/ @ade3
August 18, 2018

Irresistible Obstacles

The formula beneath any game that hooks players can be boiled down to this:

Voluntary Obstacle + Rules + Feedback System = Leveling Up

The reason this works is because each element taps into powerful psychological motivators. Voluntary obstacles empower you with a sense of mission. Your mission is guided by a set of rules, principles that can’t be compromised. Good feedback systems inject satisfaction into the work. And when you level up, when you get a taste of mastery, the urge to volunteer for a new, harder obstacle is nearly irresistible. And so you loop back through the formula, again and again, each time getting a little better at the game.

I spend a lot of time thinking about dysfunction. Why do well-meaning companies fail their employees? Why do bad managers fail to see the poison of their actions? Why do creative people create so much garbage? Why do different teams clash rather than collaborate? Why is it so hard to get out of bed in the morning?

At the heart of any situation that is rotting a person or institution from the inside out, at least one part of the game equation is missing. Without a sense of mission, rules become laws that generate resentment. Without rules, the urge to take shortcuts is irresistible and unfairness creeps in. Without feedback, effort stagnates and your motivation fizzles. The flywheel stops. The equation fails and achievement remains either forever out of reach or arbitrarily distributed to people that don’t deserve it.

So how do you make the equation work for you? It starts with your mission. Why are you volunteering to tackle the obstacle in the first place? You are signing up for something difficult and if you are going to stick with it your actions need a purpose. How will your efforts make the world a little better?

What are the rules, the unbreakable principles guiding what you do? What are you reading, whose voices resonate with you? Your actions aren’t arbitrary, what are the criteria guiding your decisions? Beneath every request that makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable is a principle waiting to be defined. Stick to your principles without compromise.

What does your feedback system look like? Do you have a mentor that helps you evaluate your progress? How do you measure the fruit of your labor? Identify the drainers and boosters and optimize accordingly. The better your feedback system, the more satisfying your work will be because you can measure the effectiveness of even the tiniest action.

And like any game, you will get better the more you play. Your achievements might be modest at first, but with each loop through the equation you gain new abilities. As you level up, the desire to tackle new and ever more difficult obstacles will be irresistible.

If you want to dig deeper into the psychology of games, I recommend a book by Jane McGonigal called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

Thanks for reading. Stay creative.


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