Gamify Your Life To Turn Chores Into Quests

Gamification can make tedium actually kind of enjoyable

Photo by Jason Coudriet on Unsplash

When I was young, bedtime was always An Event. My little sister was prone to tantrums at that age, and I, old enough to know better but young enough that I didn’t care, made things worse for my parents by refusing to brush my teeth.

The toothpaste was “too spicy” and I was too short to reach the sink and the counter pressed into my arms and I just didn’t wanna.

My mom, tired of my bullshit and willing to sacrifice her scrap-booking supplies for the greater good, came up with a plan. She drew up a chart, with a row for each day of the month. If we did our chores (brushing teeth, getting in bed without a fuss, and other little-kid things), we could pick a sticker to put on the chart.

I was five or six at the time, but these stickers were so prized that I remember them clearly.

At first, we had some metallic stars, but these were hard for our tiny hands to work with. The legs of the star would get crumpled and ruin the experience. Then came the penguins. Cute, cartoon penguins in various fun poses. They were small but easy to handle, and the variety of stickers made it all the more fun. Putting a sticker on the chart felt like victory.

This is my earliest experience with gamification, and it was powerful. I wanted those stickers, and I sure as hell would brush my teeth to get them.

As my sister and I got older, we left the sticker charts behind, but gamification kept turning up and it kept creating tangible results.

Photo by Niyas Khan on Unsplash

In 2008, my last year of high school, I found out what happens when gamification is used without my best interests in mind. I started playing World of Warcraft, and I didn’t stop for four years.

Games take advantage of innate psychological triggers to reward us when we play and improve. This cycle creates motivation, just like receiving a reward for anything encourages us to do it again, or to do it better.

This is the origin of gamification as a term, using tactics that games use in order to incentivize certain behaviors.

Pre-2004, most games rewarded you for getting high scores, completing difficult tasks, or progressing through more of the story. Players bought the game once, and at that point the goal was to give them an enjoyable experience of a satisfying length. Then, the satisfied players would buy the next game by that studio or franchise.

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Being one of the first games to use a subscription-payment model, World of Warcraft took a slightly different approach. Their goal was keep players on active subscriptions for long periods of time. The game play and all the associated rewards were designed to encourage players to just… keep playing. Sometimes to the detriment of their own health.

I’m not here to demonize World of Warcraft, but to point out that gamification in all its forms is a tool, and as with any tool it can be used to different ends. It can propel us further in life, providing motivation where we need it, or it can trap us in loops of unhealthy behavior simply because they feel good.

Gamification is not inherently good or bad, but it can be used to reach a good outcome just as easily as it can be used for a bad outcome. Once you recognize the techniques, you can use these strategies however you like, and take notice when outside forces are using them against you.

the author’s journal, using analog progress bars and check boxes for gamification

I’ve been using gamification to maintain healthy daily habits and encourage myself to work on creative projects. All I need is a pen and paper.

There are as many ways to gamify your life as you can come up with, but the one I want to talk about here is the strategy of scoring your efforts.

Assigning a score to things that don’t have an innate scoring system creates a sense of progression, something we humans crave. Growth is often underestimated as a source of happiness, but it’s actually one of the main things that we consider when measuring our own satisfaction.

Gretchen Rubin talks about this in more detail in her book The Happiness Project, but one example I remember is that, when given the choice, most people would rather earn a lower salary that is guaranteed to increase each year, than earn a higher salary that remains stagnant.

We have a deep need to feel like we’re getting somewhere in life, and games simulate this experience by telling you exactly how you’re doing, and quantifying how much you’ve grown.

Role-playing games almost always have a leveling system, where you are given experience points for performing tasks. Some tasks give more experience than others, and higher levels offer more power or new abilities as rewards.

Competitive games keep a record of how well you did relative to your competitors. You have competitive rankings, kill-death ratios, and tallies of all your wins and losses.

Even casual games have rigorous measures of progress: points earned in a puzzle game, or the amount of debt paid down on your Animal Crossing house. A metric as simple as “total play time” is something that players can take pride in.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Measuring your effort with a scoring system can immediately gamify otherwise boring parts of life.

I keep a habit tracker in my journal each month. It is simple, a list of habits and an empty square for each habit on each day. It’s almost identical to the chart my mom created two decades ago.

Each habit, when given a score (one filled square if I do it, nothing if I don’t), becomes a game to play. How many days in a row can I complete all my habits? I get a small jolt of delight whenever I fill in a square. It is the feeling of a job well-done, the same as that bright flash and “ding” of leveling up in World of Warcraft. It represents a small way in which I’ve grown.

The 12 Week Year, another book I believe I’ve written about before, uses scoring as a way to maintain momentum over the entire twelve-week quarter. Each week you count up the tasks you completed and calculate the percentage complete. It’s small, but this is gamification.

In fact, this technique is used all over the place in the realm of productivity because it’s effective, it’s measurable, and it’s fun.

To use it in your own life, you can be as straightforward or as creative as you like. You can use a pen and paper to mark down your scores, or find a fancy app that tracks progress automatically.

The important thing is to make the rules for scoring as clear as possible and determine how you’re going to record that score.

You want to be able to look back, like a competitive FPS player peering at their match history, and see how many wins you’ve got under your belt.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

To take things a step further and boost the fun, you can assign rewards for certain milestones. Maybe you get to treat yourself to a sugary latte when you’ve published 3 articles, or you’ll take a celebratory day trip if you complete more than 70% of your planned workouts by the end of the month.

Heck, use some stickers. You’ll be surprised by how enticing they are, even as an adult. We all want to feel accomplished, and we want that accomplishment recognized.

Whatever you decide to do, remember my early words of caution: gamification is a tool.

How you use the tool (and whether you use it at all) is up to you, and it should be used in a way that fits your needs. Score habits that you are confident will improve your life, and check in regularly to make sure it’s still a good fit. Make sure you’re playing the right kind of game.

And, in the wise words of Gretchen Rubin, “Remember: this is supposed to be fun.”



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Alyssa Blackwell

A software dev / creative ✨ writing about game dev, mobile apps, productivity, and self-improvement ☕