New Year’s Resolutions: Your Own, Personal Interactive Experience

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What to expect from this post

  • Analysis of new year’s resolutions as interactive experiences
  • A narrative journey
  • An unlikely case study: What happens when an interactivity designer and storyteller turns her life into a durational, interactive experience centered on New Year’s Resolutions?
  • A template for re-thinking new year’s resolutions and interactive experience design for your life
  • tldr: Sorry, not for this one. We’re talking about a year of your life here and something that precious takes a handful of paragraphs.
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New Year’s Resolutions are interactive experiences. They just happen to suck most of the time. As a designer of interactive experiences that gamify philosophy, chaos theory, self-growth, and paradigm shifts, I’ve been experimenting with New Year’s Resolutions and gamification for years. After a year like 2020, we badly want 2021 to be different. We want our resolutions to matter and create meaningful change in ourselves and our world, so let’s take a deep look at this yearly ritual of New Year’s Resolutions to see how this powerful interactive experience can knock our socks off this year!

Heres how the New Year’s Resolution Interactive Experience (aka, making resolutions) currently unfolds:

Learning About the Event

  • December rolls around. This is basically an alarm clock for New Year’s Resolutions. You have exactly one month left of being your current self before you Phoenix into a completely different human being who just so happens to be capable of achieving infinitely more and better things than you are currently capable of.
  • This new you can be found in something called The Magic Circle. This term is often applied to games and immersive experiences and while you don’t totally understand it, everyone seems to be saying that it is a place where transformative, interactive, experiences happen and none of the actions you have ever taken in your entire life can affect you there. You are excited to enter it on January 1st. Seems like a cool place.

Onboarding

  • January 1st arrives, maybe you’re a little hungover, but surely this is as good a state as any in which to create meaningful, transformative, life-changing resolutions that are perfectly tailored to your exact needs and abilities over the course of the next 365 days, none of which you can deviate from once they are set.
  • A quick scroll through social media lets you know you’re not playing through this experience alone. The vagueness of your resolutions (do more of X, less of Y, zero of Z), does in fact, seem to mean that you are playing correctly. Notably, there is no one to call for technical support because the lore on New Year’s Resolutions goes so deep that no one knows who the creator is and we all just kinda chalk that up to the thrill of the collective consciousness in the immersive universe or whatever. The Magic Circle is ok so far but would be improved by a large glass of water.

The Experience

  • Way too long. There does not appear to be an intermission, actors, set, program, plot, trailhead, instructions, or basically anything concrete in this Magic Circle. To be fair, the first hour is great. You do fifty push-ups, eat a vegetable, and call your Mom. Highly invigorating and inspiring. You haven’t felt this good all year, which, to be fair, is about 12 hours old. Unfortunately, you lose the thread of the experience so completely by week two that you forget you even signed up for this interactive experience to begin with.
  • A cursory social media glance on January 8th shows that there don’t appear to be any other participants anymore and also you may have thrown out your list of resolutions last Thursday, which is what you get for not enacting your resolution of keeping all of your notes in one place this year.

Off-Boarding

  • Nah. Not so much. Also feel bad about yourself. This will motivate you to Phoenix into a completely different human being next year, one who is capable of achieving infinitely more and better things than you are currently capable of. Or maybe save that for the next year. And the next. And the next. And the next.
  • Getting better at it? Didn’t think so
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It is probably clear to you by now that the New Year’s Resolution Interactivity Experience is fundamentally broken. Resolutions crafted in fifteen minutes are expected to generate a full year of satisfying interactive content, yet users don’t even get a second pass at writing that content, let alone have access to the content of professional interactivity designers. This is readily apparent because no interactivity designer worth their salt would ever consider the first pass at a year-long interactive experience to also be the final draft, so why oh why would New Year’s Resolutions- a highly interactive experience that users embark on to profoundly change their personal narratives over the course of an entire year- be any different? When, you may be wondering, was the last time New Year’s Resolutions had a proper playtest?

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Me: ::Scrolls through social media:: Hmm, I wonder what the deal is with new resolutions. People really seem to like them. ::types ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ into search engine::

Internet: ::laughs for ten minutes:: Responds, still laughing: Do not set New Year’s Resolutions. Setting NYRs is the #1 way to NOT do those things. If you absolutely MUST set New Year’s Resolutions, set the bar so low you trip over it, ideally within the next five minutes.

Me: Got it. Heard. Understood. ::sets, like, 200 New Year’s Resolutions::

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Wait, What?

If you’re now thinking that I, the author of this article, have no idea how to craft a satisfying interactive experience and am possibly residing somewhere outside of my mind at the moment, I want you to know that I see where you’re coming from with your very reasonable assessment of the situation. 200+ resolutions is excessive, even to me, someone who, as you may have guessed, really loves making and checking things off lists.

Bear with me, we’re going on a journey.

Easy. Because they should be going out of style. The style they are currently exhibiting is antiquated, flat, confusing, lonely, boring, severely lacking in narrative, and durational for no discernible reason. We expect more from our walks to the kitchen than from this year-long, nominally transformative interactive experience. And yet… there is potential. New Year’s Resolutions (NYRs) do three things that are hallmarks of good interactive design, and they do them in a top-notch way.

What New Year’s Resolutions Do Well:

  • They provide users with a clear goal: Get something done that you want to get done.
  • They are recognizable and simple to understand: Just about everyone in America knows what a New Year’s Resolution is. This familiarity with the subject matter means we don’t have to re-invent the wheel when re-inventing what it can do. By building off the existing framework, we can more easily re-think how thoughtful interactivity design can support us in the real world. Why do you think there are so many Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland immersive experiences out there? Familiar content makes it possible to play with participant’s expectations.
  • They provide a framework for profound collective consciousness: The goals individuals set for themselves may be unique to them but the experience of setting them is a communal activity. The ritual design, however, around setting and achieving NYRs is, to put it gently, sub-par.

But I digress.

Here are the three major reasons I set myself a laughable amount of resolutions in 2018:

  1. For those who hyper-focus (like myself), having one goal breeds perfectionism and perfectionism breeds paralysis. 200 goals, on the other hand, might just be attainable by hyper-soft focus.
  2. The whole premise of NYRs is to create orderly systems that allow us to up-end our lives every once in a (yearly) while. Back in 2018 I, like most New Year’s Resolution setters, just wasn’t doing all of the things I wanted to do in life, particularly as a creator and entrepreneur, so this NYR sitch seemed like a fantastic opportunity to shake myself out of a rut.
  3. I also believe that arbitrarily saying ‘no’ to things without giving them a fair shake is a major world hangup that sets us back as a society in a myriad of ways. Suck on that, Internet search engine.
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Here’s the thing though. I don’t love committing to things. I like to know that I can change course on a whim, which is not exactly conducive to setting year-long goals. The desire for fluidity of focus is part of the beauty and curse of being a creative human, especially the kind of creative human who is in constant conversation with, and deep appreciation of, the real-time feedback of intuition.

The idea of committing to goal/s for a full year was terrifying to me. I was anxious that my intuition would be stifled by rigidly choosing goals on January 1st that I would be equally beholden to on December 31st, no matter how much I had changed over the course of the year. Alternatively, I would fail at them and feel bad about myself, or not even try and feel even more bad. It was no wonder the internet laughed at me that day.

New Year’s Resolutions were setting me up to fail. They set us all up to fail. This is bad design, plain and simple.

NYRs lack the specific constraints that make the experience meaningful to us as individuals.

So I did what any interactive experience designer would do and built out a gamification for New Year’s Resolutions.

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What follows is a case study

What happens when an interactivity designer and storyteller turns her life into a durational, interactive experience centered on New Year’s Resolutions?

If you’re currently feeling the tension of whether or not I succeeded in completing 200 New Year’s Resolutions, you’re feeling the fourth thing that New Year’s Resolutions do well: build narrative suspense.

The Beating Heart of the 2018 New Resolution Interactive Experience

Iteration. Iteration is a key component of interactive experience design. As stated earlier, first passes at an interactive experience are almost never good. In order to improve them, they have to change, step by step, over time. For this, clear constraints are needed. So the first thing I did was constrain the heck out of myself.

Constraints:

  1. Periodic Permanence. In order to achieve the 20 BIG resolutions I hoped to achieve by the end of the year, I created Russian nesting resolutions that I could iterate on every month. These were the variables in the experiment; smaller resolutions I committed to on the first of the month that helped me to achieve the BIG resolutions. These matryoshka resolutions, unlike the 20 BIG resolutions, could be altered on the first of the month and only be altered on the first of the month. Non-negotiable.
  2. Fail faster. When I was in doubt of what to do that year, I would go for the thing that I might bellyflop the hardest on. Pushing to the edges of my abilities was essential to the process. Non-negotiable.
  3. Creative practice as priority. When budgeting my time, creative work came first. Non-negotiable.
  4. Positive thinking. There was no such thing as Actual failure until 11.59pm on December 31st, 2018. I gave myself permission to live one whole year in this experiment without knocking myself down at the knees. Non-negotiable.
  5. No dating. Current partners got to stay but no one would be added to the pack. It was just too big a variable for me to crush on someone and get caught up in ‘what ifs.’ My ‘what if’ energy was to be reserved for art projects. Non-negotiable.

It’s probably clear by now that there was no control group for this experiment, however, scientist of interactivity and play that I am, I chose to be rigorous in my data collection. For as specific as all these constraints were to who I was on January 1, 2018, the form of the experiment was easy to tease out:

  • Set new goals on the first of the month, let them be in service to the 20 BIG goals set at the beginning of the year
  • Set clear, non-negotiable constraints
  • Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t every month
  • Don’t get sloppy
  • Don’t stop striving until December 31st, 2018
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Each month I tracked what goals I hit, didn’t hit, and by what margin. I tracked my progress in ical. If I committed on March 1st to 20 minutes of meditation a day for the full month, that meant that 19 minutes did not cut it, even if I’d meditated for two hours the previous day. If I missed a goal by 60 seconds that month, that was that. Alterations to the system occurred on the first of the month and the first of the month only.

NYR slippery slopes were not to be broached. Ever.

Is this extreme to the point of utter absurdity? Yes. Did it work? Also Yes.

This does not mean I hit all 200 goals. Far from it. But those I didn’t fully hit got, like, 83% done. Sometimes a heck of a lot more.

On the smaller goal front, I did not memorize 12 poems in 2018 but I memorized 10, and that’s 10 poems I can now recite from memory that I couldn’t recite at the beginning of the year. I can juggle now (a topic for another time), and I conceptualized over a hundred games, many of which have made their way into subsequent work. I wrote 12 handwritten letters to loved ones that fill me with love and gratitude. Insert 196 other things here.

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Let’s take a look at the bookends of January and December:

Monthly Resolutions:

  • Floss daily
  • Cook 30 new recipes
  • Practice daily out loud gratitude
  • 20 minutes creative work a day
  • Keep a budget

The first fifteen days of “20 minutes of creative work” consisted of me writing limericks. Why? I have no earthly idea. But part of the point of all of this rigor was to allow intuition to be my partner this year so I listened to her input and wrote stupid limericks for two weeks. In retrospect, it was a gateway to doing more meaningful work. The stakes for limerick quality were non-existent and I was making myself laugh, which helped me value myself as a comic writer, which maybe played a role in the solo show I created later in the year being comedic. Creating a solo show was one of my BIG resolutions. It just so happened to be about order upending the life of a professional chaologist. Did limericks have anything to do with this? Who knows. Did the super extra system that allowed the limericks to emerge have anything to do with it? You bet your list-loving butt it did.

It also turned out that flossing every day was pretty gosh-darned easy. So was cooking 30 new recipes (following, not creating them). So I cooked 30 new recipes in February, too. And March. And April. And November. This resulted in a repertoire of over 200 new recipes at my disposal. I also kept a budget. Then I kept one again. And again. And again. And suddenly I had been flossing daily, keeping a budget, eating vegetables, valuing my creative time, and practicing gratitude aloud for a full year. Poem memorization and learning to juggle joined the mix in February, meditation cycled in in March, and when I didn’t want to meditate for a month, I didn’t. Permission pre-granted.

Monthly Resolutions:

Week 1 & 2:

Project specific work:

  • 20 minutes Chaos Theory
  • 20 minutes NPS game
  • 20 minutes class prep

Skill Building:

  • 10 minutes/day practicing either juggling, photography, piano, or vocal (must hit all once/week)
  • Floss daily
  • Practice daily out loud gratitude
  • 12 minutes meditation/day

Week 3:

  • 20 minutes Chaos Theory
  • 20 minutes NPS game
  • 20 minutes class prep
  • Floss daily
  • Practice daily out loud gratitude
  • 12 minutes meditation/day

Week 4 & 5:

  • 20 minutes NPS game
  • 10 minutes class prep
  • Floss daily
  • Practice daily out loud gratitude
  • 12 minutes meditation/day

By the time December rolled back around, the system had evolved based on my needs as a creator. I was re-mounting CHAOS THEORY for the third time in as many months at HERE Arts, NYC so the bulk of the work on the show took place in the three weeks before opening, hence the week by week breakdown of resolutions. Steady progress on other projects was time-bound to allow for much more than 20 minutes of CHAOS THEORY prep to occur every day. The trick was that at least 20 minutes of work on the show occurred daily. Speaking as someone who’s biggest hurdle is settling into the first five minutes of work, after which I can work happily for hours on end, this constraint was everything to me.

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Here is where the interactive design shined over the course of the year: I had full control of the system but I didn’t have to waste energy making micro-decisions every day/hour/minute about what to do with my time. I trusted the experience I built to both support me on my narrative journey, challenge me to see the world in a new way, and open up secrets that could only be discovered by deep, persistent exploration and engagement of resolutions. The system was responsive to my choices but not so flimsy that it couldn’t push back and keep me on track when necessary. I knew my goal (do all resolutions), my role (doer of resolutions), and my motivation (more on this in the next section).

Underlying the rigor of the experiment was something that I rarely so much as whispered to myself over the course of the year. It was a shadow monster that drove me to experiment and iterate in ways that might, in any other circumstances, have been utterly absurd. The underlying tension was this: On January 1, 2018, I wasn’t living up to my expectations of myself as a creator. I didn’t know what to do about it but I did know I wasn’t going down without a fight, so I told myself the following: if I give it my all this year as an artist, if I Fail Faster in every possible way as a creator, and I don’t like where I end up, I will stop calling myself an artist. Moreover, I will leave the country. I will have Actually failed.

Drama queen, table for one. But who cares. I can roll my eyes at the emo energy of 2018 me but the salient point is this: the MACRO goal of the entire year was to up-end my life; to fail as fast as I could so that I could learn as fast as I could. And if it took some Dashboard Confessional energy to get me there, so be it.

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Of the 20 BIG, time-intensive goals I set on January 1, 2018, I achieved four of them by the end of the year. That is an abysmal success rate. However, that’s FOUR MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS in 2018 that I wouldn’t have otherwise succeeded at. By interactive design standards, four life-changing wins in one gameplay loop is pretty damn excellent.

One of the BIG resolutions that I succeeded at accomplishing was to create a solo show. CHAOS THEORY is now a show I’ve run consistently for the last 2+ years. A show that has now won awards, brought me into collaboration with a team of phenomenal artists, new friends, led to a TEDx talk, and been a calling card to an industry I am now a meaningful part of. Another resolution was to playtest a game I designed myself at an established game conference. Cue Schrödinger’s Cat becoming a showcase game at Boston FIG 2018, Best Tabletop Game of HawaiiCon 2020, and a showcase game at Fastaval 2021. The game also launched a whole new immersive experience, KNOW THYSELF, in 2019. Both of these projects helped to introduce my particular brand of playful experiences for serious people, as well as set my reputation in the tabletop games and immersive theater scenes, neither of which I even knew existed on January 1st, 2018.

Despite the fact that I only achieved “perfect” months in January and March, I felt, by the end of the year, that I had proven to myself that I was a deeply committed artist and entrepreneur who did not, in fact, have to leave the country and drop their life-long identity. I wasn’t anywhere near “done” but I was satisfied with the work. Even if I had wanted to focus on the things I didn’t get done, I couldn’t, because the constraint of Positive Thinking was in place all year and it was non-negotiable. This forced my perspective to broaden in phenomenal ways that took a year of practice to even begin to internalize.

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There are many ways to re-ritualize and profoundly personalize New Year’s Resolutions. My personal system of non-negotiable constraints and monthly re-writes is one way to make personalize the system. I could tell at the end of 2018 this particular version of The New Year’s Resolution Interactive Experience wasn’t something I’d do every year, but it was a tool in my toolbox and it was honed to a sharp motherfucker of a point. I was intensely grateful to have experimented all year in a way that felt right to me, even when it was excruciatingly hard and profoundly imperfect.

My initial fears of being locked into a stifling set of rigid New Year’s Resolutions, or living in the failure of quitting them, gave rise to a gloriously malleable system of uncompromising New Year’s Resolutions, one that taught me far more about interactive design than I could ever have imagined on January 1st of that year. Lessons from this experience are still rippling through my life even now, three years of iteration down the line. How interactive systems affect us as individuals and groups is a topic that I now explore, gamify, perform, coach, and consult on regularly. As we head into the new year, I am still resolving, still iterating, and still failing as fast as I possibly can.

So yes, the Magic Circle is some seriously false advertising and the UX of New Year’s Resolutions has set us up to fail for most of our lives. The question is, how fast, how hard, and how joyfully can we do the failing?

Happy New Year! May your resolutions be the You-est resolutions around!!

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http://ikantkoan.com/

IKantKoan is an award-winning game and immersive experience studio for playful people with serious souls.

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