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How to gamify your life

Updated October 04, 2018

Life is like the biggest open-world sandbox RPG you’ll ever play, but it’s also one of the most lazily designed. It’s as if the designers spent all their time creating the map (the “universe”) and the physics engine, but basically ignored the crucial elements of a clear goal and regular feedback as you make your way towards it. This is why people “gamify” life – taking the elements from actual games that make them enjoyable and addictive, and applying them to the real world. If you find yourself unable to stick to your goals in your day-to-day life, but have an awesome Skyrim character, gamification might just be the solution for you. Here’s how to get started.

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  1. Get some tools. There are many smartphone apps that can help you gamify your life, including HabitRPG, SuperBetter, Zombies! Run, Fitocracy, Chore Wars, Mindbloom and more, with most of them having a specific purpose. For example, Zombies! Run makes jogging a little more fun by adding in periodic zombie hoards “chasing” you and a storyline to tie it all together, and Fitocracy is dedicated to gamifying fitness and nutrition. HabitRPG is probably the most general, though, allowing you to create to-do lists, check off daily tasks and reward yourself for engaging in self-created “habits.” When you accomplish something, you get XP, gold and periodically level up – it’s like a self-contained life gamification tool you can tailor to your personal goals. Many apps will handle elements of this process for you, so learn more about them before continuing (see Resources).

  2. Define your goal. The core element of playing a game – and the thing that’s missing from the natural gameplay mechanic of life – is having something to work towards. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a minor goal – like getting fit – or something more long-term and challenging – like getting where you want to be in your career – the important thing is having something definite to work towards in your gamification journey.

  3. Determine your rules. This is one element that’s handled by many apps for you, but if you’re going the low-tech route, you need to define what you need to do to level-up, how many experience points you get for completing a given task, how you measure your character’s skills (and improvements in them) and if there are any power-ups or perks you can unlock along the way. Building in rewards to these is also important: if you level-up, or get a given amount of experience points on a day, make sure you give yourself something to enjoy – like a unhealthy (but delicious) meal or spending an evening unproductively relaxing. Improve your rules as you play: it’s hard to get it right the first time.

  4. Define your baseline character and attributes. Life gamification is ultimately about improving your skills, attributes and appearance to something more in line with your goal, and although you don’t need to worry too much about it if you don’t want to, defining a starting point can help you track progress. If you’re gamifying to lose weight, find out your starting weight and BMI stats, and if you’re trying to improve an attribute, it helps to define your starting stats. Strength, stamina, charisma, willpower, agility, intelligence, wisdom and perception are common attributes pulled straight from RPGs, but tailor them to your liking. Give yourself a baseline number of points in each, and then provide yourself with some extra points to distribute to your strong-points and specialties. You can add more over time when you complete relevant quests and gain enough experience points.

  5. Make a skill tree. This is closely related to the discussion of attributes above, but with abilities rather than stats, and more tailored to your personal goals. You can list the skills you want to improve as a simple list, but using a “tree” style means you can have each skill branch out into several other, more advanced skills. This gives you a sense of progression, and you can see what you’re working towards. Remember to define how you improve your skills in your rules, and link activities to specific skills where possible – for example, practising for an hour could give you some points towards your “playing guitar” skill, or in more detail, practising chords and scales could improve your “songwriting” skill and playing along to a backing track could improve your “improvising” skill, both within the “playing guitar” branch.

  6. Use mini-games. Sadly, the tasks that contribute towards your goals only make up a relatively small portion of your playing time, and many of the tasks you have to complete are more about general upkeep than improving your core attributes or skills. Turn these into mini-games to gamify them and make them more interesting. For example, when you’re in a supermarket, give yourself a time limit for the process, reward yourself with points for buying healthy items and punish unhealthy purchases with negative points. You can even use mini-games in your core, attribute and skill-building habits. For example, turn a jog into a mini-game by occasionally choosing a tree and trying to get there as quickly as possible, then have a cool-down period afterwards and when you’re ready, choose another game to play for the next tree, like skipping or hopping until you get to it.

  7. Enjoy your rewards. It’s been mentioned earlier, but when you’ve been working hard to improve your character, be sure to reward yourself and enjoy those rewards. Like all games, life is ultimately something to be enjoyed. You need to grind to get where you want to go, but reward a good week of working towards your goals with a day or two of fun – or whatever your pre-determined reward is.

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Things You'll Need

  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper
  • Smartphone, tablet or computer

About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.

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