The experiment began at 11 a.m. in my bedroom in Brooklyn. I bought an app from the iTunes store called EpicWin, a fantasy-themed game designed to improve users’ lives by motivating them to accomplish real-world goals with virtual-world rewards. Before starting the game, I had to pick and customize an avatar that would represent me in the digital landscape of EpicWin. I chose a cadaverous warrior named Calcium Facebone. He held a blunt mallet in one hand. “Add new task,” the screen read. Since I was planning to write a story about my experience, I typed in “Start article.” A surge of ominous music rattled from the iPhone speakers, and Calcium Facebone appeared on a rumpled map on the screen. Miles traveled: 0.
I had gotten the idea for the experiment a few months ago, when I became interested in a trend called “gamification.” To gamify something is to integrate videogame mechanics—such as scoring, missions and level-ending “boss” battles—into real-life situations. Gamification has become increasingly popular as our use of smartphones and our collective desire to remain connected at every moment have grown. For now, it is primarily a marketing tool used by businesses to shape consumer behavior. Google awards badges to regular users of Google News; online marketplaces such as Gilt Groupe and Zappos dish out perks to their frequent customers; Kobo, a company that produces e-readers and e-books, lets consumers unlock achievement awards for plowing through a certain number of pages. M2 Research, an analytics firm in Encinitas, California, estimates that the gamification market in 2011 was worth about $100 million. By 2016, it could reach as high as $2.8 billion.
Fueled by such growth, gamification is beginning to expand beyond commercial applications. “I foresee games that tackle global-scale problems like climate change and poverty,” game developer Jane McGonigal writes in her book Reality Is Broken. “I foresee games that augment our most essential human capabilities—to be happy, resilient, creative—and empower us to change the world in meaningful ways.”
If, as the theory holds, everything in life could be a game, I wondered what would happen if it really were. So I decided to construct an experiment. Over the course of seven days, I would score and tally different aspects of my life. I would sign up for every mobile or Web-based gamification app that I could find. Where there were no apps, I would create my own games. And I would discover if the points I earned correlated to an actual improvement in my well-being.
To help design my gamified life, I enlisted Nick Fortugno and Margaret Wallace, the co-founders of Playmatics, a New York game-development firm. Together we created a plan for the week, part of which I would be spending in Durham, North Carolina, visiting my fiancée, Katie. We resolved to examine the results at the end of the week.
EpicWin was my first chance to score some points. I sat down at my computer and opened a Word document. The screen was very white. I wrote a few words, and then a few more. After 20 minutes, I returned to the app and confirmed that I had started my article, completing my first quest. Calcium Facebone tottered 40 miles forward across the map, picking up 110 gold coins along the way. Solid numbers, certainly, 40 and 110, and I felt a small but undeniable sense of accomplishment looking at them on the screen. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they meant outside of the game, so I called Gabe Zichermann, co-author of the book Game-Based Marketing.
“That number is not just a number,” he said. “That number is providing feedback. Feedback is what’s intoxicating.” Ten years ago, such feedback was very limited. These days, we get it in everything we do—friends on Facebook “like” our posts, Twitter users re-tweet our tweets, other users rank the relevance of our Yelp reviews.
“That cycle of challenge and achievement causes the brain to secrete dopamine and other chemicals and creates a positive reinforcement loop,” Zichermann added. “Which is to say, you want to do it again and again and again.” I stared down at Calcium Facebone. There was no doubt that I felt compelled to log another task.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.