Maybe slay the dragon second

2 minute read Updated:

When you log into World of Warcraft or any other role-playing video game, your first job or prompt is not to slay the dragon. You are given tasks appropriate to your skill level, which in the beginning may be exploring the village, collecting points by talking to the local farmers, or any other combination of short, simple missions like retrieving a token. These beginning activities are not for nothing, and in fact, help build the foundational skills and habits used later in the game for the large tasks. In essence, video games and the users who inhabit their worlds know how to build optimistic, problem-solvers by presenting appropriately scaled challenges and rewards in a stepwise fashion.

This “Slay the Dragon Second” principle is widely applicable, including for the Quantified Self community, which aims to generate “self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology”. We have seen members track habits and add or subtract new or old ones to improve their physical or mental performance. However, they often fall short of their goals, not from a lack of care or interest, but simply because they try to add too much too fast. We recommend to slay the dragon second. Instead of adding in a 3 mile run, ketogenic diet, and a half hour of meditation all in the same week, we advocate for adding one habit in its simplest form to build your skills repertoire. Think of it as the orientation and exploration phase of ‘level one’ in World of Warcraft. By starting at the proper level (instead of jumping straight to the final boss), you can mitigate the risk of all of the wheels coming off your experiment if just one habit goes by the wayside. Habits are not built or broken immediately, so keep in mind:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it also didn’t fall overnight

What if we took the Dragon Principle a step further? To build healthy engagement habits, we see this applicability especially fitting for the civic engagement space. When we ask members of the public to join a city committee, attend rallies, and visit their state capitol, they are most likely to participate once and never return, especially if it is the beginning of their civic engagement experience. Instead of an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to participation, we prefer to see these engagement opportunities as chances to flex our civic engagement muscles and become oriented in the world of public service. By encouraging citizens to engage with their governments in small, tangible ways (a letter to your representative or attending a city council meeting as a spectator), then we can help members to build faith and understanding in a system that not only welcomes their feedback but shows these same people that they are affecting outcomes through their engagement and that our public servants are responsive to feedback. By slowly introducing new missions and new goals, we will prepare our publics for the big operations, for when we call upon them to slay the dragon.

There is a lot to learn from game designers. By thoughtfully presenting appropriately scaled challenges and rewards for these activities, more people will be willing to contribute and engage in a long term and beneficial way for themselves and their communities.

This post was co-authored by Erik Johnston and Jessica Givens

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