Gamification and Quantification

Ed Zitron 4 min read

My day was made yesterday when a client said that they not only loved my posts about barbecue, but had also used my recipes to make great food. What made this even more complementary was that this was a Texan, in Texas, making barbecue in Texas, that recognized and respected my barbecue, which is the highest compliment I think you can get in cooking.

It got me thinking about how I basically went from not really cooking (I could make baked Ziti, and I could do some sous vide stuff) in August to today, when I can comfortably cook for 25 people (I have not needed to, but nevertheless) and make food that people of the actual area that make the food regularly respect. It’s crazy, and also makes me consider (and reconsider) the things that I’ve sworn I could not do in my life, or have managed to start doing in my life, as a result of being able to quantify/gamify it as something that was a series of blocks to work through and tasks to complete.

I am always hesitant with saying things are “gamified,” because I feel like the term is used to give credit to things that lazily engage with gaming concepts. But there is definitely some part of my brain that entirely works based on being given tasks to complete - tell me what I have to do to do the thing, put the tasks up in front of me one after another, and I will usually be able to do them.

Peloton is the obvious one that comes to mind - three years ago (or any time before that) it would be unthinkable that I’d engage in any kind of meaningful cardiovascular exercise, mostly because I found running painful and boring (I still do) and couldn’t ride a bike thanks to my wonderful physical disability. Peloton didn’t even necessarily engage me because of gamification (despite what my editor at Vice named my article), but because I could do something for X time and get Y out of it - number goes up on chart, I can see I worked hard because of other number (and how I felt) and I went Z miles, which makes me feel like I accomplished something. Sure, the (extremely lazy) gamified elements of badges for 50 to 150 miles in a month are interesting and something I naturally get, but what got me was simply doing more miles, and getting a bigger number. Not competing with others, though, because Peloton is so full of cheats that it’s pointless.

Smoking is one that’s appealed to me because obviously you get a tasty meal at the end, but it’s also so good without needing to necessarily have any technique. The technique mostly connects to following instructions, having patience and watching temperature - when a number hits, you do a thing, if a number doesn’t hit, you don’t do a thing. It’s inputs with a delicious output, something I can follow and understand, and yes, as I’ve put more time into it I’ve been able to adapt in certain ways (mostly through trial and error) but mostly stuck to the recipes and following them. Perhaps it’s that my brain works through the reassurance of causation - that if I do something a certain way it’ll reliably turn out that way versus the freeform jazz of people’s cooking where they eyeball stuff.

Lifting is one that sort of worked for a while - I was an original user of Fitocracy, and I for a while had a great streak of lifting which ended with an ankle injury, then another great streak a few months ago that got ended by the workout getting stale and, sadly, COVID-19. I’m really excited for my Tonal in about a month and a half because my classic failure with lifting was not feeling like I was getting stronger, as well as not knowing what to do next, which Tonal automates and reports on. I also hate the fiddling with weight plates, but that’s a personal thing. I need guidance - if I have guidance and access, an input that creates an output, I’ll regularly do something if all I have to do is show up and do something a certain amount of times. Hell, the whole reason I’ve been able to write regularly is that I have a calendar invite at 9am every day that says “write?”

I guess that’s literally a description of quest trees from games, and doesn’t necessarily help when there isn’t a linear endpoint. I’ve failed most of my life to learn piano - literally four different times, the most recent 4 years ago using Playground (a system that may as well just be a classical pianist saying “again”) - partly because I can’t quite get musical theory, and without that theory it’s hard to get better at playing because it’s not obvious what to play next (I won’t even go into guitar).

I’ve ordered Lumi Keys specifically because it can teach music theory, but also seems to have a guitar hero style mode where it lights up the keys to play on the keyboard. My key breaking point with playing any musical instrument (and why I enjoy and I’ve stayed relatively good at singing) is being able to assign a sound to an action and being able to replicate it without prompting. I was pretty good at Rock Band/Guitar Hero, and I think that if I can connect sound to action in my brain, I can actually play piano, something I’ve always dreamed of doing (who cares if that’s weird).

I have always had issues with learning in general thanks to ADHD/dyspraxia, and thus I mostly spend my day convincing myself to do stuff, because once I actually start I finish it pretty quickly. I’m fully aware that I put off things because they seem difficult, or because the outcome may not be positive, but if I know what I’m doing I’ll do it, and then sit there being upset that I don’t know what to do next.

Either way, it’s interesting seeing how the formalization of learning things and doing things is/will be changed by apps, tech, and all of the weird growth hacking mechanisms people have used to get people to buy more shit. And I love it! I love being guided, I love to see my progress in data, I love to look at numbers go up (or down!) based on my actions. It’s what gets me going! And I am excited that more things are like this.

I think the traditional models of learning make sense when it comes to the classic things you learn at school, but I do wonder how I’d have done if I had some bullshit block-based experience-providing achievement-having thing to follow.

We’ll see how Tonal (and Lumi) go! They’re both coming in February, and I do love having big lists of tasks that, if I complete them, I become better at something. Maybe it’ll work? Maybe I can become a piano man? Is that what’s in store for me? Maybe.

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