My week inside an RPG: Are new “real-life game” apps an organisation revolution?

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Realistically represent yourself with a HabitRPG sprite

THERE’S something to be said about the appeal of undertaking tasks in an RPG. Take Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for instance. I don’t know how many hours I’ve put into catching fish and picking fruit to fund the construction of my adorable little town and quite frankly, I don’t want to know. There’s just something so appealing about doing menial and monotonous tasks to achieve something larger, be it leveling up or a building a clock tower.

We all know that the embarrassing amount of time spent upgrading weapons and building Kawaiiville could be spent improving our own, real lives, but where’s the appeal when you can’t see that on-screen level-up bar inching towards your next target? Of course, the way things work in RPGs and real life aren’t completely dissimilar; we do many relatively small tasks, like essays or shifts at work to push towards a bigger goal, like that fabled promotion or a degree. The main difference is, however, is that gratification is far less instant. Often, you only reap the benefits weeks, even months after doing the task. If you can’t see your ‘life progress’ manifest itself into instant skill points to show you how great you’re doing, it can sometimes be hard to drum up the required enthusiasm. Often – and this is going to sound like the saddest thing ever – life lacks the purpose of the games we’re so obsessed with.

A friend of mine showers me Epic Win, an iPhone app that aims to boost productivity by making your boring to-do list more like an RPG, complete with a ‘quest and reward system’ and  awesome graphics that add that much needed epicness to studying, laundry and doctor appointments. Your daily tasks become ‘quests’ and can be arranged into either of four categories, for which you can gain experience points. These are strength, stamina, intellect, social and spirit. If you go to the gym, for example, this will improve not only your real-life strength, but your ‘strength’ level in the app. Like a real game, you can level yourself up and become the hero of your own life you’ve always dreamed of being. I was really excited – finally, a way to reconcile my love for gaming and need to get things done… and then I found out it’s iPhone exclusive.

But fear not. I grabbed my sword (or Google) and tracked down the graphically appealing, but similar in principle, HabitRPG, which is available as both an Android app and online game. It’s also free. Like Epic Win, players input their to-do lists as different kinds of tasks and gain ‘gold’ when they  are completed, which you can use to buy real-life rewards such as allowing yourself a slice of cake or going out with your friends. You also gain experience points from doing tasks, so you can level yourself up. An item on your to-do list can be put in as a ‘Daily Task’, which is something that needs to be done on a schedule, and if you miss it you lose health. A task can also be a one-off, like doing your washing, or a ‘Habit’ which isn’t essential, but good to do –  like cooking a meal from scratch. The game reminds me of the sticker chart I had as a child, where a sticker would be added for each instance of good behaviour. If I got enough stickers I would get a present of my choice. I wanted a sparkly princess dress from Mother Care. I never got it.

After using the game for a few days I decided to run an experiment: for one week I would follow its rules to the letter. I already have a diary, where I write a ‘to do’ list for each day, but with HabitRPG a strict reward system would be implemented. Completed tasks were rewarded with ‘gold’, and if I didn’t have enough gold I wouldn’t be able to do the fun things I wanted to. First, I had to set the rules, and this included the difficulty level of my tasks. One hour of work would earn me one piece of gold, and one piece of gold equates to half an hour of fun. I’m  not sure if this is generous or stingy for a third year with final project deadlines coming up. I had four hours uni-related tasks to do each day, and then added extras for any other errands I had to run.

Day 1: The day didn’t start well, and I discovered that a messed-up sleeping pattern isn’t good for this sort of thing. I overslept and missed football training (this wasn’t a ‘Daily Task’ so I don’t think I lose points). I woke up mid-afternoon, suddenly realised I’d agreed to be a participant in someone’s dissertation research so ran up the hill. Earned one gold. By the time I had left it was 5pm- I still had four hours of work to fit in, especially as I was meeting friends at 9.30! This is definitely the kind of game that requires you to stick to some kind of schedule, and not oversleep otherwise you find yourself short on time to complete the tasks. At the end of the day, after being up for a grand total of seven hours I found myself too tired to go out anyway. I spent my reward points on four episodes of Sex and the City instead. There’s nothing quite like the student life.

Day 2: Today I found out how much following rules like these sucks the spontaneity and fun out of life. I woke up at midday to a text from a friend asking if I wanted to go for a walk up Constitution Hill. I hadn’t any gold so I text back saying I would in a couple of hours after I had scraped together enough gold. When I had enough the temperature outside had dropped so we didn’t go. How depressing.

Day 3: I met a friend for a drink , and this ended up going an hour over what reward points I had gathered. Oops. I also spent so much time giving my tasks an equal amount of attention that I didn’t have time to finish my seminar work for the next day.

Day 4: I had a busy day with seminars, talks and meetings  and ended up being too tired to complete the rest of my hours at the end of it. Oh well.

Day 5: I completed all tasks and saved up a lot of gold to go to a social – shame I was ill.

Day 6: I was going to do football tournament and gain gold for that, but it was cancelled so I went knitting club instead. This caused me to consider what counts as ‘work’, what counts as ‘social’ and how to distribute points when they coincide. Despite being a social club I decided that knitting counts as ‘work’ because it’s skill building. I got more gold for that, which I spent on more TV.

Day 7: After a week spent partially bending the rules of the game, I put a special effort into making sure I did today right and completed all tasks.

Needless to say, after running the experiment I went back to my good old fashioned paper diary. It’s not that these games aren’t a great idea, but a week of strictly following the rules was enough to make me go off it completely. If I was a video game character, I’d probably be the glitch one no-one picks- it was just so hard to keep to such strict rules. I know that ultimately, I failed, but to turn it round in my favour I learned that a work and reward system allows you to maintain a balance of work and relaxation, which is especially helpful when deadlines are drawing near and you find yourself spending too much time in front of the TV. On the other hand, following the rules strictly as  I (almost) did is incredibly restricting. There’s nothing wrong with having fun and THEN complete your tasks. After all, as this is a techy arcticle I should point out we are Generation Y (for YOLO-groan – but as hideous as that saying is, the principle is a good one). There’s nothing wrong with reversing the order of the task-reward system.

If you feel inspired to turn your life into a video game and improve your organisation head to www.habitrpg.com