Back in 2010, Cracked published an article called 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. The article explored the science behind keeping people playing long past the point of their own best interest, and how games manipulate people into losing their hard-earned time and money to games.
Also in 2010, Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk about taking the reward strategies in games like World of Warcraft and using them to solve real-world problems.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, nothing yet, but give me a second.
Anyone who’s played World of Warcraft (or any other addictive game) knows how easy it is to lose hours to the game. You sit down to play for a little bit, and your goal of a few minutes of fun becomes the goal of one more level… or one more crafting recipe… or one more quest chain… until it’s one in the morning and you’re looking forward to the next workday with queasy horror.
The addictiveness of this experience is deliberately mechanized. The mechanics of World of Warcraft are designed to keep you playing through a series of small, incremental, easily achieved rewards that lead up to bigger incremental rewards. Getting a new level or achievement gives you a tiny rush of accomplishment, making you want to play more. There’s a huge and ever-expanding market of iPad games whose entire business model relies on exploiting the thirst for a reward and the impatience of the average gamer. Do you want this widget? Well, just click here and wait twelve hours. Or, if you just can’t wait, just pay 99 cents and you can have it now. That kind of thing.
So wait — what does this have to do with the writing process again?
Addictive behavior doesn’t always have to work against you. With some work, you can make it into another tool in your writing toolbox. You can gamify your own writing habits and build your writing addiction. Instead of losing productive hours to a distraction, you can create your own “writing Skinner box” and transform yourself into a veritable juggernaut of productivity. A very small, benevolent, desk-bound juggernaut.
Set Smart Goals
To build your writing addiction, the first thing you should do is break down your goals. Most writers I know tend to look at things in terms of big, daunting, sweeping achievements that must be met. They have to write 70,000 words, or cut 20,000 words, or edit 200 pages. Right now, today! These statements are usually accompanied by a groan of weariness or disgust. Some even say to themselves, “I’ll just play a few minutes of this game first,” and they’re off to the non-writing races. And no wonder. I’m exhausted just hearing about it.
Of course, there’s no way to avoid those big goals entirely, but you can (and should) break them down into smaller, more manageable units, rather than trying to body-check the whole world into the ropes like Atlas on roids.
Let’s go back to World of Warcraft for a second. In WoW, there’s always that one quest that you have to travel all over the map to complete. Collect one widget from here, another from there, and basically spend a ton of time waiting around while your character flies (or runs) from place to place. When players talk about these quests, it’s usually with venom and disdain. Almost no one likes them — and why would they?
Most quests, however, come in easy-to-swallow chunks, with a little reward at the end of each. You can approach your writing tasks in the same way. Instead of saying to yourself that you have to edit 200 pages, set a goal of editing 10 pages a day for 20 days. Collapsing those numbers down can make them seem not quite so daunting — and anyone who’s ever done Nanowrimo knows how fast 20 days can go by.
Applying this to your writing process is easy. You can use a method like the Pomodoro Technique to write in fifteen-minute units of time — or you can join #wordmongering on Twitter and kill a half-hour in friendly, competitive competition.
Give Yourself Tiny Rewards
Attach a small reward to each one of your goals. Write five hundred words, then go get a cup of coffee. Edit ten pages, then go take a walk. Cut five pages, then go play with your cat for twenty minutes. Edit forty pages and take the whole damn weekend off.
Whatever works. Just make the goals small and the rewards proportionate. Don’t set a goal of writing a blog post and reward yourself with two weeks of hard drinking and Simpsons reruns. The goal is to maintain forward momentum and prevent discouragement, not enable bad behavior — a principle that can be surprisingly difficult to keep in mind.
Run the Dailies
World of Warcraft also has “daily” quests, which are repeatable quests that give a set reward. The advantage to these is that they’re a known quantity. You know what the goal is, you know what the reward will be, and it will never change. You can redo the quests until you’re sick in the face, or until they no longer give any meaningful reward.
Again, you can make this work for you. Set yourself some daily, or even weekly goals, and do them no matter what. Make them small and achievable, and grant yourself a reward at the end. Again, keep both these things small and sustainable.
The whole point of this exercise is to maintain balance and build a habit, retraining your brain to look forward to your writing and not get stalled by the intimidating size of a task (and if you aren’t, why on earth did you read this far?) If you can do this for a few weeks, chances are you can do it forever.
Now go forth and level up.