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Do You Want a Gold Star?

Dream with me for a moment, guys.

Let’s say you’re on a diet. No, scratch that. Diets are bad. Let’s say you’re on the path towards a consistently healthier lifestyle: keeping an eye on your portions, eating more veg, drinking more water, exercising, etc. And every day, you wake up to a message that says something like:

“Thanks to your healthier habits yesterday, you lost about 50 g of fat. Also, your reduced sugar intake throughout the past week reduced your risk of type II diabetes by a further 1%. Keep it up!”

Then you go to brush your teeth, and your mirror shows a comparison of your left molar now vs. the state it would’ve been in had you not been brushing your teeth diligently for the last six months, and the progress that a wannabe-cavity would’ve made. It also tells you how many days you’ve had without your teeth sensitivity acting up.

And then you go for your morning run, and your fitbit doesn’t just keep track of your speed, heart rate, whatnot, but tells you exactly how much you’ve improved since last time and how much muscle you’ve built,  Or maybe you’re doing yoga, and you know that you’re some 75% of the way to that one position that’s proving tricky.

Oh, and the best part? There’s a setting in your omniscient statistician that lets you skip any negative messages. As in, on the day you forget to eat your greens or skip your run, it doesn’t tell you off. There’s no negative reinforcement, simply lack of a positive one. And the funny thing is, that’s how most people keep their OmniStat set up – and studies show that is, indeed, the most effective way to get their stuff done.

So, how do you like my dreamworld? Does this system remind you of anything?

If not, let me give you more clues. Imagine that you fight monsters and go on quests. And every time you defeat a monster and complete a quest, you gain a certain amount of “points” that either get distributed to various abilities you have, or go towards your next “level”, upon reaching which you find all your abilities and characteristics boosted.

With me now? Good.

What if life were more like theater? asks Neil Patrick Harris, and while I thoroughly enjoy his performance to illustrate that world, I’d prefer it if life was more like a computer game.

Imagine you got a reward for everything you do that is healthy and productive (and maybe not even get penalized for failing to do those things, simply have no further reward). Imagine if every piece of progress you made was measurable and known to you. In fact, imagine if the exact information about your progress – actual, unbiased data, not “so far so good”, not “miles to go before you sleep”, but REAL data, like “the first draft of your novel is currently 25.5% complete”. Imagine that info alone WAS your reward.

For me, that would be enough. A token, robotic “well done!” with a progress report, every time I made progress in the right direction, be it health or career. (Let’s leave relationship and morals out of here.)

Of course, there’ll be many of you out there who will tell me to put my big girl pants on.

“You want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day,” says Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada to Andy, who’s having a crisis over being the underappreciated assistant to the titular character. Well, screw you, Nigel! I WANT that gold star! Maybe not from someone who pays my wages, but from a friend, a partner, or at least from an AI that’s been programmed to do so!

Yeah, yeah, I know. Big girl pants. Maybe you’re right. After all, the rest of the world is coping just fine. Every human adult (that has the financial and societal means to do so, anyway) keeps on top of their work and family responsibilities, pursues satisfying hobbies in their free time, eats healthily, exercises regularly, is in touch with their personal brand of spirituality and/or emotional management, never suffers from burnout, and knows how to prioritize long-term improvement over short-term gain. Also, the Vulcans have landed and Starfleet is recruiting.

With this in mind, if you’re a proponent of the “big person pants” method, feel free to put yours on. (And tell me where you got them, since my size-20 butt is in constant search of a good denim supplier.)

The rest of you, let’s embrace our inner five-year-old for a moment. Because I’m willing to bet that an average five-year-old is a lot happier than any of us grown-ups.

Games Are Fun

The word “gamification” gets thrown around a lot lately. At its core, gamification is exactly that: transforming a non-game element of life into a game of sorts, with a reward. You probably heard of various apps that help you build habits and reward your performance with their own gold star equivalent. Maybe you’re using one. Maybe you tried one once. Maybe you never wanted to try, because you figured that your deeply entrenched habits (or lack of) wouldn’t be affected by a mere app. (Maybe you’re also someone who never played Farmville, Mafia, or any other Facebook game that requires you to regularly log in and press buttons.)

Thing is, gold stars are fun. V.E. Schwab agrees, and her writing work ethic is something that still leaves me crying in the corner with white envy.

They don’t give gold stars on the homework where I come from, and I didn’t gamify much for myself when I was young.  In fact, I was a pretty boring child, teen, and young adult. I’ve learned academic achievement (graded since age 7), embraced the system and learned to work within it very effectively. Then again, grades themselves are an imaginary reward. Sure, grades have a lot of impact on your life, but the currency of grades is converted so many times and affected by so many factors that the reward itself IS mostly imaginary.

Thing is, I got so good at working inside that system that I was quite lost outside of it. In school and uni, I’d get graded on my achievements. At home, I had no such motivation to keep my place clean. I also had little motivation to exercise: sure, my back hurt a lot from the sitting, but I’ve always had a bad back, plus a neck trauma at age 9, so moderate back pains were just my reality. And as far as eating healthily went, I’d absorbed just enough toxic beauty standards from the media and the family to periodically count calories without regard to the real nutritional value of the food I was eating.

Boy, was the 20-25-year-old me a delight.

Don’t get me wrong, she had a GPA somewhere upward of 3.9 and a well-paying job in an international financial company – but these were combined with zero ability to take care of one’s home and health. I read books on time management and followed several programs for struggling homemakers (as well as an online food management plan). And I won’t deny it: some of it worked. Some useful tricks stuck.

Preteen me, however, gamified chores. She play-pretended a help agency that employed various fictional characters to assist other fictional characters, in a land that was a mishmash of stories that would give Once Upon a Time a run for its money. Every chore was storified (one I remember right now is that changing bedsheets was cleaning a giant eagle’s nest), kept track of, and even invoiced (heavens know where I found a stack of self-copying flimsies).

It was  fun. I got my gold stars from the system I’d put in place myself – and somehow, they were reward enough.

Now, in my early thirties, I still remember some of the tricks I learned from self-help books and courses. But mainly, I use Zombies, Run! for jogging, I recently got back to HabitRPG Habitica when I realized how much my routines suffered when I abandoned it, and I’m still considering the Nerd Fitness Rebel Academy as a way to shape my exercise routines into something more than a month of running twice a week followed by a month of skipping out.

And let me tell you: it’s working. Last night, I fell asleep without brushing my teeth, and today,  I felt bad about that.

Not because I worried about my dental health. But because didn’t get to check off “Brush teeth – evening” on my list of daily habits. Which meant not getting the XP and gold I would’ve gotten for my tiny level 61 rogue, who’s currently riding a lion into battle.

rogueGo on, call me silly and tell me to go put my big girl pants on. But tomorrow, I’m restarting my thrice-weekly running habit, because I want to know what happened to Abel Township after some zombies fired a grenade launcher to it. And tonight, I won’t forget to brush my teeth.

P.S. I’m not lying when I say I realized how much my habits suffered when I went off my usual gamification game (heh), so I’m pretty psyched about picking that stuff up again. Expect more blogs like this one.