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Gamification, Video Games and Productivity

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Gamification, Video Games and Productivity

I have a confession to make: I LOVE video games.

Ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Commander Keen on my family’s first 386 computer or Final Fantasy VII on Playstation – I’ve always enjoyed playing video games.

But little did I know, that playing video games actually makes you a better and more productive knowledge worker. Here’s how.

I always thought that video games were “just for fun”. Then I got to college. And I learned about this thing called “gamification” – yes, gamification was a buzzword even 10-something years ago.

The theory goes, any activity in the world can be “gamified”, or given game-playing characteristics to create a perception of the activity to the people undertaking it.

There are a number of reasons why – the mainstream adoption of video games, the idea of apps on mobile and portable devices, the widespread adoption of social media platforms (which often in turn are gaming platforms), and the old-fashioned reason: people just want to have fun.

There is also a slightly darker side to the increasing popularity of gamification: all of us living today, are less disciplined than our ancestors were. This is just an unfortunate consequence of increased stimuli in our environment, and the slow pace of evolution/training to keep up with all of it.

Now with gamification and how we can apply it to productivity is a HUGE topic. More than can be covered in 1 blog article – so let’s consider this “part 1” of something that we’ll be writing about more in the future.

Quick Summary

In this introductory piece we’ll cover:

  1. Gamification in the traditional sense and why it’s important for our productivity.
  2. How to apply a basic gamification framework to your productivity and life.
  3. Some lessons from video games that make you more productive.
  4. How concepts from RPGs (role-playing games) will make you better at everything you do.
  5. A little bit about how gamification is applied in the real world.

So you may be asking – why video games? As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s something that I grew up on and am familiar with. I’m sure that similar analogies and ideas can be borrowed from modern-day sports – but I’ll leave that for another AE team member to write up.

Let’s get into it.

Gamification in the Real World

Gamification in the Real World

The gamification that we see in everyday life today is mostly technological. It’s usually about apps or online services that have a game-based structure and component to them.

I’m talking about (and these are all cool apps/services):

Putting a technological layer on top of real life though, is somewhat limited. What it usually looks like is some sort of social media-based recognition involving badges and levels and titles.

Personally, I think that a lot of that is false recognition and more indicative of user engagement with a particular app, rather than using actual game principles and concepts to better our lives.

Note: Don’t get me wrong, from a marketing/business perspective it is amazing, I just think that it could be better.

So… what if we were not limited by the boundaries of an app or a particular online service or technology? How could we go deeper and apply a gamification layer directly to our lives and make them better/more productive?

We’ll get into that is the second part of this article (or you can skip ahead here).

The Good Side of Gamification

Good Side of Gamification

Before we get into some deep “how-to” stuff I wanted to look at the reasons WHY behind gamification. Why it works. Why it’s good. Why it’s not so good. It’s important to understand these as they provide the leverage for us to adopt the good principles (i.e., they give us the motivational kick we often need to take action on something).

There are a lot of good principles we can learn from gamification.

Levels and Progression

Level Up

The first is the idea of challenges and levels and progression – this is extremely motivating and often inspirational. The simple truth is that most of us are competitive – we want to win. And as we often tell clients and readers, one of the best momentum and habit-building tools in the world is engineering a series of small, quick wins… leading up to a longer-term big win.

Levels and progression can be done right and wrong.

Good examples are corporate training or online courses. Think: Udemy, Six Sigma, Code Academy or the Productivity Blueprint.

Bad examples are forced progressions and forced pace. Think: our education system.

Timed Challenge

Timed Challenge

The second is the idea of a time challenge. For some reason, limiting the time we have to do something and then “challenging” ourselves to it works extremely well.

In fact, this is why timeboxes (pomodoros) and timeblocks (meetings with ourselves) work so well.

Rules and Restrictions


The third principle that we can take away and apply is the idea of rules and restrictions. Most games give us a structure and a framework within which to operate.


Well have a think about real life – real life has a lot of rules. So many, that you literally cannot read the US tax code cover-to-cover in one lifetime. And this makes things confusing.

Games give us simplified rules – simple principles, boundaries and outlines that we can follow that make everything smoother and easier to understand and follow. And this is a good thing.

But it goes deeper than this. The rules act as a form of limiter on our attention – and this helps us focus.

For example, in video games, there is a common feature called a HUD (heads up display). It’s like the dashboard in your car – it gives us a simplified set of important data, like speed, RPM, fuel and distance traveled. It helps us FOCUS on the things that are IMPORTANT.

To make it one level more abstract, in a lot of games there exists the idea of objectives per level. For example, in role-playing games you often have quests or story lines to follow. And these can roughly correlate to goals and outcomes in our lives. If you’re familiar with Agile Results, you can start to see how the framework of the Rule of 3 is essentially providing us with goals for particular timeframes in our lives.

So how do we apply this in real life?

Simplify our data. Restrict it. Track only the metrics that are useful to us.

Set up your goals using something like Agile Results or the AE goal setting guide.

Then break down those goals into smaller outcomes. Then figure out what tasks get you those outcomes. Then go do them.



The last positive principle to come out of games and gamification is the idea of play.

Whatever it is that we do, it can be serious – or it can be fun. We’re talking about process here, not results. You can do things in a “serious manner”, or you can make it light-hearted and fun.

We already know that it’s easier to get work done with good music turned on.

And that it’s much easier to work from a pleasant environment – be that a coffee shop, home office, or just a great work setup.

Whatever it is we’re doing, if we can inject a sense of play, lightness and fun into it – it will go much smoother, and we’ll simply just enjoy it more.

The Bad Side of Gamification

Bad Side of Gamification

On the flipside, there are some things about gamification and games that aren’t so great. Call these pitfalls or the “bad side” of gamification if you will.

The are namely:

Lack of Real-World Discipline

This is the common modern-day problem of people wanting to escape into virtual worlds all the time. For example, teenagers who become addicted to playing online games at the expense of their real lives.

It’s disappointing to see this happen, because we both know that real life can be just as fun (and often better).

Game Worlds are Easier to Win In

Related to the above pitfall, the simple truth is that it is often easier to win in a virtual world than the real world – time is sped up, there are no real-world consequences (apart from time), and there are often cheat codes.

Think about a board game – in the span of a couple of hours, you can play through an entire game/lifecycle/project and “win”. In real life, projects and goals often take a couple of years to get to.

This often makes game worlds more addictive than real-life activity and progress.

False Sense of Hierarchy and Importance

Games, gamification and virtual gaming world often create a problematic false sense of importance and hierarchy.

Remember when Facebook first came out? A lot of people had a popularity contest based on the number of Facebook friends they could acquire, with the idea that the more friends you have the more socially popular you were. Of course, we now know that this is completely not true and that your social network status has no reflection on your real-world influence or standing.

Plain and simple, attaching real-world importance to online standings, likes or otherwise is just not productive or particularly useful. My friend Charles put it best:

“If I wanted to get 500 likes on a post, I would have to cure cancer. Or I could just be a busty 20-something blonde who posts risqué photos of myself”.

Lessons from Video Games

Now that we understand why and how gamification is important and useful (and what the pitfalls are), let’s get into the how-to of applying game principles to our lives to make us more successful and more productive. And we’re going to do it through the filter of video games and role-playing games.

The Second Play-through

New Game Plus

In video games there is a concept called the Second Play-through.

Yes, that’s right. People will often play a video game once… finish it, and then play through it again.

In fact, a lot of progression-based games encourage this by offering bonus abilities or special features only for a second play-through – it increases the games replay value and therefore its value to gamers in general.

But what gamers will tell you is that the second play-through is often better than the first. Sure, you may know all the twists and turns already but it unleashes the gamer’s inner perfectionist and lets them do an “optimum” play-through.

This also applies to the real world. Nothing needs to be perfect the first time through in real life.

If you try something and it doesn’t work out, all you have lost is time. And in the grand scheme of things, that little bit of time lost isn’t all that important.

Lesson: In real life, if you need to, you can always go back and do something again. There is ZERO need to get it right the first time, and it’s often better the second, third, or fourth time through.

Side-note: The idea of “first time right” is one of the most destructive ideas taught by our education systems and its foundation in test-taking. It has almost zero real-world application for most of us.



No, I’m not talking about this.

I’m talking about video game grinding. This refers to doing repetitive tasks again and again and again to improve your character or game situation and to make the rest of the game easier.

For example, in RPG games its common to “grind” by running around and fighting the same bad guys again and again and again to “level up” and improve your character’s abilities.

In real life, we can grind as well.

You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hours concept from Malcolm Gladwell, or the First 20 Hours concept from Josh Kaufman. Both are related to grinding. The simple fact is that you have to take action to do things in life – and sometimes, those things are repetitive and mundane… but they make us better.

If you spend 100 hours writing, you’ll be a better writer – and all writing becomes easier.

If you spend 100 hours cooking, you become a better chef – and all cooking gets easier.

If you spend 100 hours building productive habits, you become a more productive person – and EVERYTHING gets easier.

Lesson: Sometimes, there is no abiding hard work and repetition. Sometimes, it just has to be done to gain proficiency at something.

Save Points

Save Point

In most video games, there are save points. These are locations in the game where you can “save” your state/status, turn off the system and then go do something else.

In real life, our save points are our breaks and our downtime.

It looks like this: work, work, work, work, note what you’re working on (“save point”), take a break, then come back.

Lesson: Use save points. Take breaks. They’re there for a reason.

Disconnect and Power-Off the System

Disconnect and Power Off

Related to save points is the idea of powering-off your gaming system.

For video gamers, this means going from the virtual world they’re immersed in back to real life – a different context.

For us, this means disconnecting from our real life – by going away into a separate environment to rest, to recover, to get perspective – and to come back more productive than ever.

In the Productivity Blueprint we teach a rhythm of breaks that lets us disconnect and power-off optimally.

Lesson: Take regular breaks. And then take longer breaks – you’ll be more productive because of it.

Lessons from RPGs

Let’s go even deeper and borrow some concepts from a specific genre – role-playing games – and see how they apply to being productive in the real world.

Gear and Items

Gear and Items

One of the common elements of RPGs is the idea of collecting gear and equipment and items. As you progress through the game, you want to get better and better gear. And eventually, you want to get the BEST gear – the best armor, the best gun, the best sword, the best potions and elixirs.

All gamers know this.

And yet in the real world, we often see people NOT get the best gear – the gear that can make our lives easier and our work and personal systems flow better.

In fact, one of the original concepts of “Asian Efficiency” was that if it costs $500 or less and makes you more productive, just get it.

Here are some examples for those of us who work in front of a computer:

This is not saying to go out and lavishly spend on gear and equipment. But if something is really important to your job, to your profession, to what you do – the why wouldn’t you want the best that you can get?

Another way of looking at it is this – anyone in a trade, be it hairdressing, building or car mechanics, knows that there are good tools and bad tools – and they always try to get the best tools for the job.

Medical Pack

More than just gear, RPGs also have the idea of consumable items, commonly feature as “potions” or “elixirs” or “medpacks” in the game. And they usually range in potency, with some items helping your character a bit, and some helping your character a lot.

For example, a small medpack may restore 20 points of health, while a large medpack may restore 40 points of health.

In real life, these consumable items are equivalent to one thing: Food.

It makes sense – in an RPG, your character consumes items to restore health, mana, concentration etc. In real life, you consume food to restore energy – the foundation of your ability to perform and work.

What you put into your body is important. And if gamers are going to try to find the BEST potions and items for their character, why aren’t we trying to find the BEST food for ourselves?

I’ll leave it to you to do your own research and to discover what kind of diet you prefer, but for myself I have two guidelines:

  1. Optimize macronutrient mix (protein, carbs, fat).
  2. Try to eat as much “quality” as I can find. This means grass-fed meat, or organic vegetables if I can find them.

Note: For #2, quality ingredients and food are relatively easy to find in America, and almost impossible to find in the rest of the world.

Classes and Specializations

Classes and Specializations

In RPGs, another common element is that your character is assigned a class and/or specialization. This describes what kind of character you are and how your character will operate in the virtual game world.

There are some typical categories, which are:

  • Fighter/tank. These are your out-the-front characters who are usually physically strong but mentally weak.
  • Rogue/thief. These are your fast, agile and perceptive characters.
  • Mage/wizard/magic. These are your strong-mentally but weak-physically characters who cast spells or other mystical abilities.
  • Clerical/support. These are your average characters who do OK on their own but are really there to help out and enhance other characters.

In real life, we all have different tendencies and characteristics as well – we have our own “classes” and “specializations”.

This is not a determination of what we can or cannot do, but it is a recognition that we are all naturally better at some things than others. And knowing what these things are makes us more productive.


Well for example, if you know that you are great at creative writing but horrible at coding, you can outsource coding in your business – or bring on a partner who has strengths in coding.

There are a number of ways to evaluate your strengths, weaknesses and “specialization”. In the past some tests I have done (and kind of like) are: Wealth Dynamics, the Big 5 and Myers-Brigg.

A rough breakdown of workplace personality types that correlates to the RPG categories would be:

  • Sales/Marketing/Content Creators = Fighters. On the front line, they keep customers and prospects coming in.
  • Deal Makers = Rogues. Experts at timing, they know when things need to happen and help execute things on time.
  • Back Office = Clerics. These people help everyone else do their job more productively.
  • Systems and Operations (including Developers) = Mages/Wizards. They help fine-tune the backend, but don’t do so well dealing directly with customers.

Leveling Up

Leveling Up

One of the common gameplay mechanics of RPGs is the idea that you can “level up” your character during the course of the game. This leveling up is done by fighting bad guys or completing quests (goals), and makes the character better at what they do – be that casting spells, picking locks or breaking things.

In real life, you can level up too – simply by doing things and gaining experience. And in fact, it’s even simpler in real life. In a video game, you can usually only level up by spending time fighting enemies and completing quests. In real life, you can learn through reading and then applying – which cuts down the time it takes to get experience significantly.

For example, you can watch something like the Productivity Blueprint and then apply it – and become more productive. Or you can read a website like and then apply it – and get in shape.

In video games, there is also a limit placed on how much you can level up. In real life, there is no limit as to how many things you can learn or get good in.

Atributes and Feats/Perks

Attributes, Feats and Perks

Related to leveling up is the concept of Attributes. In classic RPGs, attributes (or stats) are the breakdown of your character that help govern what they’re good at.

The classic RPG attributes are:

  • Strength. This is how heavy you physically hit/break things.
  • Constitution. This is how many hits you can take.
  • Dexterity. This is how fast you are and how fast you can move.
  • Intelligence. This is how you can solve problems with logic.
  • Charisma. This governs social skills and conversation.
  • Wisdom. This is a measure of spirituality and solving problems with gut intuition.
  • Willpower. This is a measure of mental resistance.
  • Perception. This is your ability to calibrate, detect clues and enemies.
  • Luck. This is about random good or bad things, and usually governs critical hits/opportunities.

As you may have guessed, these attributes are based on real life and we can map them across to real life to help use become more productive. Here’s how I would break it down:

  • Physical health (fitness, strength, nutrition). This correlates to the RPG attributes or strength, constitution and dexterity. Physical energy is critical to being productive and getting things done – so the more you can improve your physical health, the more productive you will become.
  • Formal education and training. This correlates to Intelligence.
  • Social Skills. These correlate to Wisdom and Charisma, and can most definitely be developed.
  • Faith/Religion/Belief. This correlates to Wisdom.
  • Contextual and Specific Skills. These are any self-taught skills, be it weightlifting, productivity or cooking. These increase all attributes in different manners.
  • Willpower. Much like in RPGs, real-life willpower is a measure of mental resistance and the ability to get through work. It can be improved by training it.
  • Luck. This is about Riding the Chaos and Manufacturing Serendipity.

Feats and Perks are similar to Attributes in RPGs but are better described as specific areas and domains of knowledge that you can adopt that give you an advantage in the game. In video games, they are usually acquired as part of your character class – for example, a fighter may have the “two-handed weapons” perk.

In real life, we acquire feats and perks through learning new things. Whether it’s coding, cooking, playing a sport or productivity concepts – make sure that you’re always learning.

Power of Teams

Power of Teams

One of the unspoken concepts of all RPG games is that a team is infinitely more powerful than an individual.


Because a team consists of different characters with different strengths and abilities. A fighter may need support from a clerical healer and a mage.

In real life, a business team may consist of a CEO, CFO, COO and the VP of Sales.

Whenever you can, work in a team in real life – you’ll get results faster, you’ll benefit from the strengths of others and they’ll benefit from yours.

In fact, we’re always looking to recruit new team members at Asian Efficiency – if you like what we do, send us a message and we’ll talk!

Where To Go Next

This has been a long article, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

So where to next?

There have been a lot of useful concepts in this article – like thinking of your life in terms of attributes or classes, or adopting more fun and play into everything you do. All these things are the start of a framework that you can build over your life, to help you fine-tune and optimize yourself to peak productivity.

Here are a couple of things that I would recommend doing:

I would love to hear your thoughts on both the style and content, and if you’d like to see more guides like this from Asian Efficiency in the future. And if you have any examples or counter-examples, we would love to hear those too.

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Posted by Michael  | March 19, 2014 at 10:55PM | Reply

And having just read a little more about you here I realise you probably already knew about all that as a former (and more full-time) Australian! I thought there was something about the accent :D

Posted by Michael  | March 19, 2014 at 10:48PM | Reply

Thanks for this Aaron. As a once-upon-a-time big gamer myself, I especially enjoy and appreciate the comparisons you draw between gaming and real-life.

With regards to food: actually, while “quality ingredients and food are relatively easy to find in America” (e.g., stores like Whole Foods are probably in most states), America has its own challenges, especially with the insanely widespread use of GM food — the antithesis of your desire for “grass-fed meat, or organic vegetables if I can find them”.

As a resident of Australia (and I believe it is fair to say this of our close neighbour New Zealand), I can say we also have high-quality meat and organic vegetables, with the bonus of far lower use of GM. Our state of Tasmania has completely banned it, and I hope all other states follow their lead.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | March 19, 2014 at 11:39PM

Yeah there’s some serious GMO problems here in the US. I really hope that gets addressed over the next couple of years. Most food is still good but you have to do your research.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | March 21, 2014 at 4:09AM

Yeah we really are spoiled in Australia/NZ – produce is good, fresh and easily available. In the US Whole Foods is pretty good. Can’t say the same for the time I’ve spent in Europe/Asia though – Japan and Scandinavia aren’t bad, but the idea of food quality hasn’t really made its way into mainstream awareness yet.

Posted by Shawn Tay  | March 19, 2014 at 10:31PM | Reply

Yay, finally a productivity article that encourages me to play game!

But I would like to see more very specific real life examples of how to apply all these.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | March 19, 2014 at 11:38PM

I’m FIFA king. If you play too, I challenge you!

Posted by Justin  | March 19, 2014 at 4:10PM | Reply

So much win in this article.

Between Ngo quotes, Final Fantasy/Chrono Trigger screenshots, and dropping a link to, I was all over this post. It also made me realize I’m starting to head in the right direction with my affiliate marketing business. I’ve come to terms with my strengths (big picture/creative thinking, design, and grinding) and my weaknesses (coding/automation) and am in the process of partnering up with a buddy of mine who’s more technical than I am.

Also, I now I don’t think I’m crazy for imagining myself with some virtual HP or power points. E.g. I don’t go 100% at the gym to allocate more overall points for work lol.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | March 19, 2014 at 11:38PM

It’s all about increasing that HP! ;-)

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