Gameification and Writing: The Power of Reinforcement

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!


What? Those aren’t mine. No idea how they got here…

“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.

Random Reinforcement

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.

Happy writing!

profile pic


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.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Focus, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Gameification and Writing: The Power of Reinforcement

  1. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [12/30/13]

  2. becca puglisi says:

    Thanks so much for being here, Tobias. And happy holidays, everyone!

  3. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    Just pass the chocolate and I’m good. The words come and sometimes they’re even in the right order.

    Have a wonderful holiday. See you in 2014.

  4. Melissa Alexander says:

    It’s gamification, and yep, it’s real. It’s one of the hot techniques being explored by instructional designers right now. There is some seriously, seriously cool stuff being produced.

    I hate to do this, but this article is written about a subject I am super passionate about, and there are a lot of mistakes. First, negative reinforcement does NOT make “you not want to do something.” That’s punishment. Punishment decreases behavior. Reinforcement increases behavior. Positive and negative are like mathematical signs, not “good” or “bad.” Positive reinforcement means something was added — like the chocolate — to increase the behavior.

    In negative reinforcement, something is removed. It’s a tough one to understand. Probably the easiest way to think about negative reinforcement is that negative reinforcement occurs when you do x (increase a behavior) in order to avoid y. So that software that removes words? If you write more/faster to avoid losing words, then that’s negative reinforcement. On the other hand, if you get hit by a taser, and you write less (decrease the behavior), then that’s punishment. (Positive punishment, to be specific.)

    These concepts are not Pavlovian conditioned responses — they’re Skinnerian. This is operant conditioning — changes the subject makes based on the consequence.

    Now, for the variable reinforcement schedule (vsr), which was described as random reinforcement. A VSR makes a behavior more resistant to extinction. That means if all reinforcement suddenly stopped, the behavior would persist longer. It does NOT make a better behavior. You will not work harder on a VSR unless there is a high possibility of a REALLY high payoff. Continuous is better. Think about this logically. Which would be more motivating:

    * Every 500 words you are guaranteed to get a piece of your very favorite candy (assuming you love candy — if not, insert your favorite reinforcer).


    * Every 500 words you MIGHT get a piece of your favorite candy.

    Obviously, the first one. At you job, you don’t work for two weeks so you MIGHT get a paycheck. I’d love to see a boss try to explain that you will work harder if he goes on a VSR!!

    You will get better results using continuous reinforcement. Just vary what you use, and make sure it’s actually something you’re willing to WORK for. I love the tips given for creating little victories.

    Okay, that’s enough nitpicking. I apologize, but I’m really, really passionate about this stuff!

    • No apologies necessary–I appreciated the breakdown and how it applies to gameification. 🙂 I think there is much that can be learned by analyzing human behavior and how it works with technology in other industries. Tobias, thanks for bringing such a unique topic to the blog today! 🙂

    • Sounds like you know your stuff – want a job? :p

      I suppose I should have made it clear – I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone – that I have no formal background in Psychology. I know just enough to be dangerous, and that’s all from background reading and talking with psychologists, professors and students. My modus operandi has been trial, error and results based on the ideas I’ve learned about.

      My sympathies to any actual psychologists here – I know how annoying it is to hear terminology used loosely when it has a specific meaning.

      • Also, if you forgive my vocabulary, the VSR thing is indeed what I was aiming for: I want resistance to extinction (you keep writing for longer) rather than improvement (not sure what would that be, writing faster? Using longer words? Maybe making everything rhyme.)

  5. Jemi Fraser says:

    Love this! I have used chocolate before as a reward for myself – and it works! I’ve gotten through more than one tough scene that way 🙂

  6. Fascinating post especially as I am a writer and a gamer. Not sure that I gameified my writing, although I do reward myself by going into game… even if I haven’t written anything 😉 But I ensure that if there is writing then the gaming is the reward. (And gaming enters my writing as cyber-crime).

  7. Interesting thoughts, but it doesn’t exactly work that way. It’s more of a middle-ground, leaning more to the negative reinforcement. That’s how abusers keep their victims in line so well & so long: There’s a brief period of affection (positive reinforcement), followed by a slightly longer period of abuse (negative) followed by a moderate period of neutral.

    That’s unfortunatley much more effective that what is outlined above.

    • Getting offtopic, but the really creepy think about abuse is how almost ‘unrealistic’ it feels to be talking with a victim under someone else’s control. It’s like the natural rules of human behaviour were just suspended but no one has noticed. I could believe that all the old mythology of witches and spells came from a societal awareness of emotional abusers.

      I honestly think that we should be taught about this stuff when we’re young. I’d like to see ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts’ classes in schools that teach you how to recognise an emotional abuser. It could also cover marketing and how to resist it, as well as groupthink, tribal thinking and scapegoatism.

      • Now imagine how it actually feels to be under their influence. I’ve been a victim & a counselor, and trust me, it’s extremely hard to notice, and then to fight, the conditioning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.