Just watched the now semi-infamous DICE talk by Jesse Schell from February.
Basically, a parody-esque warning about the dangers of over-gamifying our lives. And he’s right, gamification is an idea that is going to be used for evil as well as good. I’m hoping that Health Month, while rewarding many of the same behaviors, can reward them for better reasons (healthier and happier living through improved habits). There’s no reason why the powers-that-be will be the ones controlling the game mechanics of our lives.
That said, I want to back up a little. I want to think about what it means to gamify your life, whether or not it is even possible, and whether or not it is useful.
What does it mean?
To me, the gamification of life is all about tapping into the motivational parts of our behavior. If we have something that needs to be done, no longer tie it to the “should” or the “have to” motivational engines in our brain, but instead tie it to the competitive and/or fun part of our brain. The game part. That’s it. It’s simply a behavior-changing trick. It has nothing to say about whether or not you use that trick on all of your behaviors, nor about whether or not those behaviors are truly the right behaviors for you. It’s just a trick. That can be used. On them.
Clever advertising is a trick. Peer pressure is a trick (see my Ignite talk about using peer pressure as a motivational tool). Deadlines are a trick. New Year’s Resolutions are a trick. Guilt is a trick. Authority is a trick. Money is a trick. Making it a game is a trick. See what I’m trying to get at? Tricks are the fuel that we need to get things done. The things we get done, on the other hand, are a separate story. And are up to us, entirely.
Can you map games to real life?
Yes. Like Jesse Schell entertainingly illustrated, everything can be turned into a game. School can be turned into a game where the rewards are grades. Having a job can be turned into a game where the rewards are money and promotions and job titles. Relationships can be turned a game. And self-motivation can be turned into a game.
The operative part of the phrase is “can be turned into.” They are not games by default, but they can be played like games. A game layer can be added on top of the experience, just like a carrot can be dangled in front of a rabbit as a layer on top of a race track. If rabbits raced.
The way I think about it now is that the game layer is science. It is an abstract model that describes, with a particular metaphor and model, the way people behave. Just like physics is an abstract model that describes the way atoms and molecules behave. Physics can predict to a pretty high degree of accuracy how objects in the real world will behave, but it is not 100% accurate. It makes assumptions, and ignores small unknown random factors that will always sneak in. The game layer, similarly, can describe how people are likely to behave in certain contexts. It can name the motivating factors, the psychological tricks, the social obligations that make us often times behave in a certain way.
On the other hand, you can create crazy, beautiful physics models that do all kinds of outlandish things that the real world will never see. And the same is true for games. You can link game mechanics up to certain behaviors and motivate people to do things they would never do for the intrinsic value of those behaviors alone. You can also make people feel good or bad about doing things that they would feel differently about outside of the game.
The trend in games, though, is to make them map closer and closer to real life. To become more authentic games. Casual and slow games that play at the same pace as real life. And in the best case scenario, games that reward you for things that you already want to do, or that discourage behaviors that you already want to stop.
That’s where they become really interesting, in my book.
Is it useful to think about life as a game?
I think so. The key point, however, will be that we allow people to design their own games. In order for this to not turn into a new way for corporations, the government, our bosses, parents, and religious leaders to control us (hello, conspiracy theorists!), we need to take ownership of our own lives, make sure that we design our own games, and that those games we design have a 1-to-1 relationship between what we want to do, and what we reward ourselves for doing. This is one of the epiphanies I had while creating Health Month. All of the fitness and nutrition sites out there tell you what to eat. And every 6 months, a new expert finds some new trick that they then market to you, you buy, and they get rich. Who cares about them? We are on our own health path, with our own opinions, and what we need is information about which nutrient we need most, which recipes provide those nutrients, and which mental tricks we can employ to get our behaviors to slowly move towards healthier living. That’s all.
Life is long. We don’t need to solve everything right this minute. But, we can use games to make small changes in our lives, over long periods of time, in a sustainable way where we don’t burn out. I think that’s where games are going to be most useful, as we move into the future.