This is the first of a three part series on how to cultivate a “play practice” in order to develop your play skills. I first wrote about the need for a play practice on Scoutie Girl.

To gamify just means to add game mechanics to a non-game experience. Game mechanics include all kinds of conventions (e.g. taking turns, earning points, rolling dice), rules (e.g. those governing how pieces can move on a board), victory conditions (e.g. winning a race, solving a puzzle), and more. All of these things can be modified and applied in other contexts.

Some industries—I’m thinking specifically of marketing, technology and entertainment—have figured out that adding game mechanics to the consumer experience can be highly motivating. And much has been written about the many ways we can use game mechanics to change our own behavior. Consider the basic game mechanics of rewards (or, in gamer parlance, “achievements”) and punishments (“penalties”). Some people might be motivated to change a behavior through extrinsic rewards (e.g. “I get ice cream if I finish cleaning my apartment”), while others might capitalize on their loss aversion (“If I don’t lose 5 pounds this month, I’ll donate $100 to a political candidate I despise”).

Incorporating game mechanics into your life can certainly result in some new, good habits. But this isn’t the only benefit to making use of game mechanics. Gamifying certain aspects of your life can help you:

  • Problem solve
  • Be mindful
  • Be social
  • Have fun

Problem Solving: A game mechanic that can be used in conjunction with brainstorming is “Countdown,” where you give yourself a limited amount of time to generate as many possible solutions to a problem as possible. It totally works! I’ve also used the concept of Leaderboards to inspire healthy competition around problem-solving, or Progress Bars to ward off pessimism. In general, I’ve found that turning a personal project into a game keeps me more productive and creative in the long-term.

Being Mindful and Present: I wrote earlier about my Lucky Stars Scavenger Hunt, which is a personal game I’ve been playing that requires me to constantly be on the lookout for a set of “lucky symbols” like four-leaf clovers, shooting stars, and unicorns. The game has no external reward, but it has already benefited me by making me more mindful of my surroundings as I walk down the street. Games engage your brain in a way that requires you to be “present.” Some people practice yoga; I play games.

Being Social: I frequently gamify conversation, especially if it’s getting a little dry. I find the “Would you rather?” game is especially useful when talking with shy people, or people you’re just getting to know. (Plus, I love the mental exercise of trying to think of two very different but somehow comparable items or experiences, e.g. Would you rather have a fancy, well-stocked library in your house, or be able to take a free trip once every five years?). “I Think But Don’t Know” (described here) is great for playing with people you only sort of know, like co-workers. One of my favorite games to play with friends at a bar or on a road trip is “Naming Things,” where someone calls out a general category like “Boy Band” or “Shampoo” and everyone has to think of a specific, but not-yet-existent name to match the category (“Five4U“ and “Steel Bubbles” work for the examples above). It’s arguable whether these are actually examples of gamification, as opposed to….just playing games. Since I think of games as a tool to enhance regular conversation, I’m going to say it counts! (Best part of making up your own games: making your own rules!)

Having Fun: Perhaps this is obvious, but gamifying an otherwise dull activity is way fun. Mrs. Chore-Wheel and Mr. GoldStar-Chart must have known this when they invented their famous namesakes.

p.s. If you need a serious threat to stay motivated, check out Aherk which allows you to “blackmail yourself.” A compromising photo of you will be published to Facebook if you don’t reach your goal!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the play practice series: The Art of Pretending.