The Gamification of Writing

Gamification is one of the biggest buzzwords in business today. As defined by the Financial Times:

Gamification is an emerging business practice that refers to the use of digital game design techniques and video game elements to solve non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. It is applicable to a number of business areas including human resources, sustainability, innovation and marketing.

To those who are paying attention, it seems like practically everything is being gamified today. Any process that can be tracked and measured, the results ranked and made public, is certain to get this treatment.

A few months ago, my company’s technical support group got gamified. The manager divided the techs into teams and assigned point values to certain types of tickets. The two-week competition got pretty heated as the guys ended up gaming the gamification—trying to win at all costs. In the meantime, they managed to clear out a backlog of lingering support issues. Gamification FTW.

Not everybody likes having their jobs (or their lives) gamified, though. For a good illustration of this, check out the top definition of the term on UrbanDictionary.com:

A cynical practice by corporate douches where workers are supposedly motivated to work even harder on menial, pointless tasks by rewarding them with lame titles, meaningless rankings, coupons or a variety of other real-life trash loot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing someone couldn’t quite make it to the top of his call center’s leaderboard.

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Badges? We need some stinkin’ badges!

Regardless of what the critics say, turning an essentially non-competitive activity into a competition can be highly motivating. When I bought my wearable fitness tracker last year, Garmin immediately started awarding me “badges” just for walking around. I got a “5,000 Total Steps” badge on the first day I wore my tracker. They had gamified the very act of walking! Thus encouraged, I found myself ducking out a couple of times each day for a quick jaunt around the block, just to get the extra steps in. Thanks to Garmin’s behavioral conditioning, it only took me until October to get “2 Million Total Steps.” Woo-hoo!

Back on February 25 of this year, I earned Garmin’s “Quadruple Goal” badge for racking up 53,545 steps in a single day. When I bragged a little about that little achievement on social media (with gamification, bragging is practically compulsory) one of my Facebook “friends” actually accused me of cheating. “What did you do, attach your FitBit to a ceiling fan and let it run all day?”

In reply, I posted screenshots from MapMyRun, another gamification app:

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The app measured and showed exactly what I’d done: back-to-back half marathons … like a boss. It was all there in the stats: distance, time, pace, calories burned. My friend’s response to this was, “Oh.”

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, you’ve had your writing gamified. I’ve done and won NaNo five years in a row now, and I freely admit I’m addicted to racking up the word counts. There’s nothing like a daily bar graph to encourage you to stay above the trend line. If you have a day when you don’t write as much (or at all), you see the disappointing flat bars. If you have a particularly productive day, the bars soar up. Sure, the motivation might be a little artificial, but it can also be very compelling:

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I worked my tail off last year to hit 75,000 words—my best November ever. Were they all good words? Of course not. But you can’t edit something that’s not drafted, and you can’t trim words that haven’t been written.

As great as NaNoWriMo is, I wish the system provided even more in terms of stats and tracking. I love the fact that I can look at a running log on MapMyRun and see how elevation and fatigue affected my pace. I enjoy challenging myself to go faster on the uphill stretches or to finish strong after a long race—and then seeing my results in the workout log afterward. But NaNoWriMo’s “daily stats” only tracks a project’s progressing word count. I want more gamification, dangit!

This month, since I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo while also preparing for a marathon, I thought I might start tracking my writing sessions in a little more detail. Just as MapMyRun records the pacing of each mile, I’m using a spreadsheet to log each of my writing sessions, tracking my start and stop times and my beginning and ending word counts. The sheet calculates the total time, the total words, and the combined words per minute and words per hour.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-Session-Log

Since I generally go somewhere else to write, I’m also making note of where I spent each writing session. I want to know, when the month is over, whether certain locations might be more productive for me. As one of my marketing mentors used to say, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” And yet, all these years I’ve never really done much measuring when it comes to the creative process.

So far, what I’m finding is that I’m much more motivated to crank out words when I know the clock is ticking. In other words, the very fact that I’m tracking time and word counts impacts my behavior. (In physics, this is known as the “observer effect,” a phenomenon that’s also observed in quantum mechanics.) I’m also seeing that my level of preparation—essentially, how much I’ve thought about and planned out the day’s chapter(s)—affects my total production as well as my production rate (words per hour). It’s hard to know how to measure that, though.

I know there are those who might shy away from such an overtly nuts-and-bolts approach to the act of creation. To me, though, drafting prose is not about creating art. It’s about generating the raw materials for something that I hope will be compelling, inspiring and artistic. The first draft is the block of marble. The fifth or seventh or twentieth draft is the finished sculpture.

It might sound a little weird, but I figure if there’s anything I can do to streamline the process of pounding out that first draft, I’m willing to to try it. And that includes a little over-the-top gamification.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics.

Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

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