Before writing became a job, it was a hobby. And before writing became a hobby, I spent most of my free time gaming. My husband and I played EQ for years. We even went to a few of the conventions, which is
supremely mortifying a little embarrassing—but I admit it to show my love for gaming, which has been alive and kicking since Tony and Sam, who lived three doors down from me when I was growing up, brought home their first Atari. So I’m SUPER excited to welcome Tobias Showan today, who’s going to talk about “gameification.” I don’t even know if that’s a real word, but I don’t care because, in this context, it involves my two favoritest things: gaming and writing. Enjoy!
“Gameification” is the idea that you can hack your mind: it’s about improving your own performance or experience using aspects of games. The term is a bit esoteric but the raw psychology that gameification taps into is right there for anyone to harness – and I wanted to see what happens if you apply it to something you enjoy.
How can you use the psychology of computer games to turn yourself into a more prolific writer? I created Final Deadline, incorporating gameification techniques to help me write. (I made a whole website to put off writing. I’ll do anything to procrastinate.) In the process I learned a lot about gameification and the underpinning psychology. Today I’ll list a few relatively simple concepts that might help others help themselves.
Positive and Negative Reinforcement
Though psychology as a field is vast and myriad and still unfolding, this particular bit of it is well understood – we’ve been doing it to dogs for years. It’s not complicated: positive reinforcement makes you want to do something. Negative reinforcement makes you not want to do something.
Feed yourself a chocolate biscuit after every five hundred words and by the basic mechanics of your brain you’ll eventually find yourself trying to write another five hundred words. Have someone zap you with a taser whenever you fail to write five hundred words in an hour (find a trusted friend to whom you owe a lot of money) and you’ll similarly find yourself mysteriously averse to not meeting that target.
This doesn’t feel like such a new concept, but the thing to remember is that it’s about forming habits. You are training your brain to associate good or bad emotions with the action of writing.
I’m sure you can find many inventive ways to positively or negatively reward yourself while writing, and sure enough the Internet is full of them, too. Written Kitten focuses on the positive aspect of cuddly cat pictures, while Write or Die includes the decidedly negative reward of deleting your words for you. When I came to create my own writing app, Scrawl, I opted for both: for the act of writing itself, I wanted positive reinforcement only. But for my nasty habit of getting distracted and forgetting to keep writing, I attached some unpleasant consequences.
But there is a little trick you can use to make this much more effective. If you really want to turbocharge your writing, you can tap into your brain’s propensity for addiction.
What I described above is a simple Pavlovian conditioned response – your brain expects to do one thing (write) and have another thing happen (chocolate biscuit). But something more interesting happens when you replace certainty with uncertainty. In a famous experiment, a man called B. F. Skinner set a number of rats up with a lever they could pull that would release a pellet of food. The rats very quickly learned that lever = food, and used it whenever they were hungry.
Skinner then altered the levers so that they only gave out a pellet some of the time, at random. Suddenly the rats were hooked – they no longer used the levers just when they were hungry, they started pulling them all the time. They became addicted to the act of pulling the lever. The chance that there would be a reward mattered to them even when they weren’t actually hungry for the reward itself.
Hope is a powerful emotion – it’s what keeps gamblers stuck to their one-arm bandits, it’s what leads channel-hoppers to spend their entire evening in front of their televisions. If you’ve ever found yourself obsessively checking your Facebook feed, then you too have been the subject of a similar experiment: I’ll wager that most of the content on your Facebook news feed is incredibly dull, but every so often something really funny, interesting, or important crops up. It’s hope – the unconscious hope that the next post you read will be one of those rare gems – that keeps you glued to the screen.
Well, since we’ve all got this pattern in our heads and we’re stuck with it, why don’t we use it as a force for good? Addict ourselves to something that we actually want to spend a lot of time doing. So try a simple experiment: keep the box of biscuits by your desk and after every five hundred words, flip a coin to see if you get to eat one.
This tactic was strategically inappropriate for me – in my household, unattended chocolate has a very short half-life. So instead I just focus on working the same random reinforcement mechanisms into Scrawl.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Writing is, when you get into it, its own reward. It’s fun. We are intrinsically motivated to write. Getting chocolate for the writing is an extrinsic reward – we write because we like the consequences of writing.
The biggest danger with extrinsic motivation is that you end up motivated to work for the prize rather than for the sake of the work itself. While external rewards are certainly important (as a child I would probably have never gotten so keen on writing if my teachers and parents hadn’t rewarded my early fumbling efforts with praise and encouragement), they can end up sucking the fun out of things if you’re careless with how you use them.
Victory and success are their own rewards. And these are intrinsic – when you complete a piece, you’re not satisfied just purely because that piece will earn you marks, or money, or points or praise. You’re proud because you have created something that was not there before – and that feeling is intrinsic to you.
So the simplest game is just to collect and celebrate your victories – again, you can get inventive as to how. Each victory gives you a little high, a boost of adrenalin that makes you more motivated to take on the next one. Even though it may seem inconsequential, the one-word difference between 1,999 and 2,000 is far more powerful than the one between 1,998 and 1,999 – at least, as far as your mind is concerned.
You can also create victories. Lots of small successes are far more motivating than one big one. It’s easier to write a bunch of 200-word blocks than to come up with 5,000 words at once. In fact, it’s easier even though you end up writing the same number of words in the same timespan. The cumulative success of a hundred little victories gains you momentum. You become unstoppable.
Turn writing into a game and each ‘chunk’ becomes its own reward. They become like levels in a video game. Computer games are incredibly repetitive, but you don’t get tired of them. When the intrinsic joy of playing begins to lag, the extrinsic reward of finishing the goal holds you through. You often keep going until the original novelty gets its second wind and you find yourself once again working just for the sake of working.
I built these concepts into my website in a hundred little ways, but you can do it, in a simpler form, just by yourself. There’s a lot more to talk about but for now you only need these basic concepts
▪ find ways to reward yourself for writing, or to punish yourself for not writing
▪ introduce a random element to these rewards to keep yourself hooked
▪ divide your work up into discrete chunks and keep score of how many you’ve completed
I’ll bet a lot of you were already doing something like this without realizing it. We all do some form of gameifying in our heads: the great thing about gameification is that it can be entirely natural. Externalizing the process only makes it more powerful.
After trying out these ideas, I now find myself writing more than I ever used to before. So I’m a big fan of gameification: it can make us happier, more productive people — and once we recognize how we do it in one sphere we can start applying the same thought across the rest of our lives.
Tobias Shawn created the website Final Deadline as part of an ambitious assault on Writer’s Block. Then, in direct contravention of that goal, he gave it a Facebook and Twitter account. You may as well check them out.