In part 1 of this series on gamification, I roughly summarized the eight core drives of the Octalysis Framework. For each core drive, I gave a video game I was addicted to as a kid that particularly targeted that core drive. Check out part 1 here!
In part 2 of this series, I will analyze the differences between games and real life. Then I will discuss how we can make our real lives more like a game to make us want to do hard things.
To learn how to do this, we must first define what a game is. Then we can understand what differentiates games from real life and how these differences make games more fun for many.
🕹️What is a Game?
According to Bernard Suit, philosopher and game studier, a game is anything where there is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."
Golf is a perfect example.
Practically, I could stand right next to the golf hole and puck it in with one shot, call me Tiger Woods thank you. But this wouldn't be any fun! In reality, golfers give themselves an unnecessary obstacle; they distance themselves from the hole before making their shot.
This is what makes golf so enjoyable, for some... The golfer and anyone watching are at the edge of their seats (or as much as you can be for golf). Will they hit a hole in one? Will they blast it into the trees?
In addition to unnecessary obstacles, all games have five universal attributes:
- A goal
- A feedback system
- Voluntary participation
- A gameplay loop
Going back to golf, the goal is to get the golf ball in the hole with the least number of hits possible. The rules define how you track turns, points, and fair play while pursuing this goal. You get feedback from where your ball goes after hitting and your score throughout the game. Voluntary participation, at least I hope, is universal for all players. The gameplay loop is hitting a ball until you get a hole, tracking score, and then moving on to the next hole.
Now that we know what makes a game a game, let's learn what differentiates them from real life and how these differences are making so many prefer them compared to other nongame ambitions.
What Differentiates Games From Real Life?
🎯Games Have More Epic Goals Than Real Life
Epic is a gamer term for something awesome in proportion and often surprising. I would not describe most of life as epic. For the students I know at Cornell University, days are a blend of studying, doing homework, spending terrifying amounts of time on Tik Tok, and acting busy mixed. This is mixed with the occasional highlight through hanging out with friends, going on vacation, or eating peanut butter (I have a problem).
It's honestly kind of dreary.
Games, however, are often more epic in scale. In the Halo Universe, for example, you must save Earth from an evil Covenant of Aliens almost entirely on your own. The whole fate of Earth is in your hands. You know every quest, every task, and alien you kill brings you one step closer to saving the Earth from the evil aliens.
✂️Games Have Clearer Rules and Goals Than Real Life
In real life, you are born into a random situation. Random race, socioeconomic status, family. There’s no tutorial.
People around you espouse vague sentiments like “get a job, get married, and go to college.” But even these are all socially conditioned vague guidelines instead of true genuine authentic passions.
There is You have to create it. In other words, the rules and goals of the game are ambiguous. There are an almost infinite number of things you could do at any given moment.
I could stop writing right now and go on a run, begin a start-up, or fly to the moon. What? A kid can dream.
In games, however, the rules and goals are usually crystal clear. I mean unless your playing a puzzle game. Collect this many acorns (Animal Crossing), hit the golf ball, or take over the other side's king (chess).
Even if you don't know exactly what you need to do next your comforted by the fact that you know there is something you should be doing; you just haven't figured it out yet.
💬Games Have a Tighter Feedback System Than Real Life
In real life most things that are hard to do but pay off in the long run have no urgency but immediate pain, whereas most of the things that are easy to do but suck in the long run have a sense of immediate pleasure but long term pain.
In other words, the time between action and reward in real life is naturally the opposite that we would like it to be.
Just think about describing a kid (Jimmy) should study for their Algebra 2 test.
"Well little Jimmy if you study one hour now instead of playing video games you might be able to score five points higher on your test in a few days, and then your grade for Algebra 2 will be slightly higher, which will make your GPA higher, and with a high GPA across all four years of high school you might be able to get into a good college, so you can get a good job, so you can blah blah blah."
Can't really blame Jimmy for playing Fortnite instead.
Compare this to a game like D&D, for instance. In D&D it's clear you have made progress when you upgrade your sword from 9 damage to 10. In other words, the feedback system in games is much faster and clearer. Your actions usually have immediate and clear consequences, whether good or bad.
🤝Games Have More Voluntary Participation Than Real Life
In real life, much of what we do is forced upon us causing us to suffer from psychological reactance. If you are born into a poor situation you must work harder than others who have life given to them on a silver platter.
For many traditional schooling is a endless cycle of forced reading, doing homework, and studying concepts that don't interest the student. This leaves many to mistakenly believe they don't like learning when in reality they just don't like being only forced to learn.
But in a game you can choose what, how, and whom to play. Do you want to play a game requiring strategy and critical thinking? Or how about a game where you can turn off your brain and simply relax? What if you want to just play a murder hobo and kill everyone you come across? In all of these cases you voluntarily choose what to do giving you a sense of responsibility for your actions.
🔁Games Have a More Addictive Gameplay Loop Than Real Life
In real life, your gameplay loop--the core flow of action, progression, and reward--changes based on your situation. But for many, it typically involves a blend of working, doing chores, studying, and the occasional highlight when hanging out with friends or going on vacation. For many, this gameplay loop doesn't give nearly enough meaning to life, and they fall for the more pleasurable gameplay loops driving all addictive behaviors.
In games, however, the gameplay loop is the game's most addictive and fun part. For example, the gameplay loop in most RPGs is to fight monsters, level up, build skills, acquire new gear, and fight bigger and better monsters. It's wonderfully addictive because you feel like you are constantly improving.
The rewards of the gameplay loop in games is naturally novel. When you complete a level, beat a boss, or unlock a new item, you gain access to tons of new opportunities and pathways. And one of the core things we know about Dopamine is that Intermittent novel rewards release dopamine much more than rewards we expect and are used to.
🎉Games Generally Promote Failure More Than Real Life
Many people in life are allergic to failure. They are chronic perfectionists. Because of this, they shudder from challenge and novelty.
I believe this is because in real life we know to get really good at anything it’s hard. Becoming a master chef, professor, or doctor takes years of dedicated effort and measuring opportunity costs. Unfortunately, the prospect of going through all this effort leaves many so numb they don't even try in the first place.
Gamers, however, love failure.
A part of this is because the ease and speed at which we progress in a game compared to real life is massive. In the sims, we can become a master chef in a single day of real life.
But the more important reason is that by their nature games promote failure.
In Super Mario Brothers, for instance, the gameplay loop is running and jumping your character through a level until you almost inevitably die. Every death gives you insight into what you should do to make it farther next time.
Failure is built into the game. Because of this, players see failure as fundamental to the learning process rather than something to be avoided at all costs.
To promote failure even more, the best games tailor their difficulty to fall right into the players Goldilocks zone, the zone where something is not so hard that it's frustrating but not so easy it's boring.
This primes gamers to enter the Flow state, the state in which all other worldly matters fly away and consciousness of the self goes away. People in the flow state literally describe themselves as flowing through time.
It's the state that causes me to say "one more turn" in Civilization six at 6:00 p.m. only to repeat the statement until 3:00 a.m.
Contrast this to real life, where people are constantly doing things that are so hard they’re frustrating or so easy they’re boring. This makes entrance into the flow state virtually impossible, leading to a terrible feeling of self-consciousness in virtually all activities.
Games Generally Don't Lead to Real Life Impact or Value
So it's clear then. We should denounce everything we are doing in real life and enter into the game world. From what we have discussed it seems games are better than real life in every way.
Not so fast.
Even though games win on every other front, their rewards are superficial compared to real life. The time you spend playing a game doesn't usually translate to real-life advancement or help toward another person (unless you are a professional gamer).
My hundreds of hours playing single player in Total War Warhammer 2 don't translate to real life. I have nothing to show for it in the real world. Even the thousands of hours I have in Minecraft playing with my friends might have been better spent seeing them physically outside for a round of volleyball.
Life rewards, however, are infinite. One insight gained from reading can last forever. A finished project or deliverable can form the building blocks of future work and career advancement.
Luckily, playing games and living life are not mutually exclusive. By analyzing the differences between games and real life, I have managed to make myself enjoy learning and studying. Let's discuss how you can too.
How to Gamify Your Life
⚔️Make Life More Epic
A typical trip to the grocery store is seen by most as boring and as a student with dining halls, it's hard to motivate myself to cook. But what if I thought of it as a dinner quest to cook a Monster Tikka Massala with Dragon Meat (chicken), Lava spice (Tumeric), and other ingredients? And I have to find all these ingredients while evangelizing the common folk (saying hi to other shoppers) to my King's Religion, The Spaghetti Monster. Now that has a more epic and gamelike scale.
You can do this with any activity you do. Make a story out of it. Make it more epic.
You can also make your whole of life more epic by fleshing out higher order goals.
Two of my highest order goals are to become a voice in the Obsidian community and a professor of Psychology.
Building a second brain saved me from video game addiction and stopped me from being a Cookie Cutter Student. It's made me enjoy learning and studying.
Every day I wake up with a joy and curiosity for what I will learn. The prospect of spreading this joy and curiosity to others through content creation and teaching is epic.
To apply this to your own life, find your own highest order goals. Things that inspire you every time you hear them. The next step is to make them clearer.
📏Make The Rules and Goals Clearer
It's a common misconception that the biggest thing holding people back from striving toward their goals is motivation. In my experience, it's usually not motivation that holds people back but rather the clarity of what doing even looks like.
To gamify life, you have to make the rules and goals of lifer clearer. Doing this requires you to learn more about yourself to figure out what want in the first place.
- Define your values
- Define your overarching goals
- Break those goals into smaller goals, projects, and tasks
- Outline your Twelve Favorite Questions
How do you do this? I talk a lot about this in my Lifestyle Design but here are some ways you can learn more about yourself summed up:
- Practicing Mindfulness as the the biggest benefit of mindfulness is awareness.
- Journaling to find patterns and connections in how activities make you feel and what emotions are sparked from them.
- Analyzing your second brain because Your second brain is an externalization of your psychology.
- Finding and craft stories. Finding and crafting stories creates meaning out of your life.
- Analyzing your life through deaths compass (see: Stoicism Changed My Life: Book Summary of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor).
The exciting thing about making life's rules clearer is your rules will be different from everyone else's. Like in any good game there are many different ways of playing. No one way is the right way. It's up to you to decide your play style.
🛤️Create Progression and Momentum
By defining your rules and goals, you can create a feeling of progression and momentum. Your life will become a story, a series of epic quests where you level up, build skills, and form alliances.
Every activity and object you attain serve as a progression in your story, including failures. Books are knowledge power-ups, exercise increases your physical stats, and food fuels you for more epic adventures.
To make this work, however, you need to shorten the feedback loop between pursuing your goals and seeing results. This is what creates the feeling of progression and momentum.
One of the best ways to do this is through instilling a habit of regular journaling and reviews (daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly).
Only through seeing our lives over weeks, months, and years do we begin to see the stories underneath. Our daily actions start to feel like they mean something because we can see their effects in the long term. If you want to learn more about how to do this, check out my video, Creating My Best Average Day With Obsidian Periodic Notes.
In addition, find other ways to shorten the feedback loop between action, reward, and reflection. As a content creator, I have my parents, friends, and fellow students give me advice on how to make my content better after every upload.
Once you understand yourself on a deeper level, you can start to explore projects and goals that aren't forced upon you. Have you always wanted to write a book, go skydiving, start a long running D&D campaign? Now you can!
Participating voluntarily by following your own projects and interests allows you to avoid psychological reactance. Hopefully, you will realize it wasn't learning that you didn't like but rather only learning what you were forced to.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't follow any socially conditioned goals. But having multiple things that make up your identity will make you stronger to adversity in the case that one of your goals gets blocked.
🧱Build Your Gameplay Loop
The game of life secretly has a core unit you can build a gameplay loop around: the day.
Realizing the day is the core gameplay loop of life takes away tons of pressure. Instead of focusing on weeks, months, and years all the time you can instead focus on ingraining the best mixture of habits, projects, and activities that will propel you toward your goals.
As long as you are still planning for the future at some times most likely during your weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews, you can be fully present during most of the day entering a deep flow state.
So ask yourself what your perfect average day is. What habits, projects, and activities do you do on that day? How have these activities made you feel in the past? What type of person has that day? What are they passionate about? Who do they hang around?
Then start to build that daily gameplay loop.
When I asked myself these questions, I crafted the best average day in my calendar by prescheduling activities so they didn't get taken over by my future selves bullcrap.
Most days, I run in the morning, do my daily highlight, go to the gym in the afternoon, walk in nature for at least an hour, and read at night. These are things I know from past experience bring me great joy.
👎Stop Being a Perfectionist
Gamers adopt a Gameful mindset. They don't fall in the face of failure but stand up stronger.
In real life, you can apply this by rejecting perfectionism. Embrace failure.
Realize every time you fail is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. In fact, failure is often better than success. Success keeps you in the same place. Failure sparks change.
Lower the bar for success. Ask yourself this before doing anything, "What would this look like if it were easy?”
- Want to write a book? Start with a habit of writing for five minutes in the morning.
- Want to run a marathon? Start with a habit of running a kilometer every day.
- Want to ace that exam? Start studying thirty minutes a day a week out.
Now you might be saying, “but Aidan, every great student I know studies for hours a day.”
Well you don’t. So start small and build up.
We have learned a lot in parts 1 and 2 of this series on gamification. In part 3, I will take you through how I applied the most important concepts from parts 1 and 2 by going through Yu-Kai Chou’s 10,000 hours of play exercise to make my own life into a game.
Thanks to Astrid Helfant, Ian Helfant, and Chris Lastovicka for the conversations which helped form this post.