How to game your own mind: make yourself more productive by turning your life into a video game

If video games haven't already taken over your life, they will soon

cover art by @pewkazilla cover art by @pewkazilla

It’s 9.15am. I wake up, swallow my meds, brush my teeth, and summarise what happened yesterday in my diary. But don’t be fooled — this is about as organised and disciplined as I have ever been. My daily duties are currently getting done not because I intrinsically see the value in them, but because each time I do them I score points, on an app. On my phone there is a pixelated version of me — I’m wearing armour, wielding a sword and am able to perform magical spells. When I brush my teeth, I navigate to a tab designated for daily “to-do” tasks. I check the box marked “brush teeth”. I receive one coin, eight experience points, and I deal one extra point of damage to the boss I’m currently fighting. If you’re thinking it’s pathetic that I am significantly better at achieving daily sustenance and hygiene when serving the needs of a  fantasy version of myself than when I’m serving my actual self: you’re right.

However, I am hooked on this particular app for reasons that go beyond the fact that I am a overgrown man baby who uses virtual worlds to distract me from the complications of the real one, although I am, and I do. The core reason this app is so successful is because it takes advantage of basic mechanisms in the mind that regulate motivation.

In the past, I have spent hours and hours placing to-do items into productivity programs. Google Keep, Asana, Google Tasks, Wunderlist and Apple’s iOS “Reminders” app have oscillatingly worked for me before failing spectacularly, because I, like many others, have one simple flaw that prevents me from completing most of the items I use them to perform: I don’t like doing most things. I really don’t. The other to-do apps would be great if I, or anyone using them, actually liked doing the most of things they need to do.

Where Habitica succeeds is in its ability to make people like doing things that they don’t like doing. Funnily enough, that ability is something video game designers have been doing for decades. Fans of roleplaying games like World of Warcraft, Skyrim and Final Fantasy will often brag about the endless hours sunk into “grinding” — doing otherwise boring, menial tasks, rewarded only by coins, XP and item drops — the same motivational tools as Habitica. I figured that if game designers can motivate me to endlessly complete fake tasks in a virtual world, they should have a solid chance at making me complete actual tasks in the real one.

strong app-wielding hero

Habit forming or habit forcing?

The positive reinforcements used by Habitica work on the condition that you’re having a good day. If you wake up feeling motivated, you’ll start doing your dailies (tasks one does every day), then come back and get the positive reinforcement. Then you’ll start working on your more long term tasks and come back to the platform for more gratification. Challenges arise when you’re feeling tired, or stressed, and the game’s fun rewards fade into the background. Here, you start to see the darker side of Habitica. In addition to fantasy roleplaying games, Habitica borrows from a much more addictive, and much more nefarious, influence: free-to-play smartphone games. It’s here where the more potentially troublesome features come to light. If you don’t do one of your assigned daily tasks, you lose health. Lose enough health, and your character will “die” and lose all their hard earned items. Amazingly, the fear of losing health in a videogame is a far more motivating reason to take my medicine on time, than the fear of risking my actual, physical, real-world health.

Because it keeps you more engaged in their platform (and also because it works stellarly for their business model) you are encouraged to sign your friends up to Habitica and start a quest team. But in certain situations, losing health by not completing tasks will also harm your friends. It’s a compelling mechanic that my fellow in-game quest team member, Steph, compares to when your teacher would employ particularly excruciating methods, like keeping the entire class in for the first five minutes of lunch because one person flicked a paper ball at the back of his head when he was writing up the trigonometry problem on the board. It’s draconian, and quite effective.

Another reason the app works is because, like Facebook and other platforms whose aim is to consume all of your time, it regulates gratification and recognition, motivating you to keep coming back throughout the day as it slowly doles you out an endless supply of small rewards. By regulating those little hits of dopamine, Habitica keeps you coming back in the same way you check Facebook when you’re feeling bored so you can see those tantalising red numbers in the upper right corner of the page. Habitica’s community manager and co-founder known online only as ‘S Leslie’ admits there is a connection: “Brands like Facebook have an excellent reward loop. We use similar reward loops for the force of good in our app by awarding people gold and experience when they check off their real-world tasks.” Steph suggests our generation’s self obsessed, constant desire for approval and gratification is why these platforms are so successful.

But I disagree.

A dream of fairness

There is a deeper reason why we thirst to constantly be rewarded. Games like Habitica delve deep into the mind that our cutthroat economy has created for each one of us. But to understand this, you must first understand that video games don’t aim to emulate perfect leisure. A video game doesn’t aim to emulate a nice day down at the beach; instead, video games emulate perfect work.

At first, this idea seems counterintuitive — why would one of society’s most popular recreational activities base itself around recreating work? The answer is that our standardized, streamlined corporate workplaces, we are unable to find satisfaction in employment, so we turn elsewhere. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that perfect work needs three requirements to be met. Firstly, the work must be autonomous, meaning that you have control over what you do, or at least how you do it. Satisfying work is secondly complex, so it does not seem meaningless. Lastly, Gladwell argues there needs to be a connection between effort and reward, a link between the labour you put in and the recognition and compensation that you receive as a result. In the constant struggle for savings, efficiency, and practicality, however, our economy rarely creates positions like these for employees. They opt rather for specialised positions that have been deskilled to such an extent that anyone can fulfil their requirements. In casualising and streamlining their businesses so that workers are insignificant agents, the private sector has locked out the large part of an entire generation from ever achieving these three goals.

This dream, unachievable as it is, is still sold to us our entire lives. From our parenting to our high schools to our media, we are constantly being sold on the idea that to that the way to success, happiness and meaning is through autonomous, fair work. In the cruel, punishing realities of the 21st-century job market, however, there is rarely any freedom or fairness. We have been sold a dream that our economy is unable to and unwilling to deliver. This is the reason for the success of video games, and not just any games — specifically games that emulate an ersatz version of the fair work we have been told is our destiny since we were children.

The best selling games of recent years like Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, and Pokemon have enjoyable gameplay and rich storylines, sure. But they also perfectly place you in an open landscape where you can do any task at any time. They give you a wide range of freedom in how you approach the game’s challenges. They add just enough features to generate the right amount of depth so that you aren’t succeeding by just pushing random buttons. And they all excel at continually rewarding you for even minor tasks, with loot, coins, power-ups and experience points. In this way, video games like these embody the perfect meritocratic vision of the world which is sold to us under capitalism. A world in which the only way to enjoy things is if they are fair and rewarding. In this way, games like these, although they are works that hold immense value, also represent the ultimate fantasy that the myth of meritocracy inspires in us. This dream, the dream that all get what we deserve, erases the moments of tragedy we all undeservedly experience in life, and this is understandable. But sadly, it also discards the grace that is inherent in the world, that we don’t have to work for, that is free for anyone to experience. How can these games show you the thrilling beauty of love and nature if they operate under the strict principle that every moment of enjoyment must be earned?

Moreover, when asked whether they would still stay organised should Habitica hypothetically vanish tomorrow morning, the people I interviewed admitted, in all likelihood, they probably wouldn’t. It’s this addiction to fairness which is key: like it or not, the program is just another external system that tells you when you are allowed to feel satisfied, and the only way to have real discipline is to actually do that for yourself.

exhausted hero

Gamification nation

The Habitica users I spoke to reflected that whether you agree with or disagree with the idea of having a digital avatar dictate your life, it works. And just like other cultural products which make people feel more empowered to improve themselves, the mechanisms that make Habitica work are being used by platforms created by a new class of entrepreneurs looking to “gamify” your employment, your education, and even the way you interact with the government.

One such platform, called nGUVU, looks as if its creators grew up excited to engage in the business of video game design, and after experiencing how risky, competitive and harsh it can be, decided to try their hand at a bigger market. It’s slick website and promotional Youtube videos suggest their business plan involves snatching some of the lucrative dollars offered by large management divisions eager to further alienate their workforce by purchasing complicated software solutions that sound innovative to their superiors but really end up being largely ineffectual. But nGUVU’s platform is more than meets the eye.

The industry it aims to “disrupt” is one I have worked in before: call centres. These workplaces are ripe for gamification — they employ a younger demographic, which is always in flux. Over the span of a year working at one call centre, I came to see that the average length of employment was short — was about one or two months. This is probably because it offered none of Gladwell’s traits of satisfying work. Not only was there no autonomy over who we called or how, but since every call was dialled in automatically, immediately after the end of the previous call, we weren’t even able to decide when we called. Each break-free three-hour shift slowly became a monotonous blur. The challenge was never to find clever ways to sell the product to people, rather, it was to have enough energy to survive until the end of the shift without completely imploding. The compensation was above minimum wage, but still insufficient to cover the amount of emotional labour necessary to make your way through dozens of calls repeating a sales script which obligates you to ask for a prospect’s credit card details four times.

Pascal Leclerc, nGUVU VP Product strategy, holding a sword and breathing fire
In a product explainer video, Pascal Leclerc, nGUVU VP Product strategy, demonstrates that call centers can potentially be fun places to work

So people left. They left so frequently that you could tell it was a big cost for management to constantly recruit, interview, and train new staff, many of whom would often leave the company after their first shift. This is where nGUVU aims to intervene. The platform uses the data that call centres collect to create employee files, where sales, hold times, and other statistics are tracked. This information is used to create user profiles, where staff can edit their in-game avatar, view their stats and see their placement on the company leaderboard. Management is then able to create challenges based on any specific set of performance indicators. One feature the company boasts on their website is automated team challenges, which pool together workers of varying experience levels and pit the groups against each other. The point of this is supposedly that high-performers pass down “their best practices to those who may require more encouragement, thereby assisting with a task that is typically reserved for managers.” It seems contradictory that a platform whose marketing exclaims that it is intended to create “happy agents” revolves around mechanisms which pass on extra managerial work to them, for no extra remuneration. It also seems contradictory that the same mechanic probably makes lower performing employees feel like they are letting down their coworkers because they aren’t generating enough points for their team in an arbitrary contest.

I always thought that management could improve employee retention by paying us more and giving us more freedom to call in our own fashion. But measures like these are expensive, and a lot less scalable. My workplace’s parent company, who runs thousands of call centres across the globe, would probably be a lot happier shelling out for a nifty software solution than investing the same capital into employees — even if it did produce better sales. The reality is that deskilled employees are always better from a corporate perspective: they are easier to hire, easier to manage from a macro level, and the lower output can always be covered by just lowering wages. So, rather than reverting backwards to wholesome, satisfying workplaces, systems like nGUVU are a technological band-aid over the sprawling disease of alienation that exists in 21st century service based workplaces. Eager to feed employees that are starved of actual autonomy and just rewards, nGUVU offers fake autonomy by letting workers edit their avatar how they like, or challenge whichever employee they choose, and fake rewards through points, Xbox style “achievements” and the occasional prize given to high performing employees.

What’s important and surprising about systems like Habitica and nGUVU is that, despite their immature and gimmicky appearance, they are effective. Occasionally, the call-centre management would use the whiteboard to draw up leaderboards and activities that ranked how many sales we successfully made. And even though I wasn’t the most enthusiastic employee, and knew my time at the company would be short, I was unable to resist the way that the games gave me feedback and rewarded performance, even in ways that didn’t materially benefit me at all.

One person that I interviewed about Habitica indicated that although it was potentially worrying that her entire life was being dictated by an app, at least this particular app was nominally supposed to help her, as opposed to the endless digital platforms that aim to monopolise your attention for profit. Perhaps there was a time where the average person wouldn’t need knowledge of video games in order to navigate their world. But with encroaching video game mechanics slowly invading our everyday lives, it is clear: that time has passed. Blogs like show dozens of examples of corporations, governments, and other organisations around the world all looking to gamify their systems and platforms. All the subjects who I interviewed about Habitica had measured, critical perspectives on where Habitica helped and hurt them, because of their familiarity playing video games their whole lives. And as is often the case, the ones that are the most at risk of predatory practices are the ones that know the least. Serious criticism and awareness surrounding games is soon becoming a necessity.

nGUVU’s Director of Marketing, Jean-Marc Robillard, was not able to respond by our print deadline. However, his response to this article’s interview questions can be found here.

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