Writing as MMORPG: Building Your Writing Addiction

World of Warcraft

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.

Rinse, Repeat

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.

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Momentum and the War of Art

Photo by campofchampions on Flickr.

Today, I want to talk about momentum.

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed the three-week silence. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say — I just couldn’t seem to get around to saying it, and the longer I waited, the more difficult it became.

In short, there’s a reason nearly everyone who gives writing advice tells you to write every day:


Yes, you will improve the more you write. You’ll refine your craft. You’ll generate words, complete stories, put in the time necessary to attain mastery. But the words you write are also the fuel for more words. Every day you write makes the act of writing a little easier  — and, conversely, every day you don’t write makes it a little harder.

Human beings (and writers especially) seem particularly gifted at avoiding things we want. We’ll do anything to keep from doing things we ostensibly love, if they’re scary and intimidating and carry the possibility for big changes in life — as writing often does, at least for many writers I know. The ones who don’t have this issue are most often referred to (with suspicion and resentment) as “professionals.”

In his book The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield calls this avoidant tendency “Resistance,” and names it the deadliest threat to creativity in existence. It can take any number of forms — procrastination, distractions, self-loathing, and good old-fashioned surrender. Any of this sound familiar?

For me, the primary weapon in battling Resistance is momentum. The more I write, the better I feel — and the more alienated and lost I feel when I neglect my craft. If I’m a machine, then the gears that make my writing work begin to rust the moment they stop grinding. (Speaking of grinding, there’s probably some very dirty double entendre about lubricant to make in here somewhere, but I don’t know what it is because I’m just a bit too out of practice. You see what I mean?)

Tangentially, this is why I’m so fond of the Write or Die application. WoD forces momentum on the writer, punishing procrastination with a red screen and ear-splitting noise. It creates a Pavlovian response to just keep writing, instead of agonizing over word choice. Which is another piece of advice writers love to dole out, but hey, why cultivate self-discipline when you can just get a machine to harangue you, am I right? This is the information age, we’re not barbarians.

Of course, you don’t need Write or Die. The basic functionality can be duplicated with a simple alarm clock or timer, or even something like the Pomodoro Technique. I just happen to like Write or Die because it’s integrated. The point is, the application creates a microcosm of momentum, forcing the writer forward.

But the responsibility is still on the writer to boot up their text editor or word processor every day and just do the work. Despite best efforts to the contrary, it doesn’t get any easier the longer you wait. I’ve tried it hundreds of times.

Unwritten words tend to take on Herculean proportions the longer they’re left unattended. Soon even a meager piece of flash fiction seems too intimidating and grotesque to contemplate, and it’s easier just to put things off until tomorrow — and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

The solution is momentum. You can make it work for you, or you can sit back and let it work against you. The choice is yours.