I’ve just started playing a game called Health Month with some of my friends.
The basic idea is pretty simple: turn getting healthy into a recurring, month-long game you play with your friends. If you remember my 28-Day Experiments with Josh, you can see why this appeals to me. But if you look at a team page1 you’ll see that a lot of different things are being tracked: the scoreboard shows points for the whole team, and things called “life points,” “fruit,” “points,” “team points,” and “rules” for each member.
Well, it’s complicated for a reason: all of these points and things are gains (things that help you achieve a goal) or losses (things that hurt your ability to achieve a goal), and they interact with one another across the different levels of the game. It’s this interaction which makes the game effective: to succeed as an individual, you have to get help from the group, and for the group to succeed, its individuals have to make individual efforts. To understand how these gains and losses interact, think of there being three different levels to the game:
Individual Level: Stay in the game!
Life points are what keep you in the game for the whole month. Fruit is what gives you back lost life points.
On this level, losses are personal. You lose 1 life point each time you break one of your rules. For example, if you’ve given yourself a rule that says you’ll exercise for 30 minutes each day, and then skip a day, you lose a life point. No one but yourself can cause you to lose life points.
Gains, on the other hand, are collective at this level. You gain a fruit for each day you end with at least one life point. Fruit restores life points, but it works most efficiently when you give it to other people rather than using it for yourself: it takes twice as much fruit to heal your lost life points as it does to heal those of others, and if you use your fruit on yourself, you still have to make a public appeal, so everyone knows you’re being selfish and using your fruit for yourself rather than others.
Team Level: Help your team win this month’s tournament!
The most important metric on this level is points (I’m going to call them “change points” to help differentiate them from life points and team points—about which more in a moment—but they’re just plain “points” on the website). Change points are earned for doing positive things in pursuit of your goals. You can see how they accrue at the end of each day as you tally your scorecard. For example, today, I’ve earned the following change points:
- 5 pts – Drank 3.0 glasses of water
- 14 pts – Listed some grateful things
- 6 pts – Didn’t meditate2
On the same page, I can gain more change points for how diligent and thorough I am with my recording: if I write a short review of my day, I get 10 extra change points, and I get another 10 change points for recording my progress in a timely fashion.
Team points are related to change points. An individual’s team points are his or her change points handicapped for the size of their team. (For a more thorough explanation of how that handicapping works, see the explanation in this post on the Health Month blog.) The sum of members’ team points determines the rank of their team among all the Health Month teams.
At the team level, the nature of gains and losses is reversed from the individual level: here, gains are personal. You can only gain change points by working on your own goals, not by helping others with theirs. And losses are collective: no one individual can carry a team with many members to success against other teams; the group must rely on all its members to make progress.3
The way these two levels interact can be summed up as follows:
Goal: Beat Other Teams!
Goal: Stay in the game!
restores life points through
not gained because of
Collective Failure to Act
lost because of
Personal Failure to Act
Take a look at that scoreboard again. Now it seems a little clearer what’s actually being measured:
Which brings us to the top level of the game:
Real World Level: Change your life!
Actually, calling this a “level” is a little misleading. Unlike the other two levels, there’s no actual game here. But wait; how can that be? Isn’t changing your life the point of the whole enterprise?
Changing one’s life for the better is certainly the point of the first two levels of the game, but it’s intentionally not the goal. The goals of those levels are endurance (hang on to your life points long enough) and achievement (gain points to increase your team’s rank). You don’t win either level by being a certain weight, or having low blood pressure, or keeping your gums free of gingivitis. If those measures determined who won the game, hardly anyone would play, because really achieving any of those things is hard, and would take far longer than a month. What all those gains and losses really measure are two things: collective engagement and sustained effort to change personal behavior. You win the individual level and the team level by maximizing both engagement and sustained effort. The really clever thing about all those points is that the way they’re structured gives you a positive feedback loop: the more you help yourself, the more you help your team, and vice versa. The two levels of the game become a sort of simple machine, multiplying your engagement and effort to form a sort of artificially high willpower.
You use that machine, then, to win the real world level of the game: actually changing your health (and your life) for the better.
The important factor on this level are the rules you set up for yourself at the beginning of the month. They are, in effect, how you calibrate your machine. A well calibrated machine will have a sustainable balance between risk and potential. The more rules you make, and the more difficult you make them, the more potential you have to earn change points. But keeping up with lots of difficult rules carries lots of risk, since any failure to abide by a rule loses life points. Too few or too easy rules can keep you from succeeding just as well as too many or too difficult can; the winning strategy is to figure out a balance that creates a machine that can sustain your effort and amplify your engagement for the time it takes to alter an ingrained behavior.
And that’s what’s brilliant about Health Month. The actual activity of the game, the accrual of points and fruit, is something like creating the corpus of data examined by of an engineer or an urban planner before embarking on a project. The work of the game is not like that of an artisan perfecting one object: you’re not learning how to just lose weight, or just lower your blood pressure, or just get to sleep on time. Rather, through the work of the game, you’re learning how to build a system that can create that sort of object, that kind of positive life change, over and over and over again.
3Because of the handicapping, a team of one person can contend against teams with many more people, but I believe the point still stands because, however they are labeled, one person, by definition, is not a team.