It was spring of 2015, and I was in the final stretch of writing my doctoral dissertation in 19th century literature. I had procrastinated until I could procrastinate no more, and I knew that if I did not finish writing my dissertation, bad things would happen to me. I was stressed and exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than to be done with my subject forever. I had been playing The Sims a lot during the procrastination period, and one day, as I was again pondering the complete impossibility of writing just one more page that day, I thought something that changed the rest of the process for me. “I wish I was a Sim—then I could just make myself do it.”

Maybe as a result of my own sleep deprivation, I became taken with the idea from the game where your Sims need to have their basic needs met or they simply start ignoring you and do what they want. I realized that I had been coming at my work from a ridiculously single-minded perspective and allowing my anxiety to get in my way. “What if I was a Sim?” became a way to clear away those anxieties and give myself both the tools and the motivation I needed to finish my task. I began breaking down the things I needed to do into Sims-sized chunks, and I began prioritizing the self-care that would make it possible for me to complete everything. All my anxiety disappeared as I used game elements to make the challenge of time management more approachable.

Break It Down

Anyone who’s ever worked with young people knows what a powerful tool games can be for teaching and motivation. Using this idea of treating projects like you would in The Sims is a tactic that can help both adults and children with any substantial task. Science fair project? Break it down—your kids need to find an idea, obtain materials, and present the work in an appealing way. Why not send them on a quest to gather three relevant books from the school library or challenge them to craft a five-star display?

In taking game design as inspiration for non-game contexts, you’re following the lead of many educators and corporations in a variety of fields. Gamification is the reason people collect stars from the Starbucks rewards program, and it’s the reason they vote to save their favorite potato chip from oblivion. Gamification helps people map progress on a large goal, while increasing their investment in the overall task. Ball State University has introduced an app to help low-income and first-generation college students take full advantage of all that their college experience has to offer. Students earn points by swiping their card into the library or the gym or by visiting one of the university’s tutors. The points can eventually be redeemed for on-campus purchases. An evaluation of the app found that students who used the app had higher grade-point averages and were more engaged in the life of the university.

Don’t Be Scared

Using rewards as part of motivation can sometimes feel a little dangerous. People worry how their kids will learn to do the work for its own sake when the rewards are gone. But intelligent use of rewards helps celebrate progress toward a big goal without de-emphasizing the larger reward of achievement. A reward doesn’t have to be a material one. It could be a trip to the park or being allowed to choose a movie for the family to watch together. But it does need to be desired. It needs to be something that will provide just that little extra bit of motivation when it’s needed.

Your game design doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be breathtakingly original. I used The Sims because it best matched the kind of goals I was pursuing. But you can crib from games like Minecraft or Rift to create a system you or your child will enjoy. All games are built on motivating behavior. Anyone who’s ever tried to interrupt someone who’s determined to beat that last level can testify to that. Use a game system that works to support goals and make sure that you provide motivation not just for task-oriented goals, but also for the self-care necessary to achieve those goals by incorporating simple things like getting a good night’s sleep or eating breakfast on the day of a big test.

If we treat work as a necessary evil, we miss the opportunity to see our efforts in a more playful way. One that allows us to invest joyfully in our work. When work is a game, work gets done—no matter how old you are.

Nicole Tanner

Nicole Tanner

Nicole has been playing games her entire life. Now that she's a mom, she's passionate about promoting games as a healthy pastime to other parents around the globe. She has been an editor at IGN, where she launched and hosted the Girlfight podcast. In her spare time (which is not very much, honestly) she enjoys gaming, reading, and writing fiction. Most of the time she’s a mom to a crazy, intelligent, and exhausting little girl.