At some point, your planning or willpower will let you down, and you need to be kind to yourself and have a plan for getting back in the game after setbacks. All good designers (whether of the game, graphics, user experience, or lifestyle subclasses) design with an understanding of compassion. Empathize with the end user—yourself.

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #5: Set yourself up for the win. Design with self-forgiveness and be realistic for your brain-dead, tired-on-Monday, having-a-family-emergency days. Sticking to the game is more valuable than heroic bursts followed by inaction. You don’t get bonus points for only playing in hardcore mode.

To borrow from the unofficial tagline of the fiendishly difficult game Dwarf Fortress: Losing should be fun! It was important to me to have a compassionate way to reset the game. If I “died,” I gave myself small punishments in the form of unpleasant but important mini-tasks.

Once you get basic logistics going, there are unlimited ways you can make your game of life more awesome.

Game over; continue?: We all run out of health points sometimes. Play nice with yourself. Photo: Luke Mac

Once you get basic logistics going, there are unlimited ways you can make your game of life more awesome. But all great games have the same ingredients. Consider the game Spelunky, my current favorite: There are clear objectives (find the exit, get gold, avoid critters), clear metrics (health, gold, level, time), immediate visceral feedback (visual and sound effects, victory/game-over screens), and progress (unlockables, achievements, level count). It’s also very pretty.

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #6: Make it beautiful. Beauty isn’t a random cultural invention; we are drawn to things that are elegant and have the right level of complexity. If your game is beautiful, it means you’ve designed it well — and you’ll be inspired to play it.

Full circle: “Spelunky” is my new “Boulder Dash.” Perhaps I have a secret desire to be a miner.

End Game

It’s been six years since I started this quest. Every Christmas, I revisit and refine my game, applying new ideas and adding new experiments to the Playbook.

Level up: I gradually refined the tools that worked for me and had a copy of the “Playbook” professionally printed. Photo: Luke Mac

My end goal is not to turn my entire life into a game but rather to create a tool I can leverage for motivation and focus—specifically when I’m in my productive mode. I have no intention or desire to gamify my Sunday afternoons, romantic relationships, or spiritual life. I want to stay connected to the real world and remember why I am doing all this: to make my life 10 percent more awesome.

Gamify Your Life Cheat Code #7: Define boundaries. Don’t be a game addict. A game isn’t a game if it’s infinite or has no buy-in from the player. Know when you’re playing the game and when you’re chilling. Research suggests that gamifying things that are already intrinsically interesting (or already games) actually crowds out and lowers existing motivation.

IRL: Don’t forget there is a beautiful, high-resolution world out there. Photo: Blake Hunter/Unsplash

Active Quest

My current quest is to see if these ideas can help other people also be 10 percent more awesome. This article is the first step toward this, so please leave a response if it was helpful or interesting to you. If there is interest, I’ll post follow-up stories detailing the “mini-games” that comprise the Playbook.

The next step will be releasing the Playbook to the public for the first time, making it available as a hard copy personal organizer. If you’re interested, contact me to be notified when it launches.

Luke Mac

Written by

Luke Mac

Sex & planes & video games. Art director, copywriter, Sydney slicker. No dietary requirements. lukemac.com.au

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