I have become intimately familiar with the sounds of my PlayStation 3 turning on. There’s a chirp from the unit, the murmur of the fan, and then a single note, played by an orchestra as if it’s warming up. I think the note is A. Let’s go with A.
It doesn’t really matter, because that last sound has come to signify the many ways at which I’m failing at my job. I’m a full-time freelance writer, which means I work from home and am required to be my own taskmaster of sorts. This means that I have the luxury to never set my alarm clock. Huzzah! But to compensate, I have constructed a convoluted system of calendar reminders and emotional self-flagellation. I’m my own boss, and my boss is a micromanager.
That system only goes so far. Without any larger structure, and lacking a boss who’s willing to yell at me, I often find myself unmotivated and generally apathetic about work. That’s when the allure of the PS3 is at its strongest. Beep. Fan. Orchestra. That’s the sound of me giving up to play a game and escape my real-world responsibilities, as I’ve done since the day I got my first Nintendo in elementary school.
My PS3 is an unrelenting mistress, but there might be a way to turn my gaming impulses into gaming imPLUSes™. In the last few years, a productivity movement has emerged called “Gamify Your Life.” The idea is to fit mundane real world activities into a reward system that mirrors that of a video game. Like, do 10 push-ups and gain a level; reach level 20 for an ice cream sundae—JUST LIKE A REAL GAME!
That’s an oversimplification, of course. Most GYL philosophies are elaborate, and they’ve been tailored by the players themselves to maximize results. Chris Hardwick, overlord of the multimedia comedy conglomerate Nerdist Industries, shares one approach in his self-help book, The Nerdist Way. Hardwick uses a graph-paper notebook to draw little experience bars that measure strength, intelligence, and other traits of humans. Beefing up those skills not only makes him stronger or more intelligent. It also makes his “character” more powerful—the gamification avatar that he has dutifully doodled. And named. For Hardwick is also Blavidane, the all-powerful magician. It’s a very revolutionary system.
The time had come to channel my own inner Blavidane, so recently I dipped my toe into the tepid GYL waters with an iPhone app called CARROT—a taskmaster program known primarily for yelling at you. I WOULD BE TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY.
CARROT operates under the assumption that people don’t like getting the business from something that they willingly downloaded to help themselves. You enter your tasks for the day (“go to the store” is quite a popular one among store-frequenters) and cross them off as you go. It has a personality all its own, one that is only pleased when you are incredibly productive. “You completed the heck out of that task,” it says sarcastically when you give a job the satisfying “all done!” swipe, and that’s when it’s in a good mood. If you poke its eye—a tiny pulsing circle in the corner—the skepticism cranks up: “You cheated on that last one, didn’t you?”
The first thing I did when opening CARROT for the first time, of course, was to poke that eye until it shouted. “You’re going to wish you were never born,” the app said. The screen turned from a welcoming blue-and-white pastiche to an angry red-and-black. Its mood, appropriately, became “Wrathful.” I was now sufficiently motivated to start my day off right! I made a cursory list of what I had to do for the day and got a little swing in my step when I’d notch something off and rack up experience points. Soon I’d leveled up, and I claimed my reward: an in-game kitten. My second reward was the prestigious honor of kissing the ocular sensor and pushing a button labeled, “I <3 CARROT.” First base!
I awoke the following morning to find that CARROT’s new pleasing demeanor—the fruits of yesterday’s labor—had all but vanished. Apparently, all that time I spent “sleeping” wasn’t productive enough. CARROT was not happy, and I shifted into damage-control mode. I added tasks like “check email in the morning” and “respond to email in the morning,” so that tomorrow, I could start my day knowing I wouldn’t be berated by a glorified graphing calculator. At the very least, I could cross off fairly easy-to-do items right away and hopefully counter the negative affects of living life as a human.
This became a slippery slope. The next morning, CARROT was there when I woke up as usual, ready to yell, but now I was prepared. If it’s tasks CARROT wanted, it’s tasks CARROT would get. I added, “Add a task” to the list, then crossed it off. “Take a shower”? Why not? Let’s do some “Eat food” while we’re at it! Ooh, how about, “Start your day”? Vague enough to ensure that it wi—DONE.
Over the course of about 10 days, productivity as a freelancer was no longer the mark of a good work day. Instead, I was preoccupied with spite for CARROT and its callous attitude towards my accomplishments. To counter this newfound inferiority complex, I had all but abandoned CARROT’s intended purpose of task management in favor of yelling reduction. My own wiring, configured from years with a controller in my hand, had given me the impulse not merely to play the getting-things-done “game” of CARROT, but to beat it. Screw productivity. I’d figured out how to feel, even for just a moment, like a champion. Not quite what the architects of gamification had in mind.
CARROT had me playing in isolation. My next attempt to gamify was one that encouraged crowdsourcing. Enter Kwestr, a site that allows users to create quests, or “kwests” (get it?!) for anyone else to embark upon. Plus, it sets you up to enjoy all the perks of completing said kwests, providing a profile that quantifies things like “consciousness” and “adventure.” The more willing you are to play along with Kwestr, the more points you accumulate in these non-Myers-Briggs-sanctioned personality charts—thus becoming a more complete and well-rounded person. Kwestr was created by the most hearty of gamification advocates: other users. Surely they, like me, wish to better themselves by turning mundane work into a fun leisure-time activity.
Not so. Kwestr’s egalitarian openness was also its downfall. Without the strictness and guidance of a benevolent gamification god, Kwestr users were creating kwests that allowed for the same ease of completion I’d self-manufactured with CARROT. One kwest encouraged me to go ride a bike, with steps I could check off such as, “get a bike” and “go for a ride”—far too mindless to inspire much personal investment. “Exercise 3x per week” seemed like a noble goal until I saw the three steps I had to accomplish to finish the Kwest: 1) Exercise once, 2) exercise again, 3) ditto. Oh joy, how utterly feasible!
Rather than thoughtfully lay out the proper steps to achieving this very attainable goal, as a video game might do with a difficulty curve, my fellow users on Kwestr shared my reckless impulse to get things done just for the sake of being done—an empty shell of accomplishment. Case in point: One Kwest was called, “10 Commandments of American pizza,” a checklist of 10 crappy chains where I could eat a slice. To better my life, it posited, I must eat at Domino’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and eight other diarrhea factories. I longed even more for my PS3, because at least then I could play BioShock Infinite and run through an old-timey city in the clouds. Instead, I was watching a guy I didn’t like (in this case, the Kwestr version of myself) do boring things.
I needed to reclaim gamification as my own, so I turned to a site called Nerd Fitness, whose subtitle is “Level Up Your Life.” Seemed promising enough, and its article called “10 Ways To Gamify Your Life” could not have been given a more on-the-nose title. “Life is a game,” it said, and this idea was the foundation for micro-hacks I could do to ensure I’m playing at full potential. Nerd Fitness wasn’t demanding a total overhaul of my life outlook, which I found appealing.
I tried as many of the article’s suggestions as I could, but none lasted more than a few rounds. The “tree game”—during which you spy a tree in the distance during a jog, sprint to it, then repeat—got old after five trees, and the mental effort I had spent playing this mini-game made me feel even more worn down. The same went for the “waiting for the game to load game,” which I know is a confusing sentence. Basically, when you play something that has a built-in loading screen, as many of my favorite PS3 titles have, you do push-ups and squats instead of just sitting there blankly starting at the screen. I enjoy a blank stare as much as the next guy, but that’s not enough for Nerd Fitness. You must do lunges.
It got more adventurous from there. The “music game” dared me to finish boring housework before a song or album stops playing, and the “email game,” itself a separate app, plopped a timer next to the unenviable task of cleaning out my inbox. In both cases, I tried once and questioned what was so hard about these tasks to begin with. I suddenly felt like a failure that I needed some sort of “game” to get me to pick up a broom and sweep my living room before the new Ghostface Killah album ended. I had truly become that lazy.
The hardest part of any task is getting started, and in that sense my attempts to gamify my life were successful. But the gamification process taught me a lesson I hadn’t anticipated learning in this defacto “turn life into a game!” seminar: I’m an adult. There’s pressure from everywhere to be a worthwhile member of society who has a clean home and a clean task list. The gamification methods I tried were ostensibly meant to add motivation, but only succeeded in adding even more pressure. Because as much as I hated to admit it, the fact that I was relying on a game to do any of that made me feel like a failure. CARROT was yelling funny things at me, but there was some truth behind its hyperbole. Gamification turned life into a binary construct, in which you win or lose. And I was losing.
I reached for my PS3 controller. I needed time to process all this, so I did what came naturally. Beep. Fan. Orchestra.