This week, I’ve been writing a lecture on gamification for my game design students. And as usual, when I’m busy with real-world (that is, paid) work, I’ve had to put my manuscript to the side. I can’t ever separate myself completely from my writing though so I started thinking about times when the creative process got so hard, I’ve had to add incentives through games.

Gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other activities (such as marketing) to encourage engagement with a product. (In terms of game design, this is seen as a bad thing but in other areas like education or slugging through the creative process, I don’t see it as a problem)

In the two years since I’ve been working on Love in the Age of Time Travel manuscript, I’ve participated in three Nanowrimos. Nanowrimos is a big organisation that encourages people to write 50 000 words of a manuscript in the month of November. You form writers groups, tally up daily word count, submit cover designs. The website rewards you with incentives such as badges, a visual chart of your progress, positive encouragement to get you to meet your goal.

I’ve also used apps such as Forest to try to be more effective with my time. The app works is like the pomodoro method. You type in how long you want to focus on one particular task, and in that time a tree will grow in your virtual forest. If you leave the app to log on to social media or fiddle with your phone, the tree will be killed. You earn in-game currency which can be used to buy different species of trees and plants to populate your forest (so pretty!) but you can also use the currency to plant a real tree. The Forest app publishers are partnered with Trees for the Future, and I think the conversion rate is 2500 in-game coins equals one tree being planted.

At the moment, I’m so accustomed to the routine of writing at least an hour a day that I don’t need positive encouragement from social peers or the external accountability to get work done. I could do better on the procrastination front – Facebook is my Achilles’ heel.

Interestingly, all the gamification design methods I’ve come across focus only on positive reinforcement. I remember a disturbing game I made up as a ten year old. To get through an hour of piano practice every day, I’d imagine ten Chinese zombies with long brittle hair, broken fingernails and stiff arms lined up against the back wall of the music room. Every time I’d make a mistake, they would shuffle closer, their hands twitching to strangle me. My back was turned so I couldn’t see them. The creepiness factor was made worse by Mozart’s merry melody lines, kind of like juxtaposing a horrific crime scene in a film with an inappropriate soundtrack. The zombies would creep so close I could smell the dead dandelions on their breath (Don’t ask. That’s just what I imagined Chinese zombies ate when I was young). Inevitably, I’d win of course (did child-you ever lose a game playing against yourself?). The zombies would shuffle back to their starting position to begin again.

So, if you’re having trouble with your creative process this week, feel free to use my zombie strangulation game to build in some incentives. 

Unless of course, negative reinforcements don’t work for you.

What are your gaming techniques to getting stuff down? Are you the creative type who likes to be rewarded with cute puppies memes for every twenty minutes of hard work? Or are you the creative who can only do twenty minutes of hard work to prevent a cute puppy being hurt?