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The Game of Life

Seriously, It's Just a Game!



Peyton Manning once said, "If I've gotta throw a football and get hit by 400-pound guys for the next 10 years, I might as well make a game out of it." Ok, he didn't really say that, but I wish he would have.


More importantly, the sentiment of that fake quote is spot on: If you have to do something, why  not be playful about it? Games get stigmatized for being a waste of time but research is telling us now we had it all wrong. While even purely recreational games like monopoly or Nintendo have value such as social bonding and honing problem-solving skills, when we  go a step further and apply games to real life, everything changes for the better.


Games are not a waste of time. You don't have to choose between pleasure and productivity.

Did you learn at a young age that you're either having fun OR you're doing something worthwhile? If so, I'm not so sorry to tell you that is a myth. Ok, yes, there are plenty of things we have to do that aren't naturally very pleasant, BUT very often it is possible to make even things we've come to find painful into a game. We'll dig into that more below, but for now keep in mind that  even recreational games are being discovered to have a host of beneficial properties. In her profound TED talk, game designer Jane McGonigal tells us that the top five regrets of dying people in hospice care are as follows:


  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Now these are interesting because, as McGonigal points out, games naturally remedy each item, like this:


I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

McGonigal admits that this is not delivered directly through any game, BUT I'll read between the lines of her extensive work and say this: the combined effects of a variety of games, both recreational and targeted for personal improvement, can and do allow many people to be much closer to the self they really desire. Guess what? You can be one of them, all ya gotta do is play!

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

  2. This takes little explanation, because when you play a game you're PLAYING, as in not working. This doesn't mean you aren't getting a lot done-- you may be-- but by playing you are relieving the burden of work. Sadly, our culture is obsessed with work and likes to judge a person's worth by how much they work, but the truth is nobody gets to the end of their life and wishes they had worked more.

  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

  4. Common in gaming is the opportunity to create an avatar-- a representative character with heroic traits of our choosing. Avatars allow a person to freely explore their self-image in ways that might be difficult or uncomfortable in real-life, and research has shown that assuming a game avatar actually improves self-esteem and self-image in real life. So creating an ideal version of yourself in a game blends into daily life.

  5. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.The abundance of online games has allowed people to stay in touch with friends in an interactive way, be it through Facebook games, video games, or app games like Words With Friends. And let's not forget the old fashioned board game.

  6. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

  7. Whether it's the thrill of a challenge, the joy of sharing time with loved ones, or the benefits reaped from physical and mental growth, games definitely make us happier. In fact, games are now being used in clinical settings to reduce depression, anxiety, and other unhappy maladies. 

Playing games means changing frames.

The same goal can be pursued by an iron will and rugged determination in the face of mental resistance, or you can make it a game instead. When you learn to gamify your life, you begin to shift the very frame through which you experience everything. Think of a food you really hate. Can you think of someone who loves that same food? Of course you can, because it's not the food that matters, it's our perceptions of it. How you and the other person experience the same food is totally alternate, allowing one of you to get pleasure from the experience. Gamifying life is very similar-- we change how we experience and perceive daily tasks, both big and small, and by doing so change how they affect us emotionally, mentally, and physically.


What if improving your relationship with your partner wasn't a stressful obligation but a game, based on earning points for each time you say or do something nice for them? And what if losing weight wasn't a fight against food but a quest towards the next level, in which you battle "bad guys," get help from "allies," and boost your character's powers along the way? Sounds better, doesn't it?


The Rules:

Here's a model based on McGonigal's work that you can apply to anything to make it easier and maybe even fun:

  1. Create an avatar: Do you have a character or "avatar" who's going to be playing for you in the game? If not, this is a fun way to explore your ideal self-image and practice living it out loud. To make your avatar, just consider what qualities do you admire or would be useful in your quest? You can use superheroes, real heroes, or anyone as a model or make it up from scratch. write it down and of course, give your avatar a name. Looking to get a promotion? How about you play as "The Corporate Conquerer."

  2. Choose an epic win: Your epic win is the bigger goal you're driving toward. It's the point at which you can say, "wow, I accomplished something big here." After choosing it, write down why you want to get it and how it will make your life better, and of course, how you'll reward yourself for it. The next step is setting smaller quests to get you there.

  3. Choose a quest: Quests are smaller goals that can either lead towards your epic win or be free-standing goals. If your epic win is to "find a romantic partner within 6 months," a quest for this might be "attend a social event weekly." You could also have free-standing quests like, "meditate for 15 minutes, 5 times a week." It's important to have a place to track all of this. Write down your quests and mark each time you complete one. You can play around with setting up a reward system for completing X number of quests too.

Bad guys, power-ups, and allies: Bad guys are the people, places, thoughts, and things you need to avoid in order to achieve your epic win and quests. Identifying what's likely to hinder your progress ahead of time is proven to create better results, and like quests, mark each time you fight a bad guy and whether you won or not. Tracking progress is critical!

Power-ups are little boosts you can use anytime to help keep you moving forward. They can be taking a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, taking a nap, a mini-meditation, writing in your journal, watching a funny or inspirational video clip, etc. These are all things proven to boost mood and energy and simple to do. What are you power ups?

Allies are the people who can help us achieve our quests. Identifying who is a good influence and motivational will make your journey so much easier. Just because it's your quest doesn't mean you have to do it alone. Once you've identified allies, I strongly encourage you to ask them to be a part of your game. Having them know your quest makes it that much easier for them to support you along the way.


The Bottom Line.

Gamifying life builds our creativity and opens up our perspective on everything for the better. One man's pain is another man's Parcheesi. One woman's stress-reduction is another woman's Super Mario Brothers. The point is this: the more you practice making games out of the never-ending tasks of life, the more you'll stop experiencing them as burdens to be tolerated. Don't be afraid of having fun, because I am very confident that one day long from now when you're on your deathbed, you will not say regretfully, "I wish I'd had less fun." 

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