Gamifying Adulthood with HabitRPG

After creating an account and abandoning it some time before December 2013 (since I have never yet subscribed and yet had a Trapper Santa scroll in my inventory), I have returned to HabitRPG. Here’s a quick examination of why I think I left and then came back.

Why Leave?

The short answer is that I never really “got into it”. I didn’t have a smartphone when I first created an account in the web UI, and it seemed at the time like using the app would be prerequisite to successful gameplay.

When I first got my phone, I installed the app, but I hadn’t touched the web UI in so long that I’d lost track of why the game was fun or rewarding. The app’s not super pretty, so when I wasn’t motivated to touch it by an understanding of the bigger-picture gameplay, I didn’t choose to.

Finally, I started playing with the app at a time when I more or less already had my life under control. I didn’t have any recurringly time-wasting habits cutting into productive work that I was late on, my daily schedule worked out quite well with room for everything I wanted to get done, and so forth. Such is the beauty of “grownup” life, with a 9-5 job and not much else going on. At that point, Ingress was my “I need to touch my phone a lot” game of choice, and satisfied my vague desire for quantified/gamified reality.

Why return?

The game was brought to my attention in passing when I saw a friend playing it a couple months ago, and its usefulness clicked into place for me when I observed how much time I was spending on another online game called dominus. It’s an open-source real time strategy type game, and the realtime aspect of gameplay (as opposed to the immsersive, lose-hours-on-end nature of my other bad habits like Minecraft) made me realize how easily and unobtrusively I can fit a 5-minutes-at-a-time game into my workflow.

Now, if only I could turn those little brain breaks into something useful. That’s where HabitRPG fits in.

What It Is:

You should really go do the tutorial and read the wiki for any kind of a comprehensive overview. In a hideously undersized nutshell, HabitRPG is a game where you get items, gold, XP, and mana points by completeing tasks. Tasks give you rewards (or harm you when incomplete) differently based on their type:

  • Habits are behaviors that you want to get more consistent at. They can either be positive, negative, or have both positive and negative buttons. Consistently plus-ing a habit turns it slowly green then blue; consistently minus-ing it turns it orange then red. Habits stay in your habit list until you delete them, no matter how often they’re clicked.

    • Positive habits are “good” things and have only a + button, which you click when you do them. For example, “eat a vegetable”.
    • Negative habits are things you’re trying to avoid doing, and have only a - button. For example, “drinking soda”.
    • Some habits have both + and - buttons. For example, you might put both buttons on “take the stairs instead of the elevator”, and click on the + each time you take the stairs and the - each time you take the lift.
  • Dailies are things that you want to do once every day, or on certain days of the week. Various game mechanics hurt you when you fail to complete all your daily tasks, or give you advantages when you complete all of them (called getting a perfect day). Dailies stick around until you delete them, and count the streak of how many times in a row you’ve gotten them.

  • To-dos are how you quantify all those one-off things that need to get done. For instance, “Attend CS class” might be a daily for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but “Do CS class assignment 1” would be a to-do.

What It’s Not

HabitRPG is not a replacement for Google Calendar. Although recurring “daily” tasks can be set for certain days of the week, its deadlines feature just doesn’t get in your face the way a calendar email and notification will.

Although I’ll discuss the ways that its game mechanics reduce the likelihood of “do it eventually” tasks getting totally forgotten, I don’t find HabitRPG to match Google Calendar’s ability to make me do an important, time-sensitive, one-off task like attending an appointment.

It’s also not your mom. It can’t tell if you’re lying to it, and makes no effort to detect or punish “cheating”. While this game is a great way to channel a little bit of self-discipline into a lot of results, it cannot magically generate discipline and motivation for you if you start out with zero.

Personal accountability through positive tasks

Part of the fun of this game is the challenge it presents in terms of learning to hack your own brain. One thing I’ve noticed is that I have a much easier time being honest on positive tasks than negative ones. For instance, a habit of “make a public commit on GitHub” is easy for me to recognize when I’ve fulfilled it, and it keeps the experience of using HabitRPG fun – I’m motivated to open the site and record the action I took, because a good thing (XP and gold) will happen when I do.

Conversely, negative tasks are harder to be accountable for because I know that nothing good will happen if I bother to go so far out of my way as to open a HabitRPG tab and wait for it to load, and maybe if I just go do something else I’ll accidentally forget to record it, and... you get the idea.

Good recurrence model

Daily tasks fill a niche that Google Calendar and paper checklists can’t handle as well. There are many tasks that need to be done sometime every day, but it doesn’t matter exactly when. It’s hard to add something to a calendar without picking a particular time slot in advance (then easy to put it off till a different day if that time slot gets taken by something higher-priority). Paper to-do lists are fine for one-off tasks without a set time, but remembering to check a list every day (motivated only by fear of failure, rather than hope for reward) requires more willpower than I usually have to spare.


Getting together with friends to form a party and fight monsters is delightfully entertaining, and provides an element of reality to the game. Now, if I skip a daily task, it’s not only hurting me but it’s harming the cute little avatars of people I care about as well.

It’s also an incentive against cheating, since it’ll be obvious to everyone you’re with if you level too fast. (Though “too fast” is quite relative – a min/maxed Rogue between levels 10 and 20, in the hands of a checklist fanatic, can gain 2 or 3 levels on a productive day.)


One trait of Minecraft which addicted me to the game was its complexity – a player who’s read the entire wiki and memorized a lot of recipes and facts about the game can do interesting tricks which amaze less educated players, and enjoy teaching their friends. I feel like so far, the subtleties of HabitRPG’s game mechanics are hitting a similar sweet spot between being easy to start and difficult to master.


Sometimes I’ll get going on a project or task which makes me feel productive and then repeat it, when another less-satisfying task is more important to do at that particular time. Habits in HabitRPG fight this tendency by implementing a rule of diminishing returns: The more often you’ve done a particular habit, the less gold and XP you’ll get each time you engage in it.


I used to jot down ideas of things to try someday in a notebook; then I went through a phase of jotting them down in a git repository; then upon acquiring a smartphone I had moderate success with Google Keep. The problem with all of those media was that my cool ideas would get lost in them – at times of boredom, I’d forget that my lists were out there.

Now, I’m throwing such ideas onto my to-do list in HabitRPG and they gradually percolate up into being the least onerous challenge available.

Since HabitRPG is a low-guilt site to check when I’m procrastinating on more useful things, it tend to remind me of my “that might be neat” ideas right when I have free cycles to actually do something about them. At the opposite extreme, Google Tasks puts a little list in my inbox and reminds me of things to do when I’m trying to compose email, and have the least free time right then.

Emergent Task Weighting

I’ve noticed a tendency to throw the same unpleasant task into my to-do queue multiple times. or break it down into increasingly longer checklists in order to procrastinate on actually accomplishing it. In a classic to-do list this would just cause me to experience more guilt and fear about the task, but in HabitRPG, it slowly increases the amount of gold and XP that the task will be worth when I finally get it done and check off all of the associated items.

Although some perfectionists might consider multiple occurrences of a task in the to-do list to be cheating, I find that letting them pile up is a powerful technique for convincing myself to finally get it over with and do the task.


It would be nice if the interface displayed the gold, XP, and mana values for each task’s completion on the title of the task.

The to-do list has a button for moving an item to the top, but no button for moving an item to the bottom. Since newly created to-do items default to being at the top of the list, it can get tedious trying to keep older and more important items near the surface.

The interface which keeps track of daily tasks defaults to showing all tasks (even those which aren’t due on the current day), so every time you reload the page you have to click “due” to see only the relevant items. It would be nice if the interface remembered whether you prefer seeing “due” or “all” items.

The app lacks a few features which I find essential to normal gameplay, namely the ability to show only due dailies, and the ability to allocate points into various attributes when you level.