In our last post we discussed legal “Gamification,” that is, approaching certain legal tasks as if they were a competitive game in order to maximize both individual and team engagement and produce superior legal outcomes. In this post we look at “personal gamification” — how you can create stronger personal motivation and resiliency by drawing on some basic game principles. And oh, yeah, live longer, too.

How’s Your QWL and SWB?

 It’s no secret that many lawyers feel that they are living the Sisyphus myth, constantly pushing the same rock uphill and then having it steamroll them as it rolls back down. They report that overall they’re pretty dissatisfied with their lawyerly existence and, largely because of work demands, unhappy with their lives in general. Many lawyers report that they are overworked, overstressed, chronically fatigued, and constantly behind the eight ball.  In research jargon, this means that their QWL – Quality of Work Life – is subpar and that what scientists call their SWB – Subjective Well Being (also called happiness)is uneven at best.

This posture – constantly rocked back on their heels — puts them right in the cross hairs of various experts looking for practical ways to sustain personal stamina and momentum in the face of extraordinary work-related stresses.  Among these experts is professional game designer Jane McGonigal. In a TED talk called The game that can give you 10 extra years of life,”  McGonigal suggested that highly-stressed people (which certainly includes lawyers) should invest time creating a personal game based on exercises that produce a lot of small wins over minor but nettling adversities.

She calls these little wins “power ups.” Pursuing power ups can, she says, be made into a kind of game that you can weave into your everyday life and work. More important, it can provide positive emotional momentum that, over time, can produce what shrinks might call “a corrective emotional experience.” The result? A calmer, healthier, and actually longer life. McGonigal suggests that the entire planet – which obviously is hurting and needs a lot of healing — would be far better off if it spent a total of about 21 billion hours a week playing the kind of  resiliency-building game, she calls SuperBetter.

Thank You, Mr. Nietzsche

Here’s the predicate for resiliency games like SuperBetter: Not all trauma (including the traumatic aspects of your work) produces the damaging consequences of post-traumatic stress and its worst-case cousin, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has shown that when perceived and managed in a certain way, traumatic events may actually trigger post-traumatic growth (this may remind you of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement: “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”).

People experiencing post-traumatic growth report a new sense of meaning and purpose, revised personal priorities that place a stronger emphasis on what will make them happy, and increased ability to actualize their hopes and dreams. This has the admirable healing effect of immunizing them from negative stressors to some degree.

Put differently, for lawyers and other stressed-out performers, post-traumatic growth generates greater overall personal resiliency, which, in turn, is comprised of four components:

  1. Physical resiliency that allows us to resist stress better.
  2. Mental resiliency that enhances our focus, discipline, determination and will power.
  3. Emotional resiliency, that is, the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking.
  4. Social resiliency, the strength we derive from relating to others in order to adapt, improve and excel.

Generally speaking:

  • Physical resiliency is promoted by engaging in frequent physical activity.
  • Mental resiliency is developed by consistently confronting and overcoming small, manageable challenges.
  • Emotional resiliency is evoked by cultivating positive mental images focusing on curiosity and relationship.
  • Social resiliency derives from personal interactions in which we consciously give and receive both trust and reward.

According to University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo, PhD, “social resiliency is not equivalent to warm hugs, unconditional positive regard and anti-competition sentiments.”  Here, he suggests, is where the competitive aspect of games comes in: “Both science and the Olympics rest on competition as well as cooperation. Both involve intense training and criticism, and both enterprises are high in social resilience.”

Where Gaming Comes In

To rebut lawyers’ natural skepticism of any activity not expressed in terms of billable hours, gamers cite considerable social research evidencing that games are not a waste of time. The psychology of games teaches that when we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, optimism and determination.

Corporate Counsel Magazine recently reported that former Kirtland & Packard litigator Michelle Moyer now works for New York-based LRN Corporation, which applies gaming techniques to law and ethics training. She became part of a team that created a seven-part series of video games called “Resolver.” “We were talking about how to reengage employees who have become bored with traditional modes of education in the workplace, so we decided to apply gaming techniques and design.”  Moyer reports that when employees played Resolver, “for the first time in our history we had employees repeating their education, so that they could move higher on the leaderboard. They became very competitive in a fun way.”

Proponents of personal gaming also pitch the health and happiness benefits of shared games in reinforcing social relationships and fostering group collaboration. Particularly striking are the results of recent ground-breaking clinical trials showing that engaging – key word here: engaging — in video games does a better job of alleviating anxiety and clinical depression than various types of pharmaceuticals.

Other research indicates that people become healthier and more resilient overall if they experience a “3-to-1 Positive Emotional Ratio,” meaning three positive experiences for each negative one. The trick, of course, is to devise a continuous supply of positive vibes while working in an environment that may not be inherently stimulating or gratifying.

Game designers like McGonigal argue that devoting half an hour a day to your “gaming face” (as opposed to honing your lawyer’s “game face”) really can produce significant improvement in stamina and your personal SWB quotient.

Building Your Own Private Resiliency Game

To develop the most effective kind of resiliency-building game for yourself, gamers suggest that you first actively practice small, short reframing exercises – the “power ups” we mentioned earlier — intended to bring a bit of positive juju into otherwise oppressive days and events. Can you make a game out of answering 20 pages of repetitive interrogatories? You can if you create a set of performance metrics, no matter how trivial, for the task. How fast? How efficiently? When your self-defined metrics create a win for you, you have a power up. Should you turn everything you do into a competitive game?  Why not – as long as it does not impair the quality of your legal performance or efficiency?

Next add another twist: five years of Stanford research has shown that playing a game in which you create an idealized and powerful alter ego – an avatar – can actually recast your sense of your “true self” and make you more ambitious and more courageous.

In other words, in your personal resiliency game you mentally create a powerful, self-actualized version of your self, and set it to the task of combating the challenges of your work and personal life. You can keep score, if you like, just like in video games, to reinforce your increasing sense of mastery.

Your own personal version of McGonigal’s SuperBetter game should therefore integrate five elements:

  • Inventing and adopting powerful personal identity.
  • Battling bad guys (or negative forces you depict as bad guys).
  • Recruiting supporters and allies to share your game with you.
  • Continually activating different kinds of power ups to produce a robust stream of success experiences.

The Play is the Thing

If you feel a little silly recasting your work and life as if they are pieces to be moved about in one long challenging game, remember that playing games can add to your longevity; you don’t have to tell the judge or your litigation adversary that you are recasting them as part of a resiliency-building game. They may note your inscrutable smile, more assertive demeanor and calmer personal “game face,” but they don’t need to know what’s going on. That’s between you and your avatar.