Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dunnit! and Systemizing the Game

I’ve had a long history with to do lists, as I play at productivity. I’ve tried paper lists on tiny post-it pads (sort of a mini-Hipster PDA), lists in my Moleskine, lists on yellow legal pads when I worked as a lawyer’s gofer, and then into computer versions like simple text files, displayed on my monitor with GNU Tomboy or Mac Stickies or Geektool. I’ve used The Hit List, SimpleNote, and Evernote, the latter two I still use for various things. However, none of these note-taking styles have felt, well, sticky. Here’s the problem:

1. I forget things.
2. Therefore, I write them down.
3. I forget where I wrote them down (see #1)
- or -
3. I forget to check my list (see #1)
- or -
3. I just stop caring

That’s a vicious circle if I’ve ever heard one. Add to that things like “I just don’t want to right now” or “Maybe this other system will work.” And so, as a result, three quarters through my semester and in the middle of the real grading season, I’ve found a new system. Of course.

It’s called “Dunnit!” (obligatory, excessive exclamation point in the title). It’s an iPhone app, and it sits right on my home screen. Weaknesses: no desktop syncing, iPhone OS only. Strengths: Free, with badges that display current tasks, and even (interestingly) Twitter support. Why am I even talking about this? OpenFeint support.

Yes, OpenFeint is for games. No, this isn’t a game. Not really, anyway.

There’s a well-known concept called “gaming the system.” My brother, for example, is really good at gaming. Not “can play any video game with ease” but “can min/max his way to some crazy hacked-out options in any tabletop RPG or complex board game. He’s good, and he wins, even at games supposedly without winners. I’ve frequently remarked to others that he should have been an accountant or tax attorney, because of his uncanny knack for ferreting out any loophole. He could make someone, and himself, a ton of money. Of course, accounting is boring, and tax law is boring, so the incentives are far off. It just doesn’t matter. And so, accounting never really (to my knowledge) appealed to him. He’s a history major, a nice humanities guy. What motivates him is caring about it. If he doesn’t care, he won’t do it. I have much the same problem with to do lists.

The central idea begin “gaming the system” is that all systems are inherently game-like, from the educational system to the DMV to tax codes to relationships. Call it ruthless or cruel, but it seems to be the case. There are complex systems. They have rules. Those rules are created by humans, and humans are fallible, creating many times when rules can be broken in spirit, but not in law. If I feel like I’m generally productive, but without a list that I’m checking off, I feel okay, because I’m adhering to the spirit of the list, just not the law. However, if I create a list of easy things to do just to check them off, I’m gaming the system, exploiting a loophole in the whole to-do-list business. And it’s what makes Dunnit! fantastic.

Dunnit! systemizes the game. It’s basically the opposite of all that. Instead of creating a system that people can ruthlessly exploit, they make the whole system of to do lists into a game. There are points. There are levels. There are rankings. There are achievements for crying out loud, like it’s an XBox game or something. What on earth, right?

Well right now, it’s one of the most arresting games I’m playing on my iPod Touch. It’s the ultimate game: get things done in real life, and get points for it. Others like Booyah! (again, obligatory, excessive exclamation point) have dabbled in this in the past. The conceptual world of Foursquare/Gowalla intersects at some points. These systems essentially say to a generation of die-hard gamers “you know how to hack out your games, but you don’t care about life, so here’s a trick: if you imagine your life as a game, you can hack that out too. I don’t know anybody that’s used The Sims to get relationship advice, but that’s the concept.

What Dunnit! does by making the whole thing a game is make me care about my score. I want my score to go up, so I get things done. I put everything I want to do in there instead of in The Hit List or a text file, because I never go anywhere without my iPod Touch. So I’ve got a list that follows me everywhere, reminds me constantly, and has made the system of a to do list into a game. Works for me!

As of the writing of this article, I have 5131 points at level 7, and am ranked #292 on the Dunnit! leaderboard.

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