Yesterday I posted an article about how much I love numbers, and how that leads to my obsession over word counts.  That push to hit the next milestone in any of three to five simultaneous counts I’m keeping.  There was a word I didn’t use in that post, because it’s a word that I know is controversial in some circles.  However, someone on Twitter immediately called my obsession for what it was.


For those unfamiliar with the word, it describes taking the tenants of games, especially modern video games, and applying them to aspects of everyday life.  What bits of games?  Achievement badges, experience points, even leveling up.  All have been successfully applied outside the traditional gaming realm.  One of the earliest examples I’m aware of was a website called Chore Wars, which offered people the ability to gain experience points for doing everyday chores.  People leveled up and directly competed against each other just for doing those mundane everyday tasks that need to be done.  It’s been applied to exercise, specifically when Pokémon came out with a version bundled with a pedometer, encouraging children to stick the pedometer in a dryer go for a walk if they wanted to evolve their pocket monsters.  It’s been applied to driving, in my example of the Prius graphs yesterday (very low-key gamification for the extremely math motivated) and newer hybrid cars that will include a Tamagotchi-like digital plant to represent how ecologically its owner is driving.

In all of these cases there is a direct benefit to the activity.  Doing chores results in a cleaner house.  Exercise results in a healthier you.  Driving ecologically results in a better environment.  What makes these examples all gamification is the secondary reward, the actual motivation.  The experience points, the evolved Pokémon, the happy little digital plant.  These are not the primary positive benefit of the activity, but they are the ultimate motivator.

This isn’t quite the classic carrot on a stick.  Gamification is not your mother looking at you and saying “eat your vegetables or you won’t get any dessert.”  Ultimately that doesn’t make us want to eat our vegetables, we aren’t motivated to continue eating vegetables.  We just eat them the one time to get some ice cream, then the same dance starts the next day.  The result of gamification is not an excuse to do a task for a promised reward, it’s to specifically turn those tasks into games with internal rewards.  The distinction may seem blurry between those two, but it is there.  It might take someone a little better versed in gamification to explain, but it comes down to small, incremental rewards rather than a single big reward.

If I could explain it better, I’d have a far more lucrative career as a gamification consultant, which is now a legitimate business venture.  It has applications in education.  It had applications in business.  It’s the new hip fad motivational tool.  And it’s powerful, because it’s directed at motivating a generation of children and young adults who have grown up playing video games.  Who haven’t stopped playing video games.  A generation accustomed to game-style motivation.

That’s my amateur attempt at a brief history and explanation of gamification.  I’m certain any number of people could point out where I’m wrong.  If you want a more thorough (and I’m talking hour-long) explanation, I offer up Gabe Zichermann who covered the subject in-depth as a Google Tech Talk:

Gamify Your Writing

What I described yesterday, motivation from word count milestones?  That’s a low-key form of gamification as well.  As are the status bars that some writers employ on their websites.  Every graph and chart available on the Nanowrimo website, from status bars to graphs showing current pace and estimated completion date?  All of that, every last bit of it, is gamification.  Oh, not intentionally so.  Writers were tracking their word counts well before gamification was a word, and Nanowrimo predates the first use of the word by several years.  But both still fall into the realm of gamification as it’s been defined over the last five years.  It’s about creating a secondary motivational tool above and beyond the apparent primary motivation.  It’s about driving someone forward not by the eventual goal of a completed story or novel, but instead driving them incrementally forward with the promise of hitting a multiple of 5000, or keeping the estimated completion date ahead of November 30th.  In a small way, the entire conceit of Nanowrimo is about gamification of the novel writing process.

Anything like gamification that has its proponents is going to have its detractors as well.  It comes out every year in some of the critiques of Nanowrimo.  And it comes out in the non-writing world via critiques that gamification oversimplifies or trivializes significant real-life interactions, critiques that gamification is simply a rebranding of existing techniques and practices, and critiques that children have far too much interaction with video game mechanics just from playing those games and it shouldn’t be encouraged at a larger scale within society.  If we’re talking the rebranding critique, in many cases it’s absolutely true.  The word was invented in some small part to describe what people were observing in some fields in an attempt to apply it to other fields.  As for the other criticisms, I ask what the harm is.  In the end, gamification with regards to writing isn’t about whether it’s harmful to the practitioner from some external reference, but whether it’s useful to the practitioner from their own perspective.

Gamification is, at its heart, a motivational tool.  And as with any motivational tool there are individuals who will be moved by it, and individuals that won’t.  From my post yesterday gushing over my love of word counts broken down on the session, day, scene, chapter, and novel level, I suspect it’s already well established which camp I fall into when it comes to the gamification of writing.  So perhaps that explains my inability to find fault with it.  Your susceptibility to its motivational powers is largely tied to how much you’ve gamed.  My general experience has writers as more likely to be gamers than the general public, whether that’s video games or the ultimate origins of many of these tools: pen-and-paper RPGs.  Though my observations are far from being a scientific study on the matter.

Well now, this has turned into rather more of an essay than I anticipated going into it, so a summary is daunting.  Especially since the real wrap up is the observation that gamification is a powerfully motivating tool for those who are motivated by gamification.  It has its detractors, but if it’s working for you and getting you to write, then don’t listen to them.  Write.  That’s what writers do.  Count your words.  And remember that motivation doesn’t need to come from the end game, it can come at any point along the way.

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