The best thing I bought on Steam wasn’t even a video game

"Gamifying" everyday tasks, like budgeting, can improve your life

To be honest, I wasn’t even looking for anything that day. It just popped up on a Steam Deal of the Day – 66 per cent off? Bargain! And the name caught my eye: You Need A Budget? What kind of game is called You Need A Budget? Curiosity piqued, I clicked on it – and it’s one of the best things I ever did.

No, I’m not going to sit here and extol the virtues of that wondrous little piece of software for the next 10 minutes (although for the record, it honestly and sincerely changed my life). But it did get me thinking about how clever YNAB – that’s what the cool kids call it, by the way – was in marketing budgeting software on a digital shopfront for PC video games.

Things like budgeting and pensions and other Grown Up Stuff always sound like a good idea at the time, but you never actually get around to it, do you? Either you keep putting it off or you resolutely decide to do it now, settle down to get started, realise how futile it is, cry a bit, feel sorry for yourself, and quit before you even begin.

The interesting bit is that YNAB is less about software and more about a mindset and methodology, but it was that discounted software on Steam of all places that initially got my attention. Maybe it’s the idea that getting anything – even something you’re not actively seeking – at a discount leaves us giddy; I can’t deny that that bright and sparkly 66 per cent discount didn’t entice me. Coupled with free, live online tutorials on how the system works, I became a life-long YNABer.

You Need A Budget
You Need A Budget. Credit: Steam

The secret, you see, is that YNAB‘s software, housed neatly in my Steam account, felt less like real-life budgeting and more like a game. Logging in each day (it’s a monthly SaaS) feels a bit like logging into Animal Crossing: New Horizons: it’s not always fun, per se, but it’s a habit, and a quick 20 minutes of maintenance now might save a whole lot of aggro down the line.

This approach helps fuel other parts of my life, too. It’s as if I can’t do anything anymore without gamifying it in some way. The only time I’ve ever had a meaningful relationship with physical exercise was with my Wii and Balance Board (and yes, you’re right, that was indeed a very long time ago, but I used my Ring Fit exactly one time in lockdown and it nearly killed me). I use Trello to organise all my work, but only because I get immense satisfaction moving commissions from “to do”, to “in progress”, to “done”, to “invoiced” to – my favourite – “paid”.

The more I can make a mundane task like time management feel like a game with rewards – be they real, imaginary or metaphorical – the better the chances of me sticking at it.

It’s clearly not just me, though. A cursory glance at any app store shows hundreds of gamify apps designed to boost our productivity. Everyday tasks like running, mindfulness, weight loss, and even learning a new language embrace gamification, most of which also capitalise on microlearning – that is, like New Horizons, the idea of doing something for only 15 minutes a day, every day – in the hope of developing positive habits. By breaking down intimidating tasks into smaller, more digestible chunks and rewarding yourself for every successfully completed step – you know, just like video games do – we can actually get shit done.

So the next time you’re struggling to develop a sensible new habit like drinking enough water or digitising your to-do list, it might be worth rooting around a bit to see if there’s a YouTube video or app that can not only help you do it, but track your progress, too. After all, as immortalised in the words of Noel Gallagher, “Life is a game we play” – so why not play to win, and maybe have some fun along the way?

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