Winning at Life

18 Jan

I’ve posted about the process of gamification before, but an article from GamesRadar today reminded me just how prevalent it really is… ironic, really, considering my current obsession with Fitocracy and the fact that I deliberately chose to do 100 burpees and 100 push-ups this morning to earn 500 achievement Quest points on a fitness website, rather than because of my desire to be in better shape.

But that’s part of the point of Fitocracy (which is fantastic) – they know full well that people, especially gamers, are more likely to do something they should do anyway if it has immediate and track-able rewards. And if they can brag about it – which they can on Fitocracy, at least to other people on Fitocracy (probably the only people in the world who care). The process of tracking Quests and Leveling Up in Fitocracy keeps you interested in doing more Quests, which introduce you to new exercises or elevate the level of intensity… ultimately helping you with your fitness goals. While it’s probably true that it would be objectively “better” if we were able to self-motivate without an app or website giving us “points” for doing exercise, it’s a completely harmless, somewhat social way of providing positive feedback for being healthy (assuming no one is lying about what they did just to get the points) – and that’s great.

GamesRadar decided to grant achievement points for something even more ordinary – just plain living. They start off with 1 point for being born, and another 25 if you make it to your first birthday… 5 for walking, 10 for talking, and so on. Two of my favorites are 3 for falling off your bike (you also got 7 for learning how to ride it) and 5 for failing a test… which I love because sometimes failing is actually important and needs to be rewarded. I think there are probably a few things missing, like joining the priesthood or becoming a CEO or getting a PhD, and I understand why (since most people won’t do one of those, much less all of them), but it is a little disappointing to not be able to earn points for something you worked really, really hard at.

And that last bit is the primary difference between living and earning “points.” And here’s the thing. When I play games, most of the time I’m not interested in 1000-pointing the achievements list. I want to complete the game and do a couple of cool things that don’t require an excess of effort. I’m not obsessed with earning all achievements just to earn them. But I do want to do a couple of really cool ones because I can, just like I wanted to do 100 burpees just to prove I can earn those 200 Quest points on Fitocracy. But there are so many other things that I do just because I want to do them – not because they earn me “points.”

And that’s what living is about – yes, points and rewards can provide that extra little kick in the pants to get us going on something that we kinda want to do but need someone to give us a slightly better reason than the ones we already have. It’s why people work out better with a trainer yelling at them, why kids will do chores for stickers or candy, and why many businesses implemented the merit-based raise system ages ago. It’s what capitalism is all about. And I’m all about gamification. I think it’s great to provide extra incentives for self-improvement, whether fiscally, physically, or intellectually.

What I don’t like about it, though, is that I’m afraid that it will go too far, that points will become the primary rather than a secondary motivator. It’s something I see with some of my students – they want the points (the grade), not the experience (the learning). And it’s not entirely their fault – we’ve come to value the achievements (the diploma and transcript) above the skills, and that, to me, has disaster written all over it. Because then people will exploit the system in whatever way they can just to have those achievements on their record – and they won’t actually be equipped to play the game on their own without a cheat helping them to find their way through the levels.

What I want to see is a mix of the two – gamification to give that little kick to the small things, and life to be worthwhile enough that we don’t need the kick to do the big ones. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get any points for that PhD – it doesn’t need incentivizing because it has intrinsic value for the experience, not the paper that’s somewhere in my apartment collecting dust. Because the achievement doesn’t matter even a fraction as much as the XP I earned on the way.