Back in 2009 I gave a talk in Fort Collins called Choose Your Own Adventure in Real Life. I didn't use the term gamification, which has since become a mainstream concept.

Wikipedia defines gamification as:

the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. Gamification commonly employs game design elements which are used in non-game contexts to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, flow, learning, crowdsourcing, employee recruitment and evaluation, ease of use, usefulness of systems, physical exercise, traffic violations, voter apathy, and more. A collection of research on gamification shows that a majority of studies on gamification find it has positive effects on individuals. Gamification can also improve an individual's ability to comprehend digital content and understand a certain area of study.

As I think about the most exciting periods of my life, I see distinct elements of gamificaiton.

Unless you gamify it, there's no way to win.

It begins with a challenge (a prime objective). A call to action. A declaration. We begin the journey and engage in the act towards realization the goal. The goal of the game is to achieve the objective. Along they way we measure our progress, and it becomes part of our identity. Upon achievement of the goal (and because the pursuit of it is known by others), we gain recognition. The entire experience is met with positive emotion.

What makes the game worth playing is the prime objective or mission. It's why those who have clarity in a meaningful prime objective live full lives.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ____ (mine is to positively impact the lives of 1 million people in a significant way).

We exist to play, and it's no wonder we feel more alive when we are playing.

The milestones in our life are tied to major accomplishments which begin with a call to action. Examples:

Any objective that challenges us can be seen through the lens of gamification. Anytime we overcome obstacles, become more capable of as a result, and exceed our prior ability to do do more than we are capable of... these are all times the concept of gamification was in play. At it's most fundamental roots, it involve 3 phases:

  1. A Call to Action (the spark is lit)
  2. Engagement (the flame is stoked)
  3. Acknowledgement of progress and completion (the fire burns out or the torch is passed)

We set the goal, obtain milestones, and eventually reach our aspirations.

This is the source of motivation. Without a prime objective (the call to action), no matter what we are engaged in, it's hardly an exciting time in our life.

Excitement comes from challenge. Boredom from a lack of challenge. No challenge, no engagement. Depression sets in when we are no longer acknowledging progress or achievement towards a worthwhile goal.

For a time, I lived day-by-day, accepting all that would show up. But I found the result is mediocracy, complacency, and little variation day-to-day.

In fact, I have found that when a challenge doesn't exist, I'll create one. I know I'm not alone.

I suspect the struggle of transitioning to retirement is largely due to not having a clear objective. What's the intended outcome of retirement - death?

When the objective is to simply live.

Wake UP!


When I was younger, I used to compete in triathlons several times a year. It was all about hitting new PRs (Personal Records), which is beating my best time. My main competitor was myself. I was not a podium finisher and primary just wanted finish in the top 50%. The pinnacle of my racing era (the final 'boss' level) was to complete a full Ironman distance: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run. I had already completed plenty of half-ironman distance races, and was able to complete the challenge in under 15 hours. But in the process of training for that fateful race, I damaged my back, to the extent I am unable to run without back pain even today, more than 15 years later. After I completed the 2002, my interest in triathlons began to wane - in a large part due to my wife's unwillingness to put up with the hours of training required (amplified by the fact one of the athletes died in the Ironman I did). It may be realize that being an Ironman was a selfish endeavor.

I had the illusion that after that accomplishment, I'd be able to accomplish anything - including earning a million dollars.

This planted the seed that turned me in to a disgruntled employee. I didn't want anyone to be able to put limits on what I could earn. Besides, how many millionaires do you know who are employees? (quite a few, actually.). How many wanna be entrepreneurs jump ship only to find their friends who stuck around millionaires a few years later?

For 5 years following, I struggled to find a remedy for my chronic back pain. In 2007 I discovered Yoga. Within a year of doing a 1x/week yoga practice, I awoke one day to discover my back pain was finally gone. But was is just the Yoga, or was it because stress had finally let up?

7 years later, I would be self-employed.

After a few tough years getting a start, I managed to build a six figure business. In large part due to a one-sided partnership with Amazon.

This made years 2-5 of my business extremely good. In year five however, I was no longer getting referred leads from Amazon and within 6 months, my income had dropped by 50%. It first required my wife to go back to work, and now I'm facing the likely prospect as well.

Fast forward 10 years, and my chronic back pain is back. It seems to correlate directly with higher stress.

If this life were a game, I would be back to the level I started at. Do I have it in me to conquer the obstacles ahead?

Gamification in Action

Write or Die is a gamification of writing.

Yousician is a gamificaion of practicing an instrument.

Susan, who is in my critique group just gamified our writiki and she didn't even know it. She gave us 2 hours to write. A reward would go to either the most words written or the least words written. Our numbers are reported, then she flips a coin to determine with the highest or lowest word count wins.

At my yoga studio, once a year, Steph throws up a chart for the 30 day challenge. It's a competition to see who goes to the most classes in a single month. Prizes go to the winners.

Gamification is an effective way to increase utilization. A well structured contest brings the benefits of gamification to a business. The consultant can earn a company many times his fee by the results of a well architected game.

Fellow authors, How can you engage your readers through adding gamification to your book!


The simple definition of gamification:

The process of adding game elements to activities to make them more fun and appealing. As such, utilization and engagement with the 'players' goes up.

Why gamification?

Psychological motivation. I need it, others need it. As an educator and a coach, I seek ways to get people to take action (including myself).

The key is picking a 'goal' for each game (or program).

Experience Points (XP)

A key to achieving big goals is to break them into smaller ones. Gamification is the process of breaking the goal into multiple levels that you progress through. Each level you complete gains you more XP. Each time you level up, your character grows stronger, but the game gets harder.

Rewarding effort

Instead of punishment for failure, games reward trying. You are encouraged to try new ideas until you succeed.


Immediate feedback following a decision accellerates learning.

Unexpected Rewards

Providing players with rewards keeps them engaged.(Think about how Kiki put goodie bags under our pillow at the reatreati).


When dopamine levels are peaking, we are able to learn best. This is why we can learn far more from a teacher who engineers dopamine in his students than one who does not.

Multiplayer ModePlaying with others. Whether as opponents or partners, other people make the game unpredictable, and thus more fun! We get bored with predictability.

Processing Power

Gameplay has been shown to increase the gray matter of gamers. The more gray matter we have, the more information we can process. As such, the most brillant minds are also gamers.

Gamification examples at Duolingo: experience bars and reward points. Also check out lumosity (vital fuel for the brain).

Check out: 'Quest to Learn' in NYC. They are using gamification in education. Even report cards reflect level ups. One of the biggest gamification applicatin is Virtual Battlespace 2 which the US Army uses to recruit.

It's very much a simulation of what may happen in real life that the FBI and police also use to teach players how to deal with dangers like hackers and prison riots. If you've experience it before, you'll be better prepared for when it happens in real life.

Story telling

Games designed well include a narrative (the form of a story) and a plot (events that unfold). Many games adapt the heros journey. Check out The Legend of Zelda. Also check out Minecraft: Story Mode. Why story tell? It is an effective way to convey ideas to the reader (or in this case, the player).


Each level has a countdown. You have 1 hour to complete the level. If you complete the challenge, you move on to level 2. If you don't, you repeat the level until you do.

Dream job? Gamifaction Architect at Amazon. I design gamificaton experiments to keep employees engaged, having fun, and help the company gain more value from each employee who plays the games I design!

Bibliography (further reading)