It’s no surprise that a site full of writers has a fair number of folks participating in National Novel Writing Month, but that got us—more specifically, it got Tia Kalla and Zainabb Hull—thinking about gamification and setting our own challenges.

Gaming is comprised of challenges big and small, from individual enemy encounters to executing the perfect raid in an MMORPG to finally getting your D&D group together. But what about the challenges we make for ourselves? Can we gamify gaming itself?

Turns out, we can.

What do you think of gamification? Does it work for you?

Nola Pfau: As a person who relies on self-imposed systems to get through some of the most basic tasks of my day, I don’t think I could play video games without gamifying them. It’s just such a necessary part of how I interact with the world.

Emily Durham: Absolutely. I love gamifying my games. There’s always room for a bit of an extra challenge!

E. Forney: Gamification is a really useful skill for very monotonous tasks, I find. Even as a kid, when I was coloring in a picture, I would imagine I was herding a group of little germs: color the outside first, creating a ring so they can’t get out, and then destroying them by coloring over them. I’ve gamified making copies of receipts in an admin position by trying to see how fast I can push the copier buttons without making a mistake. The idle brain loves gamification!

Tia Kalla: As someone with ADHD and OCD-like symptoms, I very much relate to Forney’s example. Finding and executing patterns in games is very soothing to me. Someone in a stream I was watching the other day commented that the appeal of a turn-based JRPG is figuring out how to get through battles most efficiently, otherwise you’d just be playing a visual novel. Not sure about that last part, but I can definitely see the first!

Zainabb Hull: I love gamification for some of the reasons already mentioned. It massively appeals to my anxious and obsessive tendencies, and can really help me avoid rumination and procrastination in daily life. However, gamification can also run up against my perfectionism. I start to judge myself if I feel like I’m failing my goals, even the self-imposed ones!

Melissa Brinks: You know, despite writing this question, I’m not sure if I love gamification. I love making to-do lists and crossing things off, and a few years ago I was a heavy user of Habitica because it was nice to have rewards (which I could then spend on real-life rewards) for tasks I finished. But I don’t know if I gamify as much as I create systems and use them—does that count?

When you’re playing games, do you tend to set your own challenges? Are you a big collector of items?

Nola: Yes! In fact, with most games I notably will skip finishing the game’s actual plot in order to just run around collecting things. I suspect that’s a large part of why I’ve stuck with the Assassin’s Creed franchise; I don’t really care about the stories or characters, I just want to run around the map on a scavenger hunt.

Emily: Oh yeah. I love playing and replaying old-school third person platformers like Ratchet & Clank and Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, mostly because as much as I like following the plots of these games, I am more than a little addicted to collecting all the collectables. Gems and eggs, precursor orbs, crystals and relics, platinum bolts—you name it, I’m after them. While I’m nowhere near even remotely considering myself a speedrunner, I’ve gotten to the point where I can 100 percent Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy in under a day. The game-within-a-game there, for me, is seeing how quickly I can collect all the things. (But only inasmuch as I’m competing with myself.)

Forney: I’m not all about 100 percenting everything, but I do love to collect items, even when they aren’t useful to the game. I remember playing Ty the Tasmanian Tiger and being so excited to find out that there were translucent items and a boomerang upgrade you could get to find them, hot/cold style. I also found all 900 Koroks in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I was so excited to finally be able to climb to places like Hyrule Castle, which I so desperately wanted to scale in previous games like Twilight Princess. And then there was an adorable woodland critter up there! Instantly hooked. I found about 700 before I started using the mask upgrade to help with the last 200 or so who were still hiding. I actually got a tattoo in honor of finding them all!

Tia: I’m a failed 100 percenter, lol. I usually will make an effort to 100 percent a game if it doesn’t get tedious. And yes, I have caught them all—multiple times. I even like playing idle games, which are generally just watching numbers tick up and making achievements. This is also why I’ve never beaten Final Fantasy VI.

There’s actually a psychological thing behind why collecting and completing achievements makes us satisfied (which is why people can get so easily addicted to gacha games, for example). I think also part of it is modern society—it’s hard to find a job where you feel like you make an impact, it’s difficult to feel like you’re actually making a dent in that mortgage, but naming all the dogs in Tales of Symphonia is a tangible and achievable goal.

Zainabb: These days, the goals I set myself tend to be a lot looser and more fluid than they were when I was a teen. For example, when playing JRPGs, I always try to level up between sections of the story to make sure I’m not too underpowered in the next boss fight! When I was younger, I would set myself specific levels to reach. Now, I’m playing Ni No Kuni, the first JRPG I’ve played in years, and I still try to level up between sections but I won’t set myself a specific level. Of course, as an adult, I have less time to spend with games so I focus more on finding a natural flow that leaves me feeling satisfied with my gaming session. But it’s also very much a mental shift, to avoid feeling trapped by arbitrary challenges and collection missions, which appeal deeply to me!

Melissa: I don’t set my own challenges so much as I create systems. I wrote about this a bit in my review of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, actually. I get a lot of satisfaction from creating a prioritized list and executing it flawlessly, which is why games like that are so much fun for me. But when it comes to setting challenges or collecting things, I tend to fail unless there’s a reward beyond satisfaction. Namely, unless I’m going to get more story for it, I’ll almost never spend time collecting things. The Koroks in Breath of the Wild are almost an exception because I like the little “Ya-ha-ha!” sound, but I never actively tried to find them all—I just stumbled upon them in my quest to explore the world. Like Zainabb, I look for the things that I enjoy and flow through those.

Screenshot from Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. Dream Daddy, Game Grumps, 2017.

Are you an achievement hunter? If so, why do you like it? If not, why not?

Nola: Only in so much as those achievements are not time-attack, score, or PVP based. I don’t care about playing the game the best. I only care about exploring, finding stuff.

Emily: Funnily enough, as much as I like collecting and gamifying, I’m not really an achievement hunter per se. I’m not really in it for the external validation. The only game I went out of my way to collect all the achievements for was Dream Daddy, and even then, it was more because I wanted to see all the permutations of steamy endings and cute dadly feelings than because I wanted the approval of having seen them all.

Forney: Achievements are fun. It’s like marking off a to-do list. I play on gpx.plus (kind of like a community clicker game for hatching and raising Pokémon). I recently completed all their gym badge achievements, which involved maxing out Pokémon levels mostly. However, I don’t need to get all the achievements—if I see something will take a ton of time or money or energy, it falls off my radar.

Tia: Depends on the achievement. I like them for fun side things that you might not do normally, but that don’t get ridiculous. Pokémon Black/White 2 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf had a bunch of different ones that encouraged me to “grind” on activities I didn’t do as much.

Zainabb: For me, achievements tie in with the general concept of gamification and collection challenges. Earning an achievement is kind of like ticking off a smaller item on your to-do list, rather than the big goal. Maybe you haven’t finished the game yet, but you can collect all the shiny things or hit some significant points in the narrative. It can also help us to feel like we’re really making the most of a game.

I think the psychological and addictive aspect of achieving that Tia mentioned is really relevant to my experience with games. I used to be very anal about collecting Trophies and getting 100 percent completion rates. A few years back, I got seriously into the Lego series, partly because they’re great titles for collecting every achievement. You just need a walkthrough guide and some time, and you can collect every hidden treasure and character, all whilst spending quality time with one of your favourite franchises. About a third of the way through Lego The Lord of the Rings, though, trying to get 100 percent felt claustrophobic and I would get stressed about any time spent not playing the game. I had to swear off the Lego series (after I got all my achievements for Lego LOTR, of course…). While I still feel that ping of warm accomplishment any time a Trophy pops, nowadays I try to focus more on the game moment that I’m in and how I’m feeling with the game, rather than thinking about hitting milestones, making progress, or earning achievements.

Melissa: Generally, I’m not an achievement hunter—as others have mentioned, a lot of them are collection-based or require that you play in ways I don’t like. That said, if I unlock almost every achievement just because of the way I naturally play, I do suddenly become far more interested in unlocking them all. Two out of fifty achievements naturally unlocked won’t spur me to do the rest, but 12 out of 15 might. The closer I am to unlocking them all, the more likely I am to try—but that said, I don’t think I’ve ever unlocked every achievement in any game because I am also extremely lazy.

What about when it comes to multiplayer games and tabletop games? What kinds of constraints and challenges do you place on yourself in those environments?

Nola: It may shock you to learn, based on my prior answers, that I do not like competitive play. I like cooperative stuff! I like working with a group, and supporting that group, so when I engage in multiplayer activities that’s the frame I do so with; I look at a group and consider what I can offer to it. I like the shared sense of victory in achieving a goal, and I like the feeling I get from knowing I was able to help these people I care about.

Emily: Besides my mostly single-person video gaming, a nontrivial number of hours in my week are dedicated to playing both short- and long-term indie tabletop RPG campaigns, in systems like Monsterhearts or Fiasco. (I’m also currently GMing a Waterworld-inspired campaign of Apocalypse World.) In those environments, where we’re all there to tell a story together, we have plenty of room to challenge ourselves. During character creation sessions, I always try to pick personality traits for my characters that don’t come naturally to me (like the awkward teen sasquatch I played in Monsterhearts, or the disillusioned cyber-gambler I’m playing in The Veil). It would be easy to just play the same type of character every time, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to tap into an unfamiliar character’s authentic feelings rather than assigning them my own.

Forney: I’m a big fan of trying new things in multiplayer games. In RPGs, I’ll try to switch up the types of characters I tend to play. Although I love being a magical Bard in any D&D campaign, behaving according to the strict morals of a Paladin or reacting to a situation rashly like a Barbarian might can be a neat experience too. With competitive board games, I also like trying different strategies, even if I don’t think they will be successful in terms of winning me the game. I find that, especially when you’re playing with someone who is very good at the game and probably going to beat you, being unpredictable or wacky is a fun way to switch it up. I’ve heard it said that chess masters actually have a harder time playing against amateurs sometimes because they don’t make predictable moves.

Tia: The only way I’ve ever enjoyed Halo is with the ruleset I refer to as “Fun with Rocket Launchers”—everybody has rocket launchers, everyone has infinite ammo. The chaos it creates, both with blowing up other people and trying not to blow yourself up does level the playing field just a bit, but also it just plays a lot different than your regular ruleset. There’s a lot of yelling and explosions, and who doesn’t love that?

I find that, especially when you’re playing with someone who is very good at the game and probably going to beat you, being unpredictable or wacky is a fun way to switch it up.

E. Forney

As for tabletop, every time I’ve played, I’ve done a different character type/class. It’s not so much a matter of stretching myself as it is just being bored of playing the same class with the same moves and rulesets. Again, that exploration aspect, but instead of poking through hallways and nooks, I’m poking through spell lists and alignments.

Zainabb: Hard agree with Nola: competitive games are not for me. I tend to get far too wound-up about winning and have earned some concerned looks from pals for the kind of rotten trash talk that comes out of my mouth. So when I’m playing with others, I’m mostly thinking about how to make a cooperative situation as enjoyable as possible for everyone involved. With me around, this usually includes chaos of the kind that Tia’s talking about (rocket launchers truly improve any virtual situation) and setting ourselves silly, arbitrary goals, like a D&D run where our subplot involves the characters conducting a food tour of the land.

Melissa: I know what I like to do: I like tanking. In multiplayer games, I want to hit things and make them hit me back instead of hitting other people. In tabletop games, I want things to hit things and make them hit me back instead of hitting other people. I will almost always choose a tank character if that’s an option, which is why I like introducing randomness. Mystery Heroes is my favorite Overwatch mode so I don’t just end up picking D.va every turn because I know I’m good at her. I actually enjoy a bit of randomness when rolling tabletop characters, because I can’t just say, “She’s big and strong!” I have to account for all the little concessions I have to make because of randomness or constraints. That kind of thing pushes me to play differently, and is ultimately how I end up having more fun—and if I want to go back to crushing my enemies, I can always try something else.

Do additional constraints (challenges like Nuzlocke, creating characters outside of your usual play style, etc) enhance your enjoyment of a game?

Nola: I’ve always wanted to do a playthrough of the original Final Fantasy with four white mages, but I haven’t gotten around to it. For RPGs with character creation mechanics, I definitely like making alternates for the sake of experimenting outside my main, sometimes it’s just fun to see what they can do, even if it’s not a playstyle I’d enjoy longterm. For some mobile games I work with a constraint in that I only do the daily repeating challenges, and avoid the other events. I actually prefer it that way; it keeps me from burning out on them.

Emily: Generally, I would say yes. The games that come to mind, for some reason, are Tony Hawk’s Underground and Underground 2. While the Pro Skater games were in the classic arcade style of collecting objects and gaining high scores, the Underground versions introduced (loosely-defined) narratives to the series. The Underground games were still objective-based, but more open-world, which meant that even though following the new narratives wasn’t as fun for me (because they were honestly pretty meh), I usually ended up trawling around in all the little nooks and crannies of each level searching for glitches or challenging myself to complete all the missions in a stage before moving on to the next city. So even though I didn’t love the Underground games, being completionist/challenge-motivated definitely made them more fun for me! I don’t know that every game requires additional constraints for me to enjoy them, but there are certainly a lot of games out there that I like more when I’m enforcing my own challenge modes.

Forney: I kind of dipped into this question with my previous response, but I definitely love starting with self-imposed constraints. I never finished my Nuzlocke run of Pokémon Crystal, but I thought playing that way made me much more observant of the different levels and areas. I had to know if I was on Route Whatever or not to qualify to get a new Pokémon, so it taught me more about which areas were connected. I feel like if you put player-characters on a map of Europe instead of a Pokémon region, I’d be a lot better at geography!

Tia: Self-imposed challenges are a great way to make old gameplay new again. My first Nuzlocke was on Alpha Sapphire, a game whose basic plot I had played twice before. If I end up getting Let’s Go, Pikachu!/Eevee!, I’ll probably do it again just to keep Kanto from boring the heck out of me.

I think that’s why randomizer romhacks have become so popular—there are games like Link to the Past and Super Metroid that people have played endlessly and know start to finish—every jump, every item location, every enemy. Randomizers make it so you don’t know what to expect, but you can still apply the basic skills and a good bit of the knowledge of the game to the playthrough. In my Pokémon Emerald randomizer runs for Extra Life, I was running into all sorts of out-of-place trainer Pokémon, mixed-up movesets, and team Pokémon I’d normally never consider or have access to, but I could still use my knowledge of moves, base stats, and type advantages to strategize.

Zainabb: I agree with Emily. For me, it depends on the game and the constraints. I’m not a hardcore gamer at all so I’ve never gotten into playthroughs on a higher difficulty or with additional constraints, like in some survival sims. Instead, I like constraints that make open worlds weirder; anything that offers up new opportunities or perspectives. I used to love telling stories in The Sims by limiting in-game resources or choosing very set paths for my characters. I also love the way that some players have used open-world RPGs like Skyrim to play very specific roles, like farmers, which is both absurd and charming.

Melissa: I also got into this with my last answer, but essentially: yes. Though I almost never follow through with challenges in video games, I do love how they make me look at things differently. I’ll discuss my favorite one below!

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What is the best challenge (or outcome or experience that came from it) you’ve ever set in a game?

Melissa: During my Uncharted 4 playthrough, I was so aggravated with Drake that I started a photo album called, “Places Nathan Drake Could Have Kissed His Wife if He Wasn’t Being Such a Jackass.” It was silly and flippant, but it did make me look at the scenery differently—I wasn’t just appreciating them for pretty vistas, but for like, gorgeous potentially romantic postcards that were never realized. And when I go back through that photo album (as I do, occasionally), I see the game differently than if I’d only been focused on taking photos that looked cool, or photos that showed Drake being a badass, or photos that framed the scenery nicely without Drake in them.

Forney: The constraints I made for myself for finding all the Koroks in BotW made it a really enjoyable task. First, the Koroks are super cute and just tickle my fancy, so that’s fun no matter what for me. But also, the steps of finding them—find around 700 before using the mask, scan the map for likely places, try to cover every part of the map using the Hero’s Path update, etc. Toward the end, I did make use of internet guides just to reduce frustration. I decided the best way to do that was to pinpoint a place that seemed like a good Korok spot and then, before taking the time to travel there, looking up to see if I could confirm my hunch. That definitely saved me some time but didn’t detract from my accomplishment.

Emily: My brothers and I tend to do a lot of noodling around in games, trying to find glitches and strange outcomes. I think my favorite outcome from our noodling about was in Escape from Monkey Island, a point-and-click adventure game about pirates where you collect and combine various items to create solutions to puzzles. We would obsessively combine every item with every other item, until we discovered that by combining every prosthetic body part you found at Pegnose Pete’s Palace of Prostheses would create an item listed as the “Abomination of Nature” and prompt main character Guybrush Threepwood to yell, “It’s aliiiiiiiiiive!…That was exciting.” We early-2000s Durham children were delighted. And to think, we wouldn’t even have found this gem if we hadn’t challenged ourselves to combine all the things.

Tia: After setting up my mayor’s house with all my favorite sets in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I got inspired by the creative takes on the internet and decided to do something a bit different for the rest. So my other characters’ houses are a community center, a mini-mall, and a commercial office-ish space. I’m quite proud of my karaoke room, my library, and my makerspace. (Does anyone have a Lottie amiibo? I need a drafting table!)

Zainabb: My favourite challenge was when my brother and I played a very long round of TimeSplitters Future Perfect, pitting ourselves against an entire squad of computer-controlled enemies on the hardest difficulty setting and with one-shot kills. I think our win condition was to get 100 kills, and we must have played that match for two or three hours. We laughed, we died (a lot), and we learned the Venice map inside and out. It’s not the most extreme challenge I’ve ever set but it was definitely the most fun. It was the first time I felt that unique sense of bonding and reward that comes with teaming up with your pals against overpowered machine enemies and just not taking a game too seriously.

Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.

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