Gaming Your Way to Your Goals

Mario Kart by Miki Yoshihito

I play a lot of video games.

At least, I do when I don’t keep too close of an eye on myself. I, like many others who would self identify as ‘nerdy’, have that particular combination of addictive personality and attraction to escapism that leads to looking away from the screen for a moment and thinking, “4 a.m.? Wasn’t it just 10:00 a minute ago?”

Uncontrolled this can be a problem – my bank account and productivity levels both suffer when a bunch of new games come out all at once – but looked at the right way I’ve found it actually can be extremely helpful.

The same things that make you determined to do whatever it takes and burn up entire days to finish that level, get that new item or earn that really hard achievement can also make you finally get fit, learn a language or do whatever else it is you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

Escapism, Flow and Instant Gratification

Someone who studies game design professionally could probably add to this list, but to me three things stand out as the pillars of an addictive game – escapism, flow and good old gratification.

Games allow you to step into the shoes of someone else and lead a completely new life. They let you escape from your problems. As a kid they let me escape from the mind numbing monotony of school. As an adult they let me escape from the equally mind numbing grind of an uninspiring day job. Most of all they let me escape the fact that I was leading a boring, predictable and unfulfilling life.

The most interesting thing to me is they don’t even have to let you step into the shoes of a life that’s necessarily better than your current boring one. Sure most people would trade lives with bad asses and heroes like Cloud or Link – but who would honestly trade lives with Lee Everett or Isaac Clarke?

TV, movies and books all provide the same opportunity for escapism, and all three of those are also the domain and downfall of plenty of nerdy folk (I, personally, devour books like bacon wrapped candy), but none of them have the other two qualities that make games so potent.

Flow is one of the most enjoyable states you can be in while doing something.

It’s also a state that video games are directly designed to put you in.

People have understood the power of flow for a long time. Whether it’s called something else or not (being ‘in the zone’ in sports, ‘wei wu wei’ in Zen Buddhism, etc.) people have recognized that the particular feeling of being completely in the moment and fully focused on a task while at the same time acting in an effortless unthinking way feels like the pinnacle of human experience.

The goal of entire genres of games is to induce this state in you. There is a wonderful feeling to a perfectly executed Super Mario speed run. The kind of level where you burn straight through without getting touched, grabbing every coin, tearing through every enemy and doing it all with a sense of calm focus like the entire universe has aligned to get you to that castle (even if the Princess isn’t actually in that one).

On top of that tendency to place you in a state of flow, games also have another thing designed to push our subconscious happy buttons – a reward structure.

We like instant gratification. We like bells and whistles and fanfare when we’ve done something good.

The problem is, most of life doesn’t work that way.

You want to be fit? You need to put the work in and stick to your nutrition and exercise long term. You want to speak a second language? It’s going to take some time, and there’s probably not going to be a clear ‘ding’ when you’ve achieved fluency.

Games on the other hand give us a clearly defined goal (finish this level, defeat that boss, earn this achievement, get the highest score) and then immediately reward you for completing them. Even the leveling process in RPGs which can be a lot more time consuming – it’s called grinding for a reason – has that extremely satisfying point where you level up.

So how do we take these three things and apply them to making our real lives better?

Gaming Your Goals

Not all of these principles need to be applied to everything you do, but the more you can use them the easier building the life you want will be.

  • Embracing Escapism – I think this is the easiest one for most people, and if you’re particularly nerdy you’ll probably find this comes naturally provided you can change your ways of thinking.

    When you fall in love with the process the results come easily.

    If you’re trying to get in shape but you view working out as a painful, frustrating process and are topping that off by denying yourself the foods you love and forcing each meal to be full of foods you find boring or dislike – of course you’re going to fail.

    When you learn a language by studying for hours and hours when you hate studying and see language learning as grinding hours spent slamming your head into vocab lists and flipping through flashcards until you’re ready to jump through a plate glass window – of course you’re going to fail.

    Instead, you need to see things things as fun instead of work. That’s the reason you can sit for hours and kill rats over, and over, and over, and over again until you hit the level you’re shooting for but cringe at the idea of a 30 minute workout. One is supposed to be fun in your mind and the other is supposed to be work.

    So rethink things!

    When I was fat working out seemed painful. Over time though and the more I did it the more I learned how fun it can be, and now I want to lift. I would lift weights just to life weights. The same goes for practicing languages.

    If you can’t change your mind and begin to consider something fun, limit or drop it entirely and find something that is fun to you. Hate flashcards? Watch movies in your target language instead. Hate running? Try some HIIT workouts with kettlebells or practice some parkour.

    Find a way to make the things you feel you have to do into the things you want to do.

  • Finding Flow – This one’s a bit trickier, since some activities are well built for inducing flow and some are going to take a lot more work.

    The best way to start is to try to identify the things you can do that will get you closer to your goals that are also well suited to inducing a state of flow.

    There are a handful of markers for flow, but the three that I think are most important are having a clear goal, a clear indicator of when that goal has been completed and a task that is challenging enough to not be boring, but not so challenging it feels impossible.

    What are some examples?

    If you’re learning to play guitar working your way through a new song meets all three criteria. On the fitness side it’s easiest for fitness skills rather than just strict workouts, so working on nailing that 20 second handstand would be a good fit. You can also just work on finding that mindful active meditation state. When it comes to language learning Memrise does an excellent job of hitting all three criteria, likely because it’s essentially a game in and of itself.

    The point is to find whatever best puts you in state of flow and then focus your efforts on that. Just like with embracing escapism the goal here is to make it fun!

  • Generating Gratification – Lastly we have the problem of adding gratification into goals that might otherwise not have any built into them.

    The key here is to find ways to make your gratification as immediate as possible. It would be annoying if you filled up that experience bar but then had to wait three days to get the benefit of leveling up. That’s a lot like what most of life is like.

    Instead find ways to make it more like a game. The easiest way to do this is to just actually make a game out of it.

    In some cases this might’ve been done for you already. Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! both do an excellent job of it. Duolingo makes language learning into a game, and there are even games out there like guitar hero but with a real guitar that teach you to play while you play.

    In the absence of some good product that does the gamification for you, you’ll have to add your own rewards and gratification.

    Sometimes it can be enough just to have a clearly defined goal that, once achieved, you can hum a little tune and spin your sword around (or, whatever you’ve got on hand) and revel in the accomplishment of it all.

    If that’s not enough for you set up specific rewards you’ll give yourself once you hit each goal. Pick things you really want and incentivize progress as much as you can, the better the thing you get when you hit your goal the more driven you’ll be to get there.

    Don’t be afraid to brag a bit too – sharing your accomplishment is another strong form of gratification.

Usurping these traits from games can make gaming your own goals feel a lot less like work and a lot more fun, which means you’re a lot more likely to actually accomplish them and make your life as fun and exciting as the people in the games you play.

Except, again, maybe Lee Everett.

What have you done to turn making your life more epic into a game? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com