The Epic Life Manifesto

Welcome, friend. 

I don't know much about you: what your life is like, how into personal development you are, or how familiar you are with the terms "lifehacking" and "gamification".

Chances are, you'll leave this site in a few minutes and never come back. That is totally fine. Or maybe you'll stay with me, and even drop by again in the future, which would make me very happy.

Regardless, the last thing I want to do is scare you away or piss you off. But there is no other way I can put this. I'm sorry...

Your life is a poorly designed game, and you suck at it.


Okay. Maybe in your case it's not that bad, and maybe you're actually quite good at playing the game of life. Maybe only the former statement is true and the latter is not. In that case, I congratulate you, because I sure suck at my life sometimes. And it's okay to suck at life. That's how we all start out. Then we get better.

But don't you agree that, at some point in our lives, we start getting a little too comfortable. We think to ourselves: "I've made it this far. I'm doing just fine. I'm gonna chill for a while."

Then we get lazy about bettering ourselves. We focus on doing what we must, on covering our asses, on getting by. Sometimes, we get by very well. Other times, we struggle. We think about all the things that would be neat to do, be or have. We think about our latent potential, "I know I could do this if I just went for it", and somehow the mere thought of all that dormant awesomeness is enough to make us lean back and relax. Some day, we will do all those things. Travel. Become really good at poker. Acquire greek god-like fitness. Speak fluid Spanish. Or whatever.

We read books and blogs and magazines about our dreams, and write the occasional step-by-step plan for how to reach those goals. We might even climb a few steps on the ladder. Until it get's boring, we fail, or get stressed out and distracted.

One thing we do manage however is to top the leaderboard for that smartphone game. Or construct an exact replica of the Millenium Falcon in Minecraft. Or build ourselves a reputation in the MMORPG of our choice. Somehow, in these ventures, we have never-ending motivation, persistence and passion.

Champion in a virtual world. Painfully mediocre in the real one.



Why do we suck at life so much? Why does it feel more epic to accomplish things in games than in reality, despite of the very realness of reality? Why do we we prefer to level up our barbarian avatar's strength and stamina over the very real sensory experience of running fast or lifting heavy in real life? Shouldn't it be the other way around? And what would happen if we had that same drive in reality? 

Well, the thing about reality is that, despite all it's realness, it's poorly designed. It doesn't encourage forward motion very well. Even if we did manage to transfer our super competent game-selves to the real world, it would be like dropping a lit match into a pool of water. Pfffffff! The real world, in it's natural state, is non-deserving of your efforts. It's like a very pretty sandbox game with absolutely no direction or motive. So before you even think of trying to become epic in it, it needs a lot of tweaking. 

And whose responsibility is it to do that? Yours and no ones else's. Only you can design life the way you want it. Only you know what's required in order for you to feel motivated and do your best work. What you need are the tools and the instructions.

But don't worry. I'm here to help you. I'm in that very same situation myself, and I'd rather use my game design skills for this than for yet another game that will only steal away more of your precious real-life time. (Not saying that playing games is a waste of time. Far from it. But you should be mindful of what games you spend your time on.)

So, what do we do now?

Step 1: Design a better game (life)

Step 2: Become better at playing (living) it


That's what it's all about, this blog you're reading. It's about taking control of your life, by designing it more like a game. And then, to play that game, get better at it, and win. Excuse me, what did you say?

"I don't need/want my life to be a game"


Oh, but it already is. In one way or the other. It's just that we play different games. Which one of these most resembles your life?

  • The open-world game. You go to work when you should, take occasional vacations and spend your free time reading or hanging out with friends. You're content with your life, and have no particular agenda or long-term plan.

  • The puzzle game. Every day in your life is a problem to solve, which you rarely succeed with, so you are always on the look-out for tricks and "hacks" to help you make ends meet. Sometimes, you like the challenge. Other times, you get stress-induced panic attacks.

  • The casual game. You sleep in late, hang out with some friends, maybe run some errands and tick a few items off your to-do-list before you spend the night in front of your computer or tv and fall asleep. You're either loving the chillax, or are frustrated with it but lack the energy to do something about it.

  • The First Person Shooter game. You run around, barely stopping to breathe, and fiercely compete against yourself and everyone else in whatever your pursuits are. You're having a great time, (although hopefully not shooting anyone). But when you fail or loose, you can't stop beating yourself up about it.

On top of this are the endless smaller games within our lives. The dating game, (it has a manual). The career game. The dieting game. The pick-the-right-queue-in-the-grocery-store game. I'm sure you can come up with more examples. And of course, these are extreme caricatures.

We need elements of all of these games in our lives. We need balance. But more than anything, we just need to be aware. That old cliché about getting older and wondering where our life went is probably a cliché for a reason.

My point is: If you're not happy with your life or with yourself, you have two options: continuing to be unhappy, or doing something about it. Continue playing your current game, or start a new game, maybe even with a new character.

So, suppose that you're fed up with the status quo and you're thinking about starting a "new" game. Where do you even begin?

Well, I'm not going to tell you the single best way to design your life. I have no idea what kind of gameplay appeals to you, or what types of challenges you prefer. It's impossible for me to design a one-size-fits-all solution. What I can do is show you how I have done it, and maybe it can give you some pointers and inspiration. In time, I will cover a lot of aspects and ideas about personal gamification and life-optimization in this blog, so consider this article a general guide.  

The basic components of a well-designed life:




Just like a game needs a system, so does your life. You probably have some fragments of it already: a calendar and a to-do app and the routines that go with them. An agreement for housework and chores with your room mate or family. A bonus- or promotion schedule at work. A loyalty system with your credit card provider or airline. And so on...

The problem with these fragments is that they are fragments. You have no overview or sense of progress. No bigger purpose or overall mission. You can't keep a whole system in your head, but you also cannot keep it in ten different apps. Therefore, you need to craft this system yourself, start testing it out, and tweak as you go.

The sketch above resembles a kind of basic RPG (role playing game) structure. I find it to be the most flexible and fun method of gamifying my own life. You might decide to use it as is, or pick parts of it to use in you own design.

The 3 most important things to remember:
  1. The first step towards control is to find your starting point
  2. What gets measured, gets improved
  3. Clear, visible feedback creates motivation
Let me elaborate a bit on that. Gaining control over your life means pinpointing where you are right now, in relation to your goal. This in turn enables the second principle of measuring your progress towards those goals. And these two elements together enable feedback: the display of your increasing awesomeness.

Common feedback elements in games are points, sound effects, colors, progress bars and maybe even the physical appearance of you avatar. All of these things indicate how you're doing in the game, and knowing that at all times is what motivates you to go further.

A lack of good feedback is probably the single biggest flaw of reality. We go to school for 9 or more years and study to the best of our abilities, but still have no clue what grades we're gonna get. We try to eat less and exercise more but see few, if any, results and have to rely on faith alone to keep going. We are encouraged to live eco-friendly, recycle our bottles and use less water, but in absolutely no way at all is it shown to us how our efforts make any difference.

I could go on and on about this, and I'm sure you get the point. Think of a goal you have right now that requires some kind of on-going effort on your side. How do you know you're on the right track? How can you see the impact your actions have on your progress? Or do you simply have to trust that "you're probably doing it right, and if you just keep at it, you'll probably start seeing some results sooner or later"?

Uh-uh. Not gonna cut it. If games worked that way, no one would be playing them. In a game, just one little feedback flaw, (like the game not indicating well whether or not you're taking damage from enemy fire), is enough to render it un-playable. That's how important feedback is, and that's why you need to make sure you have good feedback mechanisms in your life. 'Cause life won't hand them to you.

The way to manage feedback and progress is the same way a game manages them: with an engine and a rule system. In regular game development, this is complicated, techy stuff. But in the case of personal gamification, your engine is probably some kind of spread sheet document, and your rule system might be a text document or mind map.  

The rules


The role of the rule system is to simply state the rules of the game. If there are levels, how do you advance through them? If there are skills, how do you measure them? If there are power-ups, how do you unlock them? And so on, and so forth. The rules you write for your game also determine the difficulty of it, and designing a good difficulty ladder is no cake walk. You'll have to adjust as you go.

The engine


The engine is what keeps track of game data as you're playing. That's where you enter your results and see your progress. You might have decided that you get 20 points for each 30 minute workout. You enter those values into your "engine", and immediately you should be able to see the impact of those 30 minutes. The rule system and the engine are the broad strokes. If you look at the sketch again, you'll see 4 components:
  • the rule document
  • the character sheet
  • the quest log and
  • the skill tree

The rule document obviously holds the rule system. Think of it as a reference book, handy whenever you're having one of those schizophrenic arguments with yourself over how many points were really required to unlock the "Chocolate Frappuccino"-power-up.

The character sheet is where you state what kind of player you are. Steve Kamb at Nerd Fitness has an epic post on this from a fitness perspective. But this also includes your values in life and your general stats: charisma, wisdom, intelligence, stamina, strength, agility and willpower.

What's next is the quest log. This is where you declare all of the epic things you plan to undertake in your life, and cross them off as you go. Some people call them bucket lists. I find the geekier equivalent more appealing. Everyday, be questing.

And finally, the skill tree, holding all of your primary and secondary abilities that you wish to improve. It doesn't have to be in the form of a tree, but could just as well be a list. The perk with using the tree model is that some skills can branch out, giving you an attractive overview of what to level up next, and what to specialize in.

In conclusion, one could say that the rule system and character sheet are the more static parts of the system, and the quest log and skills tree the dynamic ones. Once you've outlined your rules and your character, that will stay more or less the same. But you might record in your quest log and skill tree daily. When first trying out your system, you will find that a lot of things don't work, and you will change your documents over and over.

Do not take personal blame for it. There is nothing wrong with you for not feeling like working out all the time, or working on your skills. It just means there are more effective designs to try. This is true for all self-improvement by the way. There are hundreds of productivity tricks, but not all of them will work on you. You might try 99 of them and fail.

Therefor: approach personal gamification with scientific curiosity and experiment your way toward the tricks that work for you.  

To be continued...

Keep in mind, I have only covered the very basics in this article. There is much more to be said about putting together a quest log, designing a skill tree and co-ordinating all of this into a workable system that keeps you motivated and leveling up your life. That's what the rest of this blog will be about.

What's in store are in-depth guides on how to design all parts of your gamified system, how to put it into practice and refine it, and how to level up your willpower, intelligence, charisma, et.c.

In other words, stay tuned. Until we meet again: go forth my friend, and may the force be with you.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! I have always been intrigued by the whole "gamification of life", but, other than a few halfhearted attempts, I have never really taken it further. Your article lays out the individual components extremely well - I finally feel as though I can design a system which works for me now.

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  2. I've recently become interested in the gamification of goals. Great post!

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