Category Archives: Gamification

Victorian Gamification and Spasmodic Hercules

I read something very interesting the other day about Anthony Trollope. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t either but a quick trip to Wikipedia revealed to me that he was one of the most famous writers of the Victorian age.  He was popular and had critical acclaim while he was still living. Beyond that he was also an incredibly prolific writer. He wrote forty-seven novels, forty-four short stories, eighteen nonfiction books, and two plays. This massive pile of work was written while he held down a full time job with the British Postal Service. How the heck did he do it? Was he a genius? Did words pour forth from his pen fully formed, inspiration striking at every moment? Well of course not. Still we’d have to assume that he was something special if it wasn’t for the fact that he explained exactly how it was done in his autobiography, which was published after his death.

I don’t have a copy of his actual autobiography, but I ran into this information in Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book Willpower. Here’s what they say;

“Anthony Trollope believed it unnecessary—and inadvisable—to write for more than three hours a day…He would rise at five-thirty, fortify himself with coffee, and spend a half-hour reading the previous day’s work to get himself in the right voice. Then he would write for two and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table. He forced himself to produce one page of 250 words every quarter hour…At this rate he could produce 2,500 words before breakfast. He didn’t expect to do so every single day—sometimes there were business obligations or fox hunts—but he made sure each week to meet a goal. For each of his novels, he would draw up a working schedule, typically planning for 10,000 words a week, and then keep a diary.”

When this process was posthumously revealed he lost a lot of favor in the sight of British critics. It seemed to them to be utterly repugnant to schedule writing. Inspiration does not follow a schedule after all. The artistic Muse does not follow anyone’s timetable. But I think there is a great deal to be said for Trollope’s method. Most writers sit around and write when inspiration strikes, or when the “creative juices are flowing”. I think this is a crutch and an excuse to put off writing. The perfect moment for writing will only come once in a blue moon; in the meantime sitting around on your hands will not make you a better writer. Trollope wrote 10.000 words a week, whether he felt like it or not, and he was a bestseller. He taught himself to make the creative juices flow. It’s not the most talented writers who succeed but the writers who actually go out there and start writing. Trollope concurred: “I have been told that such appliances (scheduled writing) are beneath the notice of a man of genius. I have never fancied myself to be a man of genius, but had I been so I think I might well have subjected myself to these trammels. Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Want to know something else I found fascinating? Every day Trollope wrote down the number of pages he had written “so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.”  It reminds me a great deal of 750 words. I always was ashamed when I’d log on and see I hadn’t written anything in three days, and it would spur me on try and write more consistently. Trollope created the same effect by making goals for himself. He wrote “There has been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”

Setting arbitrary goals and keeping score? Sounds like gamification to me, even it is Victorian. I too have my own rule that would be a “blister to my eye” if broken; posting something every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So far I’ve only failed at that once. When I get around to writing a novel I’m definitely going to set weekly goals for myself. The last novel I started hasn’t been touched in four years now. You know why? Because I was waiting for a burst of “inspiration” before I started the next chapter. Inspiration is fickle; goals aren’t. Keep that in mind no matter what project you’re working on.

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Gamification is Manipulation

Alright, I had a different post ready for today but some things happened that I feel I should comment on in a timely matter.

Shamus Young recently made a post and wrote an article responding to a video by Chris Franklin about gamification. Since I just got done talking about gamification myself this timing seemed too good to pass up. (Note: if you watch the video there is some mild bad language near the end)

If you don’t have time to click through all those links, here’s the basic story. Chris Franklin is critical of gamification because it doesn’t actually make things more fun to do. He points out how certain websites and companies are using gamification techniques to get people to stay on their websites longer, watch more videos, click on more links, and post more in their forums. He (with good reason) points out these sites are just using gamification to manipulate people, and the people being manipulated are not getting any more enjoyment for their trouble. Shamus responded by saying in short that yes, gamification is manipulation but so is all marketing, ant the sites using it are putting content out for free and rely on page views for their income. Compared to other types of marketing, gamification could be called a step up. Besides, nobody is being hurt and some people are having fun.

Whether you agree with Chris or Shamus (they’re good friends, by the way) I think the greater point has been missed. Chris starts his video by saying “The general consensus seems to be that we’re on a path to making everything fun and rewarding, that games will make school and work fun and that the lines between boring, responsible stuff and cutting edge entertainment will be blurred away to nothing.” I think this starting point is where the real problem begins.

Gamification is not about making things fun. It’s about making us want to do them.

I don’t write three pages each day because it’s fun. Now granted it’s cathartic and fulfilling, but it’s not fun. It’s work, and I’d rather be playing Minecraft. By writing my three pages on 750words (which gives me badges and points) I’m not making writing any more enjoyable. I am tapping into that dopamine squirt I talked about yesterday which makes me actually want to write every day. It doesn’t, however, make it a single iota more pleasurable to write.

If you read yesterday’s post then you can probably see why people make this mistake frequently. We’re used to thinking of “desire” and “pleasure” (“fun” in this case) as going hand in hand. We desire things because they are pleasurable, right? But as we’re finding out more and more that is not the case. The rats that had their brains wiped of dopamine would have found the food very pleasurable, but they had no desire to eat it. The burnt out drug addict gets less and less pleasure from each dose of meth, but the desire for it is stronger than it ever was. Gamification works off desire, off the dopamine squirt that games have gotten good at providing for us. Maybe you’ll have more fun with gamified chores than normal ones but if you do that’s just extra. The point is tricking you into wanting to do them in the first place.

So when a website uses gamification to make you want to stay on their site, yeah, you might call that a little manipulative. But don’t say that gamification is a fraud because of it. Gamification is a tool. When it’s used to make you waste more of your time on useless things then it’s a tool working against us. But we can also use that tool to make us want to do things that will improve ourselves and our lives.

Just the other day I received the badge that I am most proud to have earned on 750words. It’s “The Flock” badge, which is awarded to users who have written more than 100,000 words. I never thought I could write that much. If it wasn’t for gamification I would have lost the motivation to keep up with it long ago. Gamification isn’t evil. It also isn’t a cure all. The important thing is to be aware of it, to recognize when it’s being used, and to understand when we’re using it and when it’s using us.

I’ll talk about something else on Friday, I promise.

Squirts, Rat Brains, and World of Warcraft

On Friday I mentioned how most games tap into the reward centers of your brain. If you still haven’t watched the Extra Credits episode about it, then you should, but I wanted to talk about it a little more in depth. Specifically I want to discuss what some people call the “dopamine squirt”. But before I can talk about that I need to talk about electrocuted rat brains.

In the 1950s a pair of scientists, Dr. James Olds and Dr. Peter Milner, performed a series of experiments on rats. Specifically they shoved electrodes into rat brains to see what would happen. The electrode was connected to a bar inside a small box so that any time the bar was pressed an electric current would activate the electrode inside the rat’s brain. Olds and Milner let the rats loose and watched to see what would happen. They carefully recorded how often the rats pressed the bar and then after a few days of observation they would dissect it and see what part of their brain the electrode had been connected to anyway. They found that rats that had a current running through certain sections of the brain pushed the bar more. A lot more. One rat pressed the bar over 7,500 times over twelve hours. After their results were published many people believed that they had managed to discover the brain’s pleasure center. The general idea was that these rats were pressing the lever over and over because it just felt good. Further research found that “pleasure centers” like these released the chemical dopamine, which was soon dubbed the “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine is released during almost any pleasurably activity and several drugs (like meth) cause dopamine levels to spike. So it was pretty much a done deal. Dopamine makes you feel good. You eat delicious food, dopamine comes out, and dopamine makes the food pleasurable to eat.

However, we weren’t done messing with rats brains quite yet. In 2007 some more scientists used drugs to wipe out 99 percent of the dopamine present in rats brains. The treated rats showed an interesting behavior: they wouldn’t eat. They would sit inches away from delicious food, and just lie there. Presumably they would keep sitting there until they starved to death. They no longer had any desire to eat, despite how hungry they got. Interesting. What’s more interesting is what happened when the scientists started force feeding the rats. They found out that the rats still liked eating the food. In other words the food was still pleasurable to eat. They just couldn’t bring up the will to go over and eat it themselves.

This kind of result showed that there was a lot more to dopamine than people had thought. If the rats still got pleasure out of eating then why wouldn’t they eat? Further tests showed something similar. Mice that had been stripped of their ability to produce dopamine would starve within weeks despite plentiful food being available. If the mice were given injections of synthetic dopamine then they’d start eating again. But either way they enjoyed the food the same amount. Another study showed that mice born with a mutation that caused an overproduction of dopamine showed a much greater desire to eat than normal mice but, again, didn’t actually enjoy the food any more than normal mice.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that dopamine is less involved in pleasure and much more involved in desire, which can be a pleasure in and of itself. Haven’t you ever wanted something so bad that the wanting itself was almost pleasurable? The feeling you had as a little kid in the days before Christmas is a good example. As the blessed day comes closer and closer you practically begin to vibrate with anticipation. The night before it’s hard to sleep because you’re so excited! And when the day comes and you get to rip open those presents…it’s almost a letdown. Not really of course (unless you got some lousy presents as a kid) but actually having the presents isn’t nearly as exciting as wanting them.

Life is full of this kind of experience. You can’t wait for dinner to arrive, but it’s not that big a deal when it comes. I mean it was good food, but probably wasn’t worth getting that worked up over. You wait a year for a new installment of a favorite book or TV series, and you’re first in line to read/watch it. But after some time you come back and watch it again and wonder why you got so excited over it. The excitement was dopamine, and it inspires seeking behavior. This explains why some people just love shopping even if they experience buyer’s remorse almost immediately afterwards. It wasn’t about having things but about hunting them down. It wasn’t about the pleasure of owning, it was about the excitement of desiring.

This is how games can become so enthralling and addicting. Let’s look at how this applies to what is probably the most infamous game currently in existence when it comes to inspiring addiction: World of Warcraft. For those of you who aren’t gamers World of Warcraft (better known as WoW) is a roleplaying game, or RPG for short. What that basically means when it comes to video games (other games use the term a bit differently) is that you create a character who begins at level 1. Completing quests and slaying enemies will cause your character to gain “experience points”, and once you have a certain amount you go up a level. Each level takes a little longer to earn, so level 2 is easier to reach than level 3, which is easier to reach then level 4, etc. Right now the maximum level you can get to in WoW is level eighty-five, which takes an average player about 300 hours to reach. Every time you level up your character becomes stronger. On top of that there is equipment that can be earned or bought that also increases your power. Some equipment costs large amounts of in game money that would take hours of work to earn.

What does this all mean? Just that WoW is built to flip every seeking and desiring switch we have. The entire game is nothing but goals that you can achieve. And let me tell you, it is addicting. I’ve never played WoW but I have played many other RPGs and the desire to level up is just as powerful as any other. The game is constantly giving you rewards that get you closer to your goals. Kill a monster? You’re just a little closer to leveling up. Complete a quest? You get just a few more coins to save up for that plate armor you’ve had your eye on. What’s more, as soon as you reach a goal you’re immediately given another. Finally made it to level 52 after three hours of hard work? Good job, now try for level 53. This is necessary because without new goals to strive after you start to wonder why you wanted to be level 52 in the first place. The answer? Because we like to want things, and having goals gives us a dopamine squirt that reinforces the behavior.

Even if you’re not a gamer you can probably see the dopamine squirt at work in your own life. Do you constantly check your emails? Do you log on to Facebook all the time looking for new notifications? Simple things like having mail in your inbox or little red numbers on your notification tab trigger the dopamine squirt. When we actually read the email or click on the notifications we’re usually disappointed. It was just spam, or game requests, etc. And yet our failure to actually enjoy the email or notification doesn’t make us want to see them any less.

So. This post went a little longer than I expected. I’ll be talking about something else on Wednesday, something writing related in all probability. Hope to see you then.

Writing, 750 Words, and the Blog Schedule

A little while ago I heard about an interesting program from one of my professors. I forget the name of it now (and a few quick Google searches came up dry) but the basic idea was that you’d tell the program how many words you needed to write for an assignment and how long you wanted to take writing it. After that you went to work, and every time you paused for more than a minute or so the program would begin to yell at you. “Hey! Get back to work! You’ve only got twenty more minutes!” My professor thought it was interesting enough to share with the class and suggested that we try it out. I never did…but it got me thinking.

I’d recently watched an episode of Extra Credits (a fantastic show, by the way. If you like games and you like learning then it’s a must see) that was all about gamification (pronounced “game-if-ah-kay-shun”). If you’ve never heard of gamification before, then check out the video here. If you aren’t in a position to watch videos or you just don’t like clicking on hyperlinks then here’s the short version of it. Games tap into the reward centers of our brains. Certain games like World of Warcraft do this so effectively that some people are in danger of becoming addicted, but all games from poker to Dwarf Fortress do to some extent. I could write a whole post about how exactly this works (and I think I will, in the days to come) but the basic idea is that there is something about games that makes us keep playing them. Most of us would much rather play a game than do our homework, take out the trash, write a blog post, or go for a run. Gamification is about turning these things we’d rather not do into activities that tap into our reward centers in the same way games do. An excellent example of this is the game Chore Wars , which takes ordinary tasks like doing the dishes and turns them into quests that can be completed for experience points and loot. Why should we care about digital levels and imaginary loot? For the same reason we care about them while playing Skyrim, or League of Legends, or even Farmville! Arbitrary rewards like achievements, leveling up, high scores, and better equipment motivate us to keep playing, and can theoretically motivate us to keep cleaning as well.

The program my professor mentioned reminded me of all of that. Not because it was a game but because it was one programmer’s attempt to get people to sit down and write their assignments. The program itself sounded dubious in its effectiveness; it’s easy to ignore nagging, especially when you can just turn off the sound. Still, I began to wonder if anyone out there had tried to use gamification techniques to help people write. As I mentioned in my last post every published author I’ve ever heard of has said the same thing: if you want to become better at writing then you have to write as much as you can. Write often, every day if possible. I want to become a writer but I have incredible trouble motivating myself to actually sit down and write. Writing is difficult work and if nobody is making you do it then it’s easy to just let it slide. Occasionally I’d try to start a daily writing regimen, but it always ended in failure after a week or so. If someone out there had managed to make something like Chore Wars for writers then maybe that would be able to motivate me to actually write.

I started searching the internet and soon came across a website called 750 Words . The idea behind 750 Words is simple: every day you log on and write 750 words, roughly three pages. It can be about anything you like: journaling, random thoughts, short stories, cake recipes, whatever. You just write until you reach that mark, at which point a cheery green notice pops up and informs you of your success. The site then records everything you’ve written and assigns you a number of points for completing the day. Writing anything at all is worth a few points, while writing the full three pages is much more. On top of that it uses a bowling style scoring system where the more days complete in a row the higher your score becomes. At the end of the month your score is tallied and if you like you can compare yourself to other writers that month.

I started trying it out. It was fun to just write randomly, and I did feel a sense of satisfaction when I reached the 750 word goal. Pretty quickly I discovered that the points were just about meaningless. I rarely notice them anymore, and there are plenty of people who write every single day so there’s no chance of you getting the highest score. Instead the prime motivating factor is badges. When you write your first three pages you get an egg badge, which will forever sit on your statistics page. When you write three days in a row you earn the turkey badge, and when you write five days in a row you get the penguin badge. The badges increase in difficulty to earn from that point on. To earn an albatross you’ll have to keep your streak up for thirty days, and a pterodactyl will take a whopping 200 days to earn. The highest badge of all is the coveted space bird, which takes a 500 day writing streak to earn pages. Immediately I was in awe of the multiple space birds that would show up on the day’s leaderboard. A badge that takes almost two years of your life to earn? If you miss even a single day of writing you’ll have to start over from scratch. What dedication! Immediately I wanted to be a space bird. To have other writers look on me in awe, to have written over 1,500 pages of material.

From that point on I’ve been hooked on 750 Words. Oh it’s not perfect. It’s easy to cheat and just copy and paste a Wikipedia article in if you’re in a hurry and willing to cheat. After a while even the badges start to lose their luster. But I will say this: since starting 750 Words in September of 2011 I have written 97,985 words. That’s around 300 pages that I never would have written otherwise.

Why do I bring all this up? For two simple reasons. The first is to help explain the purpose of this blog. 750 Words is good practice, but I can write whatever I want there. Most of my entries are misspelled, feature terrible grammar, and often wander off down whatever rabbit trail I feel like exploring because nobody is going to read them anyway. I need to practice writing for an audience, which is why I’ve started this blog. The second reason is to explain what I hope will be my blog’s regular schedule. I have decided that on Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays I’ll spend my 750 Words writing blog posts, which I will edit that evening. This means that you can expect new posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is the schedule I will keep until I find good reason to change it.