Hacking Life: Gamification

Recently, Pokemon Go was credited with causing a significant increase in physical activity. Frequent flyer programs such as Air Miles and Aeroplan have taken off (pun intended) due to the fact that they promote increased spending. Pain Squad is an app developed by a Toronto hospital to track pain in cancer patients. So what is gamification, and why am I writing about it on a mental health blog? I’ll answer the first part first; gamification is essentially using some sort of reward (points, badges, etc) to promote a particular behaviour. Example: When you hit 10 000 steps on your fitbit, you get a badge. Theoretically, that should motivate people to hit that many steps again to receive the badge, regardless of if it means anything or not.

Why am I writing about it? Well, we’ve already seen people gamify dealing with depression or other mental illnesses to get through the day. I did the same thing (see: One Fun Thing). Gamification allows little rewards for doing something unpleasant, and it’s built upon the fundamental psychology theory of positive reinforcement. In simpler words, do something good and you’ll get something good in return. Now, most of the ways dealing with depression is gamified is on a micro level. Got out of bed? 10 points. Took a shower? 20 points. But these points don’t really mean anything, and I got bored of them quickly.

I needed something more. Those little points or rewards don’t make the intrusive thoughts or suicidal tendencies go away. They don’t make me believe life isn’t futile or negate many of the warped ideas depression puts in my head disappear.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with my mental health, and have been questioning a lot about my life. I thought that it was something that would go away if I had the right job, a good apartment, or money. Obviously, that isn’t the case. I started to wonder why I got through those slumps before and I realized something: I was gamifying life. I kept pushing and pushing, because I wanted to reach the next level, and ending the game wasn’t going to allow me to do that.

What if we didn’t just gamify life on a micro level? What if we did it on a much bigger scale? Up until now, my entire life has been a game of levels I needed to pass. Level 1: Learn to walk and talk. Level 2: Go to kindergarten. Level 3: Graduate from school. Level 4: Get a degree. Level 5: Get a career.

These levels always gave me a goal to work towards. They were a sign of something not being permanent, because you finished the task and then moved onto the next. It’s something to keep working at to make it to the next stage, and it means that if a part of life is really hard (ie, this particular level), it won’t last forever because eventually you’ll get to the next level. And if I followed that mentality, it gave me hope that things would get better, that something else was out there after this and the struggle would be worth it for the reward.

So what happens now? I passed those levels. I have a career, and the permanence that comes with that is terrifying. Even for someone like me who loves stability and security, I find myself asking, what’s the next level? When is the next reward? Or is this it?

I don’t know what the next level is, and that scares me and makes me feel more vulnerable, but maybe now it means I determine what my next goal is instead of it being set out for me by society. I naively believed that if I got to the next level, my mental health wouldn’t be a concern; if I beat the level fast enough, and racked up enough “rewards” (money, friends, material things), I would be immune to the mental health struggles I face. That’s not how the game works, though. And depression makes the game a lot harder. It feels like everyone else keeps winning power ups and you keep failing challenges. Depression tells you you’re bad at the game, and pathetic for continuously trying to win a game you’ll never stand a chance at. It tells you that even if you did get power ups or rewards it wouldn’t matter because you’d never win.

But if you quit the game, you’ll never know how awesome the next level is, and you’ll never be able to enjoy the level you’re playing. So keep playing the game. Even if it isn’t fun right now, or this level is really really hard, keep playing.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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