Why Gamification Excites Me

It’s worth establishing right off the bat that (A) gamification is a stupid ugly word; that it (B) is misused and abused to mean shallow vague things of very limited value; and (C) neither of those things diminish the power of that idea.

Before I explain to you the immense power behind the incorporation of game-like mechanics into your life, it would help if you were more immediately aware of your life’s perfectibility. So, a few things to consider:

  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but have never done?
  • What are the things you consider most important for a person to accomplish in their life? Are you doing them?
  • Is there one giant important goal that you’d love to accomplish in your life but have no idea how you would even begin to do it?
  • Do you find yourself spending your time doing neutral to harmful activities in your life, even when you know there are positive things you could be doing?

OK, enough making you aware of your failings. Now, I want you to suspend for a second all attachment you have to plausibility, practicality, and propriety and just go on an imagination trip with me. Let’s go.

You just got back from work–a place you spend your time in exchange for currency, but don’t feel a strong affection for or sense of purpose in–rather than flipping on the television and tuning out, you decide to investigate this new thing you heard about. Your friend swears that it’s changed her life and you’re curious to know if it’s for real.

You load up this new thing and it faces you with this question: What are three things you’d most like to accomplish in the next 24 hours? After thinking for a few minutes, you tell it that you’d like to do the dishes that have been languishing in your sink, read a chapter of that book you never get around to spending time on, and get to bed before 10PM. It returns you a challenge: “Right now, go spend 10 minutes working on the dishes.  It’s worth 50 points.”

You don’t really know what these points are, but you’re intrigued enough to take it up on the offer. You acknowledge that you’ve accepted the challenge and it offers you a start button, you tap it and start to work on getting the dishwasher loaded. You do, and are considering if it’s worth trying to do some hand-washing. “4:53 remaining,” it tells you. “Do it,” you think. In five minutes, it dings. “Mission accomplished?” it asks. “Yes, but keep going ’til it’s done.” It’ll take just four more minutes. “When you finish, you’ll have earned 120 points,” it tells you.

“120. Huh.” You finish up the dishes, leaving them to air dry. “All done?” it asks. After you tell it so, it asks “What next?” It offers you the option of taking a break, earning more points, or defining some more goal. Feeling on a roll with 120, you tell it you’d like to go read some of that book you never get to. “9 points a page,” it tells you.

You start to read it, but your intransigence in picking up the book was justified. The book is dense and requires more concentration than you can muster right now. You return to your new friend and tell it you only managed to read two pages. “How about a break?” it says. “You can come back whenever you’re ready for more.”

After you’ve eaten and watched your favorite television program, you return. “Did you miss me?” it asks. “You have an hour left before your bedtime, do you want to try to read more?” You respond negatively, to which it offers to ask you a few more questions. You answer a number of questions, like what your favorite kinds of rewards are, what led you to start using it, and what the single most important thing you keep failing at is. “Tired?” it asks.

You’re in bed at 9:47, and it says you’ve just earned 70 points. Over the next few weeks, you use the thing off and on. You notice that when you’ve been away for a while, it offers you’ve more points for short-term goals. You’ve noticed that sometimes if offers you activities that you’ve never told it you’d like to do, but you enjoy. You kinda wonder why it’s offering them, but they keep giving you points for them, so why not?

After a few months, you’re confronted with the 23,430 points you’ve earned. It asks what you think a good reward would be for 20,000 points. You say that a new shirt would be nice. It asks if you want to pick it out yourself? You do, it offers congratulations on the redemption and it hopes it’s something you’ll enjoy.

A few more months pass, you use it off-and-on, letting it dictate your not-working time pretty fully some days, barely thinking about it on others. You’ve begun to notice, though, that you feel better when you use it more. That it’s got you exercising twice a week, that you’ve already read two books, more than you did all last year. You’ve been thinking more about what you really value, and you’re starting to think that you should find a new job. It asks you some thought-provoking questions when you tell it about this, but it doesn’t solve it for you.

OK, we’re back. I could continue this narrative forever. Out until the point where you have a body like Adonis, the job of your dreams, more money saved than you’ve ever had, reined in your temper, and finally banked a few chapters of what could be the next Great American Novel. That potential exists, I’m sure of it. And if you followed me down that rabbit hole, I think you may have glimpsed it as well.

The potential I see in gamification isn’t that I use StackExchange a little more because I get a few thousands points when I offer an answer the hive-mind likes. That’s the incredibly small-bore version of gamification. That’s not exciting. What’s exciting is an entire new economy when people earn “money” by doing things they have never managed to accomplish in 20 years of “trying to lose weight.” (Speaking of, the alt-text on this XKCD (hover with a mouse) is a great TL;DR version of this post.)

What I envision is not unlike a massively juiced version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. David Allen’s book had helped thousands of people to be more productive and creative by getting them to a more easeful productivity. What I’m talking about is a way to incorporate prompting, play, and points into an agnostic system that’ll make your life better, and help you to accomplish goals that were never even on your radar without the help of our “game.”

I wouldn’t deny that this isn’t a simple thing I’m proposing, but it’s a thing whose value is abundantly clear to me. Even if we built a system that did only a tenth of the potential the exists within this idea, we’d have a world that was manifestly better in a million little ways. And that, quite simply, is why gamification excites me.

fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.

fiction, personal, ruminations

On Slaying Dragons

Green dragon For a while, I was obsessed with the idea of slaying dragons. Perhaps it started when I read Tolkien’s immortal tale of The Hobbit, but it didn’t end there. Whenever low clouds would obscure the tops of the nearby foothills, I’d dream about venturing up there to slay the dragon that surely existed within the fog, in some hard-to-find cave.

But I never did it. I’d do what I needed to do that day in town. I’d work, I’d shop, I’d eat, I’d sleep. By the time I did these things, the dragon seemed an impossible chore.

I wondered if I’d really have my fight-to-the-death with a 30 meter long dragon. A dragon who was mostly green, could obviously fly, and had a small but valuable collection of precious metals and gems. Money is not something dragons care about.

Why I didn’t go off to fight my dragon was always a vexing question for me. After all, he was always there when the clouds came low. I could find him if I but looked.

Perhaps I was rightly afraid that I would lose. That he would overpower me. After all, all I had was a sword; he could breathe fire and fly. And I’d certainly been in better shape at other times in my life.

Perhaps I was sure that he wasn’t really worth fighting. After all, I’d heard no recent reports that my dragon had been doing any great damage. He seemed to have grown somewhat complacent in his old age, or perhaps he was merely becoming soft.

Then, one day, I came upon a bronze placard. It had these words by the famous Brian Andreas:

Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.

At first, I thought that Mr. Andreas what quite a joker. What could be more important than slaying an immortal beast? Then bringing back his treasure and sharing it with the people, now safe from his tyranny.

With time, Mr. Andreas’s words would come to my mind again and again. It didn’t seem like this man could have meant it as a joke. I began to think more and more of all that was good in the world. Less and less about my dragon. He wasn’t terrorizing the villagers after all.

Today, my dragon and I are old friends who’ve never met. I don’t worry about him much, and I’m glad of that. I’m happy to know that he’s there when I need him. But mostly, I’m happy just to be alive. Harrowing stories of great victories cannot make a man happier if he isn’t glad for all he has. Mr. Andreas taught me that.


iPhones, etc.

“Hello,” I say to the 21 year old stranger waiting in line.

“Hello,” says the stranger.

“What’s the game?” I ask.

“To make manifest the insane desires of materialism run amuck,” he says.

“You don’t want the phone?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “this is a protest.”

“Oh really?” I ask.

“Indeed,” he says.

“Can I have the phone?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, asking 1000 dollars.

“That’s preposterous,” I say.

“That’s the game,” he says.

“Wasn’t it a protest?” I ask.

“You’re a protest,” says the 21 year old idealist.


Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction is a rare movie. It seems to break all the well-establish rules. But it doesn’t gloat about the way its breaking the rules. Instead it breaks them in a way that makes you wonder why there are rules in the first place. And why others have to break them so boldly and without reason.

The films main character, Harold Crick, is introduced with voice over that I was hooked by. It was the kind of loving voice (beautifully done by Emma Thompson) that you can’t help but be taken by. Can’t help but agree with. And it is this voice that guides us through Harold’s morning. That is, until, Harold notices the voice.

Harold, played brilliantly by Will Farrell, breaks the rules by noticing the voice. And he becomes increasingly annoyed as the voice explains how he dresses, how he brushes his teeth, and how he gets to the bus in the morning.

It is Harold’s interaction with the voice that is crucial and innovative in Stranger Than Fiction. In Harold’s recognition of the voice, he becomes far more interesting than he had been at the start. He becomes conscious of his life, his choices, and who he has become.

Stranger than Fiction is the kind of movie that invites us in on a little secret. And it does so consciously and without remorse. We know before Harold does what his fate is, how he will end up. But this tragic irony is not just used. It is made conscious. It makes a giant self-referential show of itself. And that is the magic.

The interaction between the character and the narrator is crucial, and fascinating. It is magical realism that seems perfectly reasonable, in just the way that magical realism should.

But because of this magical realism, the film can be disliked. Either because it is unrealistic, or because it doesn’t take the whole thing far enough. For people in love with Charlie Kaufman’s opaque brand of magical realism, this may be too straight-forward, too easy.

I think that criticism is misplaced, as Stranger Than Fiction is both an incredibly complex and simple movie. At it’s best, it encourages us to grow along with its protagonist. To question along with its protagonist.

It’s full of the simple questions and the simple joys that make each day different from the other.

And for making us aware of this simple difference that we all too often ignore, this movie is brilliant.