Gamify Your Writing Group

close-up of Sorry[This is a guest post by Emily Johnson, a Texts & Technology postdoc at the Games Research Lab at UCF. Her work focuses on gameful learning, motivation, serious games, and embodied learning. You can find her online at or @ekjphd.–@JBJ]

What do you get when you ask members of a Games Research Group to each commit to 30 minutes of scholarly writing a day? A game, of course! The Summer Writing Challenge began as a motivating way for members to make themselves accountable and stay productive over summer break.

The goal of writing 30 minutes per day was chosen because research suggests that writing each day effectively increases productivity and helps create a daily writing habit. In How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Paul J. Silva explains that “productive writing comes from harnessing the power of habit, and habits come from repetition.” In fact, 30 minutes per day is reported as being enough to create any habit.

The ideas of daily writing goals and writing groups are not new. Ryan Cordell wrote about this two years ago, citing Wendy Laura Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, which most of our group members have used and found helpful in the past. Cordell’s article noted that participating in a writing group and committing to writing a certain amount of time daily helped him to feel more accountable, which helped him to prioritize his daily writing time.

When a group member who had gamified his personal writing log in the past shared it with the rest of us, we were excited to take it to the next level (no pun intended). As researchers of gamification, badging, motivational techniques, and such, we each added to the Challenge in some way, and what began as a simple Google Spreadsheet that calculated daily writing time and added up daily points quickly evolved into a competitive game.

The spreadsheet that started it all

The Summer Writing Challenge commenced with an email describing the general idea behind the challenge, a preliminary points system, and a list of achievements that would be awarded at the end of the week (Entering your name, Logging your first writing session, Being the first to log at least a half hour, Being the first to log at least an hour, and “Other”). The spreadsheet included a column for personal notes about the writing session and a column inviting comments from other challengers. This comments column almost immediately necessitated an additional column for replies as “motivational” back-and-forth comments proliferated.

As would be expected from a fun-loving and digitally literate group, many members enjoyed entering pseudonyms, creating avatars, and even listing their abilities, special skills, levels, and catch phrases, not to mention changing others’ pseudonyms, avatars, abilities, skills, levels, and catch phrases. Many group members added their own Easter egg formulas and scripts to surprise others as they entered their time and wrote comments on the spreadsheet. Oh, and most of them managed to log at least some scholarly writing time, as well.

character self-description

gameful writing avatar

Achievement badges were initially earned for general participatory activities, such as entering your name, logging your first session, writing five days in a row, etc. and these were designed to be a little tongue-in-cheek with silly images—the “First to Enter Name” badge depicts a literal participation trophy. Another set of badges (hidden achievements) was awarded for more tangential activities such as posting the best abilities list, tweeting about the writing challenge, and posting “motivational” comments.

motivational badges for writing

Points are self-awarded, and surprisingly, most of the group members have thus far followed the initial guidelines for calculating points without editing others’ points. Comments have definitely been made questioning the point calculations—there is even a badge for that—but point entries have not been altered, which perhaps reflects the serious regard members of the gaming community generally hold toward this metric.

penalty 5

In the two weeks since the beginning of the challenge [NB: this came in just before the ProfHacker summer break--@JBJ], the spreadsheet has grown and evolved as members have honed their formula and scripting skills. We probably need to shift to something more web-based, or perhaps even a Google Form, to accommodate for the number of badges and comments each person is receiving. So far, we have collectively logged over 34,000 words and 88 hours of writing already!

The group has even discussed teaming up and challenging another campus writing group to a team-based writing competition. Do you need more fun in your academic writing life? Do you have other ways to make obligatory tasks more enjoyable? Let us know in the comments!

Photo “fun with Sorry” by Flickr user Erin Kohlenberg / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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