Life is a Game, So Play

Admit it –– at some point in your life you have dedicated hours at a time to a game. Whether it was a video game in your childhood, FarmVille while you’re at work or even that four hour Monopoly game, playing games has a way of captivating our attention in a way that the other […]

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Admit it –– at some point in your life you have dedicated hours at a time to a game. Whether it was a video game in your childhood, FarmVille while you’re at work or even that four hour Monopoly game, playing games has a way of captivating our attention in a way that the other more mundane activities in life can’t replicate. Or so you may think.

In today’s world that is hyper-focused on productivity exacerbated by the technological advancements we have seen since the beginning of the millennium, it can be easy to think there is simply no time to play in adulthood. Our exhaustion and burnout leads us to relegate any leisure time to activities that allow us to tune the world out rather than engage in it, scrolling our phones or watching mindless television.

The importance of play is something that has been studied at length in children. It is how they learn, and through it they are able to develop both physically and emotionally and better process the world around them. In infancy, sensory play allows them to take advantage of the overabundance of synapses available to them that allow large amounts of information to be captured. An analysis of 46 studies done on play found that playing could enhance a child’s cognitive, linguistics and social development. Play even helps children develop the ability to solve problems, providing them with a safe opportunity to rehearse skills and future social roles through acting out life’s problems in their pretend worlds.

As we get older, fears of making mistakes, self-consciousness, and comparing oneself to others are all reasons that we move away from playing. However, researchers in recent years have begun to wonder: if play is so beneficial to us in our younger years, why would it not continue to be so as we age? They have found that in fact, play can be just as essential in adult lives as it is for kids. As in our childhood, in adulthood play still has the ability to release endorphins, improve brain functionality and stimulate creativity. Studies on adults have shown that in addition to keeping us feeling young and energetic, play improves memory and stimulates growth of the cerebral cortex, and has even been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.

While video games have often been positioned as the antithesis to productivity for both children and adults, more contemporary views on them are much more complex. In fact, in the most recent years the concept of gamification has completely changed the way we as adults see both work and play.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is essentially a motivation tool which involves turning any given task in your life into a game. You have probably already used this technique at some point in your life, perhaps challenging yourself to complete your chores in 20 minutes or seeing if you can study for 30 minutes without looking at the clock. Through gamifying your life, everything from the difficult to the mundane can be offset by the reward you create for completing it. While it may seem contrived at first, gamification works because it has the ability to trigger powerful feelings of motivation and success within us. Just think about how good it feels to complete a level in a video game, or even just to win at Jenga. Those small incremental rewards give you a constant feeling of gratification and enjoyment as our brain releases dopamine, the pleasure-producing chemical. Think of the old image of a man steering a coach with a carrot hanging from a string in front of him, encouraging the horse forward with the promise of reward at the end –– creating these “carrots” for yourself in everyday life can help you remain motivated and focused through some of life’s more difficult paths.

This motivational technique is increasingly being encouraged to help people stay on task and achieve their goals, both within and outside of the workplace. By providing yourself a reward or incentive for things that do not naturally have tangible ones, gamification mimics how you might interact with a computer or online game.

Playing the game of life

So how does one begin introducing gamification into their life? There are many simple ways to gamify your life and work to build your motivation and the elusive productivity, and although gamification often uses video game analogies, many of them are surprisingly low-tech. First things first though, you must figure out what you want to “win,” i.e. defining your goals. By creating a specific list of what you want to accomplish, you give yourself a clear path to achieving your goals and a definitive end point for each one. An easy example of this can be found in writing a book. With that set as “winning the game” you can then go through and break it down into smaller “missions” which would be completed on a daily or weekly basis. Points are won for completing each of the tasks –– writing 1,000 words could earn you 20 points each day –– and remember to create rewards for reaching milestones in your points system such as treating yourself to your favorite meal or a massage.

The goals don’t have to be as large as writing a book by any means either. You can increase your productivity in everything from chores to daily work tasks by using gamification –– five points for every 30 minutes worked without looking at Facebook, or one point for every dish placed in the drying rack. You can also use measurements of time to challenge yourself, such as racing your previous time for folding the laundry. When you seek to compete with yourself, you can introduce this form of play into practically every aspect of your life. Studies have even shown that something as simple as physically ticking items off of a to-do list can trigger your brain to release dopamine, and by giving yourself a small reward for doing so you reinforce that behavior and encourage it to continue.

If you are a leader, consider introducing gamification within your workplace. Research shows that 92 percent of business executives believe that engaged employees perform better, boosting the success of their teams and the outcomes of their organizations. However, only 15 percent of employees worldwide and 35 percent in the United States fall in the “engaged category.” Gamification has the ability to boost employee engagement, motivating them in their work and encouraging them to invest in the organization. While work and fun are hardly used at the same time, by introducing gamification you can make difficult tasks feel easier to complete. For example, setting financial goals for a team and rewarding them with vacation time or bonuses when they achieve them is a great way to simultaneously encourage both productivity and teamwork.

As we get older, we stop playing. We let the narrative of the world tell us that adulthood is serious business and requires a serious approach. However, just as playing in our leisure-time can help us relax and gain more stimulation than more numbing activities, introducing play through gamification can help us achieve everything from daily tasks to long-term goals, and have fun while doing it.

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