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How Zombie Gunship Taught Me All I Need to Know To Make My Real Life Awesome (And So Can You!): Gamifying Real Life For Fun and Profit and (Almost) For Free Using the Awesome New Technique of Randomized Timeboxing

This entry is part 1 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

“In her study of slot machine gambling in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Schüll argues that Americans face too many choices…enough to give a sense of overload…To escape, gamblers flee to a machine zone where the goal is not to win but to be. Gambling addictions simply want to stay in the game, comfortable in a pattern where other things are shut out…From the earliest days, video game players were less invested in winning than in going to a new psychic place where things were always a bit different, but always the same.” [Emphasis Added] Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: Sherry Turkle

“The superstition that all our hours of work are a minus quantity in the happiness of life, and all the hours of idleness are plus ones, is a most ludicrous and pernicious doctrine, and its greatest support comes from our not taking sufficient trouble, not making a real effort, to make work as near pleasure as it can be.” [Emphasis Added] Arthur Balfour

“Excellence is the next five minutes…Forget the long term. Make the next five minutes rock!”
Tom Peters

“You can do so much in ten minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into ten-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.
Ingvar Kamprad, Founder of IKEA

Recently, there was an article on Gigazine (which, along with LabaQ, is my favorite Japanese news site, mostly because it’s not actually news, just cool tech stuff. Slashdot is a bit too paranoiac and ubergeek-hipster-pessimist in style for my tastes. Don’t me wrong, it’s filled with incredibly smart people from whom I would love to learn more, it’s just…there’s an aggressive undertone to it that I, in my emotional immaturity, am unequipped to handle) about some screw-up over at the Russian foreign ministry involving a video game screenshot being used instead of a real photo proving something to do with US military action in the Middle East blah blah nobody cares the point is

…I have many guilty pleasures 1. My life is positively filled with them. And one of those pleasures is Zombie Gunship. Fortunately, because I know a bit about structure and nature of addiction 2 my relationship with this game is healthily distant — I hadn’t played it in over a year, but the Russian screenshot had reminded me of it, so I fired it up and went to town.

And it hit me.

Wait, before we even get into that, let me say this. Although I do talk about war an awful lot, I am, in fact, a pacifist. Maybe I have that same problem that conservative, “family values” politicians and religious leaders have — talking too much about what you’re against instead of what you’re for (lol). Anyway, violence is almost never right, and it’s definitely never right when other people are encouraging or forcing you to part-take in it — that’s just you being scammed into risking life and limb for people who plan to keep enjoying safety and comfort while they benefit from your sacrifice.

Also, stylized video game violence and real violence are definitely not the same thing, and anyone who thinks they are needs to sit in a white, padded room for a year until they learn their lesson.

OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

So, it hit me.

Physically (not to mention conceptually), playing Zombie Gunship is no different than cleaning house. Of course, conceptually, the zombies are a contaminant that we are cleaning using gigantic cannons mounted on an aeroplane. So there’s that. But even physically, it’s just wiping. You’re just wiping. Swiping is wiping, except with “real” wiping, your real-life house looks awesome at the end. With tablet (s)wiping and in-app purchases, on the other hand, you just end up having paid time and money for a nothingburger.

And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Software is awesome; I write software, too.

But your goal life probably isn’t to accumulate fake stars and kill fake zombies. It’s probably isn’t even to accumulate real gold stars and kill real zombies, either. So how can the nothingburger that is this and virtually any and every other smartphone game be so much fun and “real life” so (for many people) un-fun?

One word.


Thank you and good night.





Just kidding (lol). Let me ‘splain.

Again, why are games fun? It’s not the graphics. Real life has AWESOME graphics (Zombie Gunship‘s grainy, low-resolution monochrome game screen is definitely part of its charm, but that’s neither here nor there). It’s not the content. Many games are set in crapsack world dystopias that not even the most emo kid in your school would want to live in. In fact, it often seems that the crapsackier the world, the more popular the game.

It’s the structure, stupid.

So how do we gamify real life? Well, Epic Win, Habitica and their ilk have made a decent go if it, and I wish them nothing but the greatest success, because their success is our success. If they make something awesome, we will be the ones to benefit from it; I will continue to support them as long as they live and continue producing software.

Steve Jobs made (i.e. marketed and induced people to make) insanely great electronics; he made awesome things that continue make our lives awesome; he deserved every dollar he made and more. The Epic Win and Habitica guys will be equally deserving, when and if that time comes. Unfortunately, that time is not yet with us. Because right now, EW and Habitica and apps like them are still boring as funk because (again, right now) they’re literally just lists with cool retro-pixelated icons from the sprite era of video games.

This is cargo cult gamification: it imitates the visual language of games but not their internal structures (which is where literally all of the magic is). We could use our thumbs and pinkie fingers to make ear- and mouth-piece shapes for the rest of time, but that wouldn’t make them telephones. If anything, Facebook (shudder) is more gamified than Epic Win and Habitica combined. Why? Many reasons, but the biggest is that it contains the element of surprise — you never know exactly what’s going to be in your feed, who will post what, when, or exactly how many likes your thing might earn. The cool-looking-icon to-do lists, on the other hand, have zero surprises.

Again, what does a game — or more generally, any addictive experience — need?

  • Clear, unambiguous, winnable goals — this gives a sense of purpose, direction and control
  • Surprise: lack of control — externality, randomness, contingency (this was central to B.F. Skinner’s research and discoveries in operant conditioning)…this
  • Constraints — for clarity and traction: things to work against. As an aside, people who break the spirit but not the letter of game rules are often accused of “not playing fair”, but that’s total B.S. Bending but not breaking the rules is part of the fun; there’s nothing more exhilarating than a buzzer-beating basket.
  • Reward and punishment (probably) — these can be intrinsic, extrinsic or both.

This isn’t an authoritative or even exhaustive list. Plus, a lot of the items, abstract as they are, overlap And I haven’t even mentioned the important insights of the procrastination equation (temporal motivation theory), which, when reverse-engineered, can allow us to structure some highly compelling experiences, but I will touch on TMT/PE indirectly in coming paragraphs. Suffice it to say that a game is a strange blend of stability and chaos. And a to-do list with grainy emojis is way too far king stable.

This wasn’t supposed to a mean review of a class of mobile apps. I definitely don’t like it when people are mean to me, so I try not to be mean to and about to other people. So let’s bring it back to what this post is supposed to be about: how you can gamify your life for less than two dollars (and perhaps even less than that).

This is just one way of many. We want to keep things simple, because adding gadgets and complexity is, more often than not, only fun for the first five minutes after the Kuroneko Yamato guy arrives with your stuff from Amazon and you open up the box; thereafter, it’s nothing but a chore.

You need just two tools:

  1. a countdown timer, and
  2. a playing die

Both can be purchased at any dollar store.

Roll the die. Whatever number is on the die, that’s how many minutes you run the timer for. During that time, you do one and only one thing. You focus completely. Force concentration, remember?

When time runs out, you either roll again or tap out completely. You win by getting to the end of the time trial — the time box. Perfection is infinite. A timebox is finite. A timebox is winnable.

It seems simple enough. And it is. Remember, though, an idea doesn’t have to be intellectually complex to be good or smart or useful. It just has to work. Leave complexity to academics. Innovation is about new uses for existing tools even more than it is about new tools.

How is all this any different from the timeboxing we — I — have talked about, practiced, pushed and preached up until now? Well, for starters, there’s the new, Skinnerian randomness of the die, so that’s a difference of kind. Secondly, there is a difference of degree — up until now, timeboxing was a medicine. It was a pill. A tool. You — we — took it to make the headache go away. Fire and forget, until the next time. Now, though, I’m suggesting turning timeboxing into not just a spice, not a quaint delicacy, not even a meal, but a staple — the main course at every meal — that is, timeboxing everything: turning virtually anything and everything that isn’t already a fun game for you into a timebox.

In this new scheme of things, timeboxing is the rice (pretend you’re not raw vegan or low-carb high fat lol) and everything else is okazu.

RanTim. Random timeboxing. It’s what’s for dinner.

And breakfast and lunch and snacks 😉 .

Fun is about structure, not content. Fun is how not what. Climbing Mount Everest is dirty, dangerous manual labour — even if you’re not a working Sherpa guide (in which case, it really is just labour) — and yet people pay upwards of $100,000 a head for the privilege of doing it. That’s a lot of hookers and blow.

Pleasure isn’t what we necessarily think it is. It’s both simpler and more complex than that. The same physical action, depending on the structure and meaning within which it is embedded, can uplift or depress, invite or repel.

Usually, we let other people embed the meaning for us. But perhaps it behooves us to do it for ourselves a bit once in a while, like when we were kids and a box and a blanket were the USS Enterprise. That isn’t dust you’re wiping, those are zombies. And you have only three minutes to do it. Those aren’t just words you’re typing, they’re a magic spell. Each key fires a gigantic cannon. Oh, and time is running out (lol).

Now, at a philosophical level, I don’t really know why this gamification stuff works (Skinner himself was concerned more with “hows”; that’s part of what makes him such a great scientist — he always chose experimentation over musing), but incompetence has never stopped me before (lol) so let me take a stab at it.

You see, in some ways, humans — those of us who enjoy running water, electricity, sedentary lifestyles, Internet access and “symbolic manipulation”-based non-manual-labour careers, at least — have too much freedom now. Not that that’s a bad thing: having too little freedom sucks balls. And it is better to have too much than too little.

Freedom is like friction, though. You want just enough that you can get traction, but no so much that you chafe, bruise and/or can’t move 3. The solution isn’t to give up our freedom to someone else or have it taken away from us, but to create “fun” constraints for ourselves. So yeah, we “give up” our freedom, but we give it up and take it back on our terms, as and when we want. So it’s not a true surrender. It’s like when the masters served the slaves on the Saturnalia holiday back in Roman times; they weren’t actually giving up their freedom; it was just a game.

Remember, a game is nothing but a list of constraints; it’s a bunch of, essentially, deliberately-introduced, man-made bugs in the software of reality that we decide to classify as “features”. If you really wanted to kick a ball over a white line, you would just wait until everyone else left the soccer field, then you could score all the goals you want. But that’s not want you want, is it?

You want the fun of the friction.

Turkle’s quote up there is telling. We do want to win, but even more than that, we want to be. We want to experience the flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a man whose name never gets easier to spell. That is the true purpose of gamification. Gaming is meditation. Gaming is peace. Gaming is enlightenment. 😉 And the path there is to mix order and chaos — things are always changing, always different, but also, always the same. You know how the combination of sugar and salt tastes better than either one alone? Yeah. Like that.

This isn’t one of those posts where you read it and laugh and/or get inspired and then leave. This is a call to action. Combine the die and the timer and create strings of short, clear, limited, winnable, random, fun timeboxes for yourself. Try it out and see. Mix it up: nest these small time within larger ones; go decremental; deploy the tools as you see fit. And let me know how it goes 😉 .


Series Navigation<< The GoldenEye Principle: Flow, Dopamine, Spirituality and How to Make Everything As Fun as Video Games and Multiplayer Bedroom SportsOMG: A Public Service Announcement from Captain Obvious >>


  1. way to bring it back me, amiright? #narcissism
  2. (thanks to some intense study of B. F. Skinner’s work (I love him, by the way…by far the GOAT in the game of psychology. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — Freud was a blogger; Skinner was a scientist)
  3. this applies to most sex acts as well — you want enough lubrication (freedom) so that everyone feels good but not so much that you’re…I dunno, swimming…? Slipping and sliding? Unable to make contact? Whatever…something about friction — what were talking about again?

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