Gamify your mental health. Last week I wrote about the secrets of difficulty in D&D 5e. This week, I want to talk about a different set of challenges: mental health. I want to explore how gamers and geeks like me can use game mechanics and the psychology of game design to level up our mental health, drawing upon lessons from survival games, RPGs, MMOs, and puzzles. Like a lot of folks, many of us gamers have some struggles in the area of mental health. Yeah, we can tend toward escapism. In fact, I’ll start off with a confession: I myself have struggled a lot with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem in my life, among other issues. But I’ve had the fortune to learn and develop some mental tools on all this, and I want to share the the best ones with you, in two parts. To start, I’ll run through 10 tools then provide a summary of the gamification concepts at the end. Time to level up your brain!
#1: Survival Games As Self-Care Prompts || #2: 3×5 Your Life – the Self-Care Checklist || #3: The Friend Simulation Mental Exercise || #4: Identifying Primary Limiters || #5: Know Your “Screw It” Point || #6: Develop a “Healthy Lazy” || #7: Fail Often, Fail Early, Fail Forward || #8: Defeat Negative Self-Talk With Mantras || #9: Reinforcement Through Points, Streaks, and Progress || #10: Incremental Progress, Escalating Challenges || Summary of Gamification Concepts
Legal Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and while these techniques have worked for me, that provides anecdotal evidence, not medical certainty. Use all information herein at your own risk, I will not be held liable for any potential injury arising it. Consult with a trained medical professional for professional advice.
#1: Survival Games As Self-Care Prompts
Several years ago I began playing my favorite post-apocalyptic survival game, “Neo-Scavenger“. I really love this game. Beyond its supernatural and futuristic elements, it has a lot of gritty realism too, a topic I wrote about recently for D&D 5e. In that vein, it has all sorts of fluctuating character status bars for different survival needs, like Nourishment, Hydration, and Rest, as well as Carrying Capacity, Comfort, and Temperature, even ones for Pain and for Immune System.
Of particular note, I find that when playing survival games like these I can build up a mental association where I use it as a prompt to run through a similar checklist for myself. How’s my hydration? Do I feel rested? In pain? Did I contract the Blue Rot disease? Ok, maybe not that last one. But, my point comes down to: rather than just escapism alone, you can approach games like these intentionally and use their status bars to remind you to periodically do your own self-care checks.
#2: 3×5 Your Life – the Self-Care Checklist
Let’s use that as a springboard for a basic and indispensable tool: the Self-Care Checklist on a 3×5 Index Card. This one has helped me through many depressive episodes. Like, the things that make you feel good physically, emotionally, and, spiritually? You put that stuff on a 3×5 Index Card. Keep that 3×5 card with you, you now have your own personal player inventory. Make it your bookmark for every book you read. Put it next to your mirror or keyboard.
Then, when you fall into the black hole of depression, when you can’t even remember a comfortable position to sit or what you like to eat or what having your needs met ever meant, you reach down for that anchor. All that stuff went on there, you put the “How to Person 101” Operator’s Manual on that card. Foods you have on hand, reminders to drink water, nice tactile things that comfort you. Add ’em. Hell, get two cards if you need to. Now, you also have the back of the card. On the back, you’ll put some tools from later on in #6 or #9. But for now…
#3: The Friend Simulation Mental Exercise
Building off the first two points, this one can sound somewhat ridiculous, but if you need the nudge to help build up a good self-care routine, you can use the mental exercise of imagining what different friends would notice about your current state, and what different advice they might give. If you have greater empathy than self-worth, you can imagine if your friend had a situation like yours going on, what advice you’d give them for it. Treating yourself like a friend can work like an accessible onboarding system for self-esteem, allowing you to begin engaging with yourself positively. Mental exercises like these can really help if you feel stuck in a rut, they basically act as a tutorial mode for cultivating self-empathy. Empathy into self-empathy, a nice alchemy indeed!
#4: Identifying Primary Limiters
Alright, so, the famous chemist Liebig popularized a concept called the “Law of the Minimum”. It states that more than total resources available being what determines plant growth, the least available necessary resource limits its potential. Like, imagine a barrel: if it has one slat shorter than all the rest, the contents will spill out at that level no matter how much you increase the height of the others.
In a similar fashion, whatever Primary Limiter you have in your life can determine your capacity. Things like abuse or addiction, lack of self-discipline or self-image, and all manner of psychological issues. Just like in a game, you can’t ignore inventory slot management, but you should always focus on bettering your inventory capacity too. The more you actively identify your Primary Limiter, the more you can figure out how to work with it, or improve it. Rather than feel ashamed about your limitations, you can think of it like a difficulty mode on a game, or even as the boss you have to contend with. Remind yourself that you have agency, no matter the difficulty, even if your build has handicap traits you have to work with.
#5: Know Your “Screw It” Point
Another good skill to put points into? Knowing when you’ve approached your “Screw It” Point. Yeah, the point where you give up on self-restraint and overindulge, going into excess on detrimental behaviors. Whatever bad habit you binge on and want to improve. Keep track of that stuff! You can work on noticing when you’ve gotten near that headspace, how to avoid it, and harm reduction when you do get there. Instead of just feeling ashamed, make it into a puzzle where you can make incremental progress (more about that in #10). Try out new directions and see what fits. Take note of what rationalizations you used in the moment, and consider how to confront it. You’ll likely face that boss again the next time, so get prepared! Just like you would for a level or quest in a game you didn’t finish the first time.
#6: Develop a “Healthy Lazy”
Ok, but how do you actually do the harm reduction part? Easy. You develop a “Healthy Lazy”, you make healthy behaviors so convenient you will just tend to do them way more often. And how do you do that? Well, let’s look at an example. Let’s say you want to eat healthier food. First you run through some foods and start asking yourself, will this food feed your body, or just your mouth? If you don’t know, you can track food impacts 20 minutes and an hour after a meal, noting how your body feels. Feedback.
Then, once you figure out what works for my body, you can do a three-pronged attack under the Healthy Lazy paradigm. Prong 1: identifying low-preparation time healthy meals. Prong 2: identifying healthy snacks you can keep within reach. Prong 3: planning batch-cooking for healthy foods and throwing some in the freezer. Put all this stuff on your 3×5 Self-Care Index Card from #2, updating it as needed. Simple. Update that player inventory.
When you do have energy, motivation, and self-discipline, use some of it to invest in when you don’t. Work up a habit of reminding yourself when you have high-energy to sometimes save up for later. Build Healthy Lazy habits and you don’t have to level grind self-discipline the hard way. Once you do this, you can also remind yourself how much time and effort the unhealthy option actually takes. Boom, you’ve made healthy the easy mode.
#7: Fail Often, Fail Early, Fail Forward
In truth though, some things will always challenge you. This tip comes from Will Smith, he tells us, “You have to get comfortable with failure, you have to seek failure because failure is where all of the lessons are.” Not only that, but he reminds us, “Successful people fail a lot, they fail a whole lot more than they succeed. They extract the lessons from the failure ad they use the energy and the wisdom to come around to the next phase of success.” As an avoidant perfectionist, this really changed my mindset and helped me improve in a lot of ways. I began experimenting.
I realized the absurdity of expecting success — even perfection — on my first try with something. The absurdity of getting demoralized after just one try. Do I approach a video game like that? Of course not! No, I turn it into an optimization game, working on my “character build“, comparing and testing them out. Smith offers, “Practice is controlled failure”. And so you can start to turn this into a mental game too, take a mistake or a failure as a teachable moment. Ask yourself, how can I fail forward here? How can I adjust my approach? I think of it like fine-tuning an RPG character build, making progress on a level or quest.
#8: Defeat Negative Self-Talk With Mantras
Let’s talk more about failure, and how we handle it… What does “Negative Self-Talk” mean? Well, many of us have a negative internal monologue that overgeneralizes our failures, magnifies our faults, and minimizes our strengths and virtues. We polarize our experiences into inaccurate extremes, personalize matters outside of our control, and give ourselves shameful labels. But guess what? You can actually try new inner voices, different tones and personas. You can even give them nicknames. When you start going on the self-hate train, just imagine the negative self-talk voice as that annoying kid from middle-school who always talked smack. Or as a comically overdone villain, repeating its words in a trivializing tone. It takes the edge off!
Do you know what you just did? You gave your life a way better narrator for your personal story. Seriously, you know how much of a difference that makes in a video game? In real-life, it matters even more!
Ok, but how do we get positive? With mantras! For our purposes, mantras refer to grounding statements you repeat to yourself. You can use them for both Positive Self-Talk, and for being more intentional with your self-criticism. I’ll give you a couple sample templates. Start with three obstacles you have personally surpassed, and one goal for the future. Such as,
a) “I survived <the first obstacle>. I overcame <the second obstacle>. Even <the third obstacle> did not stop me. This too shall pass.”
b) “I dealt with <the first challenge>. I worked through <the second obstacle>. Even <the third obstacle> I have grown on. I will improve <a fault> and keep moving forward.”
Turn this into a daily habit, working toward repeating it out loud, overturning your negative self-talk voice by building a foundation for Positive Self-Talk. You can think of these as incorporating elements of RPG milestones, badges, and achievements. Now your personal story has an engaging narrative too!
#9: Reinforcement Through Points, Streaks, and Progress
Ok, let’s gamify that some more though. Your mission, if you choose to accept it: living out the best Psychonaut heist movie since Inception. Back when I had a 6000 hour MMO gaming addiction with Dungeons & Dragons Online, I would log in every day for my Daily Dice loot lottery and Daily Quest XP Bonus. Literally always. Yeah, top notch psychological control through habit-formation right there. But it goes both ways too. You can build a set of healthy habits for Dailies, Weeklies, and Monthlies, turning all that mind control stuff into something useful for your productivity or physical or mental health too.
Maybe you want to work on a daily flossing habit, a weekly cleaning schedule, a monthly data backup routine. Throw that stuff, along with your Healthy Lazy items from #6 and your mantras from #8, onto the back of your Self-Care 3×5 Card. Now when you go to remind yourself on your Self-Care tasks, sometimes you flip that card over and see what you put on the other side too. Guess what you just did? You set up a simple way to inadvertently reinforce your healthy habit behaviors too. Solid.
Now, to gamify this fully, you just have to tie it to a reward system. Here, get some Poker Chips and a bowl, putting one in each time you complete your task like the ones I mentioned above, and your Healthy Lazy tools, and your mantras. If you don’t like the Poker Chips part, this can work with others tokens, or with increasing a d20. Either way, now you have a working points system and progress bar. Throw in an extra chip whenever you hit a certain streak too, rewarding consistency milestones by constructing a personal reputation system. And when that bad boy fills up, you get yourself a reward and reset. Maybe you get a treat, or a cheat day. Whatever unlockables make sense. Gamify those Daily, Weekly, and Monthly good habits until repetition builds routine.
#10: Incremental Progress, Escalating Challenges
Do you want to know a big reason most people fail their New Year’s Resolutions? All-or-nothing goals. Games like RPGs work on principles of incremental progress plans. They give you a destination, let you pick the path, and support you getting there with sequences and scaffolding. They break longer processes into gradual tasks then string them together, moving toward escalating challenges. We made a good start in #9, but now let’s reinforce it with the other ingredients this requires.
To meet a goal — especially a personal one — you need to develop a set of realistic, measurable strategies for improvement. Right? But you also need some form of support. Affirmation, encouragement, accountability. Use the buddy system! Help a friend and have them help you too. Build peer support routines into your Weeklies with check-ins, folding in collaboration and teamwork. Brag a little if you want, just make sure to support your new teammate cuz now you have a team score going too, keeping each others’ streaks going.
This feedback system sets you up for the core of the game experience: escalating challenges. Evolution, how ambitious? Over time you can increase the difficulty of your Dailies, push the threshold of your “Screw It” Point, even work on your Primary Limiter. When you fail, remember what we learned in “Fail Often, Fail Early, Fail Forward”, and what we learned in #9, with mantras. Remember, leveling up comes not just from your character defeating the task and foe before you, but investing in yourself to build a tomorrow greater than your yesterday. If you can do it in a game, you can for damn sure do it in real life too.
Summary of Gamification Concepts
Use status bars as personal prompts, and keep a player inventory, focusing on both inventory slot management and inventory capacity. Start simple with tutorial modes while you map your own difficulty mode, including identifying your personal boss fights. Use the concepts of puzzles, levels, and quests, and work toward an Easy Mode baseline while you work on character build optimization. Mark progress with milestones, badges, and achievements, following reward system progress bars through points and streaks, chasing those unlockables. And as you progress through incremental progress phases, undertake escalating challenges too so you can level up. Finally, ensure you have an engaging narrative that keeps your interest and morale, and a reputation you can feel proud of, becoming a team player.
I hope you found this piece on gamifying your mental health useful, stay tuned for a 2nd installment I have planned for later on. If you liked this, go ahead and share it, and let me know your thoughts in the comments. I publish new posts each Tuesday, and in the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check the bottom for my newly redone sign-up widget to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patron on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Rudy. Thanks for your support, Rudy!