Can Treating Your Life As a Game Make You a Better Person?
One full week of keeping track of absolutely everything, to see if gamification can net you a win in the game of life
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.
On the flight to Durham the next morning, I began compiling the early results. Perched in the third row, cocktail napkin on my knee, I tabulated my scores from EpicWin and the gamification site Chore Wars, where I had created a profile the evening before. Chore Wars, like EpicWin, takes its design cues from the world of role-playing games—the player chooses an avatar and, by completing certain errands in the real world, obtains points. I had decided to use Chore Wars to gamify three household tasks: washing the dishes, taking out the recycling, and paying my bills. In the name of consistency, I chose a vampire avatar, whose pale skin reminded me of Calcium Facebone. Before leaving for the airport that morning, I scrubbed a plate from the night before and hauled a trash bag to the curb. Together the chores were worth 70 experience points and 19 pieces of gold. I wasn’t sure what the exchange rate with my gold coins from EpicWin was, but the feedback felt good.
On the long taxi to the gate, I turned on my iPhone and opened another app that I had downloaded the previous night, Foursquare. Using the free app, gamers “check in” at restaurants, stores and public spaces to earn points and badges. Foursquare had determined my location in disturbing detail, down to the gate number. I clicked through the check-in screen and, with a few finger taps, racked up a string of points as well as a Newbie badge. It felt good. The app was remarkably easy. Unlike Chore Wars or EpicWin, both of which require lengthy, detailed updates, Foursquare updates itself with location data. To play, users need only press a button.
I would discover if the points I earned in the games correlated to an actual improvement in my well-being.As Kevin Slavin, a game designer and consultant, explained to me, in the future, the best gamification apps will probably be the most unobtrusive, the most organically integrated into our physical lives. Whereas conventional videogames immerse you in a manufactured experience, a good gamification app should keep you centered in the real world while subtly applying various game mechanics. Slavin suggested as a rough analog the air-conditioning controls on a modern car. “A car designer would want the dials to be something you only partly think about, because if it’s difficult, you’ll stop thinking about driving. In a way, you’re trying to make it invisible.
After getting off the plane, I met Katie downstairs, where I immediately checked in at the airport coffee shop. “Five points!” I said. “How thrilling,” she said. We drove to get a sandwich. I checked in at the restaurant. We stopped by Target to pick up a few things, and before walking through the sliding doors, I again checked in. We drove to Katie’s house, and I checked in there too. I began to imagine the world as a digitized quilt of interconnected landmarks. Points were all around. Everywhere I went, I held my smartphone in front of me like a brightly glowing compass. Foursquare had challenged me to collect 50 points in a week. I beat that before the end of the day.
During my visit to Playmatics, Fortugno and Wallace had suggested that even my love life could be subject to gamification. Plenty of dating sites use gamification elements—OkCupid, for instance, keeps a tally of how many people view your profile, and rewards you with more potential matches as you answer more questions about yourself. But since I’m engaged, the Playmatics team helped me design a game better suited to my relationship status. The interface was an index card.
“Build a Better Fiancé” would take place over two days, or levels. I would “win” by racking up 10 points on the first day and 15 on the second; fail to reach the goal, and I would have to start the level over. I could earn points for logging achievements in five categories, all of them devised by Katie: compliments, cleaning up, public displays of affection, interacting with her family and friends, and anticipating what she would want before she wanted it. I would gamify myself into a stronger and more intimate relationship. For the purpose of recording my score, I gave Katie the index card, which she was to carry everywhere she went.
Level One went poorly. I took a shower and left the floor littered with shampoo and body-wash bottles (it looked, Katie said, “as if you were having a yard sale in there”). I was planning on surprising her by volunteering to walk the dog, but I was still busy updating my Chore Wars progress when she headed out the door, pooch in tow. “Minus one point!” she said. Fortunately, I had designed the game with no minuses.
That night, we went out to dinner. At the restaurant I checked in using Foursquare and then clicked over to my mobile browser to play Chore Wars. I had cleaned the dishes that day, and I received some gold points and a level up. But, I reasoned, those dishes should also count toward my goal in the Better Fiancé game. “Fine,” Katie said. “One point.” I leaned across the table and kissed her cheek, earning me another point.
But when we returned home, I took a look at the index card and realized that I was still three points short of my goal. I thought about pulling out a last-minute romantic gesture, but what I really wanted to do was sit in bed and watch Netflix. “Fail,” Katie said after she had tallied my score for herself. “Luckily, you have more lives.”
The next phase of the experiment was to determine if gamification could improve my health, so the next morning Katie and I went to a sporting-goods store in Durham to buy equipment for Nike+, a fitness-tracking system in which runners monitor and gamify their daily workouts. The Nike+ apparatus is simple. A small accelerometer, slotted in the sole of a Nike shoe, transmits speed and distance data to an iPod, a Nike watch or a rubber bracelet containing a USB drive.
I opted for a pair of Air Max shoes ($90) and the bracelet, called the SportBand ($59). Once my run was finished, the sales clerk explained, I could snap the USB drive off the SportBand and upload the data from my run to my laptop. That data, in turn, would help me set weekly and monthly goals, compete against millions of other Nike+ users, and isolate my “problem areas.” I had no shortage of those. I run badly, and usually in a great deal of pain. And yet here, in the soft rubber of the SportBand, was a simple promise: With a little time, my regular death marches might become something I would actually enjoy.
Back at home, I calibrated my stride, set a couple of initial goals—I wanted to run 15 miles in the next three days, and I wanted to break nine-minute miles—and created my avatar, which this time I designed to look like myself. I gave him blond hair, dressed him in a white sweatshirt, and put a very small SportBand on his wrist.
I ran out the front door and through the gates at the foot of the trail (five points on Foursquare, plus a bonus for my first trail visit). The run itself was full of the usual pangs of self-pity and breathlessness. It seemed to last for days. But later, when I brought up the data on my laptop, I was surprised to find that I had somehow managed to run one of the five miles in six minutes and 49 seconds (it was downhill). I felt as if I had completed a particularly tricky sequence in a videogame. Even though it was only my first run, it was as though I had beaten the boss and was now watching the credits cascade across the screen.
That whole week, I had not been sleeping particularly well. Fortugno and Wallace had suggested that improving my sleeping habits, too, could be a part of the experiment. Since no custom-built sleep gamification apps existed, I decided to try SuperBetter, an adventure-themed game created by Jane McGonigal, that can be customized to help users accomplish their individual goals.
The premise of SuperBetter, according to its website, was to increase my “personal resilience,” in this case by clearly delineating my objective and outlining an incentive-laden path to hours of blissful sleep. I set a reasonable-sounding goal of six hours a night, named my “bad guys” (such as work and stress), and chose a few “power-ups” (hot tea, videogames and bourbon). I was then given a series of “missions,” the first of which involved sleeping a full seven hours. That night, I would record the number of power-ups I was using, and the next morning, I would log the number of hours I slept. The more active I stayed in the game, the more my resilience score would go up. If I managed to sleep enough, I would earn additional points, unlock achievement badges, and level-up to the next mission: to sleep some more.
In the meantime, I took another jog, besting the times I’d set the day before. When I got home, I showered, careful to place all the shampoo bottles back in the caddy, and dashed upstairs to take out the recycling and let the dog out the backdoor, all before Katie had said a word. “Four points,” she smiled. I gave her a hug. “You look beautiful,” I said. “Two points,” she said.
That evening, we checked in at a movie theater that was running a special incentive program for Foursquare users—those who had checked in at the theater three separate times earned a free bag of popcorn. Earlier in the day, I had spoken with Brian Wong, a young entrepreneur in California who helps corporations use their products as rewards in game apps, about these kinds of promotions. “People are naturally goal-driven,” Wong said. “If they’re just aiming for a bunch of points, it might not matter much. But if they’re aiming for real things, real rewards, that’s something different altogether.”
Alas, I had checked into this particular theater only once, so I had to pay for the popcorn out of pocket. I also bought the drinks and candy, however, held open the doors, and switched seats with Katie when she had trouble seeing the screen. By the time the movie was over, the Building a Better Fiancé index card read 20 points. I had beaten the level.
As we got ready for bed—I logged my hot tea and bourbon power-ups on SuperBetter—I told Katie that she looked especially lovely tonight, in those red sweatpants. “Now I feel like you’re just doing it for the points,” she said.
Nike Air Max
A setback. I spend more than an hour a day on average playing actual videogames. But how to gamify an activity that is already a game? Rather than doing the sensible thing and excluding videogames or, conversely, incorporating my extant scores into the larger experiment, I made the (ultimately unfortunate) decision to go meta. Fortugno had an approach: Since I’m the type of gamer who plays from start to finish as quickly as possible, he suggested that I instead become a “collector,” the type who pursues every hidden treasure or trophy. That way I’d not only increase my score dramatically but also become a better gamer—and therefore a happier, better-adjusted person.
On my way home from the airport in New York, the first thing I did was buy a new videogame, Batman: Arkham City. It included a gauge, running from 0 to 100, that charts the percentage of the world that a player uncovers. Getting the gauge to 100 requires completing several side-quests, including the hunt for hundreds of Riddler trophies, which sit in shadows and air vents and, in one case, on top of a chimney, hundreds of feet above the choppy waters of Arkham Bay.
I played for six hours straight, swooping across the shadowed city at a lunatic pace. I uncovered a small bag of trophies and managed to beat the bosses at the end of a couple of levels. But playing as a collector was pretty unfulfilling, and it didn’t seem to make me a better player. At 2:30 in the morning I turned off the Xbox, wired, frustrated and red-eyed. The gauge was only up to 3 percent. Meanwhile, my story was coming along sluggishly, the dishes were still dirty, and I’d forgotten to call Katie.
I woke up at 9:30 and logged my six hours of sleep on SuperBetter, which awarded me with a level up. I did the dishes, did some writing, and entered my information on Chore Wars and EpicWin. It occurred to me then that I had spent almost as much time entering my various scores as I had doing the tasks the applications purported to track.
In the afternoon, I went for a quick run and then showered, folding my towel and keeping the bathroom clean. At around 3, I compiled my scores from the various gamification platforms. On my iPhone, I opened up Foursquare, and on my iPod Touch I booted up EpicWin. I plugged my Nike+ USB drive into the computer and opened two more tabs for SuperBetter and Chore Wars. Last, I dug up the points from the Build a Better Fiancé game, which I had entered a day earlier into a Word document. Lines of information rolled across the screens—numbers, figures, gold coins, experience points, badges and trophies, gauges and power-ups—none of them a perfect match with the other, all of them purporting to quantify some part of my gamified existence.
I remembered that Wong had predicted the creation, in the not- so-distant future, of a unified database, where all the scores from all the gamification applications would be collected and rolled into one big number that would represent the grand total of our achievements in business, fitness, love, and so on.
I wondered whether gamification would really go that far. I thought back to what critics of the trend such as game designer Ian Bogost had told me, that it is little more than a crass point-based marketing ploy. After a week, I knew what my score was, but I still had no idea what all the points added up to.
With the experiment over, I could still sense, under the familiar rhythms of my daily routine, a trace of the games that had dominated my life for the previous week. I washed the dishes and took out the recycling. I left Foursquare on my phone—I had grown fond of it—and when I ran that afternoon, I was wearing my SportBand. But I also played Arkham City the way I really wanted to, crushing the bosses with well-placed punches and leaving the byzantine side-quests alone. And I did not open EpicWin, Chore Wars or SuperBetter.
I did faintly miss, as Gabe Zichermann had predicted, the experience points and gold earned on Chore Wars and EpicWin; those numbers were, after all, real evidence of my newfound diligence. But I also enjoyed being able to talk to my fiancée without worry- ing about my score. Even though I was, despite the howling protestations of Calcium Facebone, going to be late with this article, I sat at my desk, and I remembered that I also enjoyed writing. I enjoyed doing things because they needed doing, and not because I needed to level-up.
I called Slavin and asked him to imagine how gamification might evolve over next few years. He predicted that gamification as a buzzword would eventually lose its luster. “The idea that gamification requires certification programs and specialists and O’Reilly books— that is going to fade away,” he said. “Still, there are real things, valuable things” we could take from gamification and incorporate into the design of, say, Facebook, or a new fitness gadget. In the coming years, he said, e-commerce sites will probably continue to incorporate various aspects of gamification, from VIP points to tangible prizes. Our social networks, too, are likely to become even more gamified, with users competing for rewards, badges and, of course, the approval, in the form of a small upheld thumb, of our peers.
That afternoon, I rang up Fortugno to report on my progress. I told him my total score—3,494— which I had compiled a few hours before. He asked me how I had gotten it, and I explained that it had been a matter of simple math. It was just a crude amalgam of various scores racked up on the various applications, along with my Arkham Asylum percentage. He laughed. “Hey,” he said, “it’s a big number. You should be proud.”
Matthew Shaer is the author of the book Among Righteous Men._