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HabitRPG helps you win at life and zombie cactuses

If you want to make some life changes but tend to care more about your health bar than your actual health, gamifying your goals with an app like this one can help.

Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

Browser-based HabitRPG makes a good pitch: "A free habit-building app that treats your life like a game." Other key words on the page: "instant gratification," "accountability," "consequences." I'd say they had me at instant gratification, but really they had me at RPG.

Not everyone understands how much more compelling a game can be than reality to those of us whose brains are bent that way. Devoting endless calculation to the right combo of skills and weapons, sure, but figuring out your dental insurance? Too much trouble. You'll spend hours setting up your MMO player housing, but begrudge a few minutes to tidy up your actual housing. When you want to buff up your real-life life but your brain just isn't into it, even the simplest game can be surprisingly motivating.

HabitRPG starts you out with a little pixel-art avatar and four columns to fill out with habits, dailies, to-dos, and rewards. Habits are things you want to do more often or stop doing, dailies are things you want to be sure to do every day (or on particular days), and to-dos are one-shot tasks. Rewards can be motivational things you choose yourself or in-game items offered by the store.

My own habits are pretty boring, so let's look at someone else's. (Click to enlarge.) This lady meets her daily goals pretty consistently -- why's she even using this app? -- but she struggles more in some long-term areas. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

When you succeed at a habit or check off a daily or a to-do, you get gold and experience and sometimes random drops of eggs and potions to hatch pets with. (Pets come in different types, from bear to flying pig to cactus, and styles, including red, gold, zombie, and skeleton, and if you feed a pet enough of the right food it'll turn into a mount.) When you fail at a habit or miss a daily, you lose health, and if you run out of health and die, you lose a level and some of your stuff. No! Experience levels you up, which sometimes unlocks new game features.

You can set up habits so they have both plus and minus indicators, or only plus or minus. Let's say you want to eat ice cream more often, and drunk-text your ex less often. You could combine those into a single habit -- hit the plus sign when you eat ice cream and the minus sign when you drunk-text your ex -- and the color coding of the habit will tell you how you're coping overall.

But you could also set those up as separate habits, one where you hit the plus sign when you eat ice cream (but there's no penalty for not eating it) and one where you hit the minus sign when you drunk-text (but there's no reward for not doing it).

That way, no matter how poorly you do at not contacting your ex, the game doesn't negate all your progress consuming ice cream, so you still feel encouraged.

Though color coding indicates how well you've been doing at building or avoiding your various habits, each one also has a streak counter. That's nice because if you only count streaks -- say you've been trying to always make your bed or quit drinking Red Bull after dark -- missing a day leads to thoughts like, "Well, back to square one! Might as well go crazy indulging myself before I start trying again!" But this way, you can still see how well you've been doing, which motivates you to keep going even when you lose your numbers.

Some of the many pets you can create from the right egg and hatching potion combo. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

It's best not to get carried away and load yourself with so many goals that the app seems overwhelming to use; don't try and completely document your life. Just pick a few things that you want to be reminded to do more often, and a few tasks you want to get around to.

I've also found that for me, collecting pixel pets isn't enough motivation to overcome strongly established bad habits, but it works for the smaller things that can help you get a toehold on the larger ones. "Wash all the dishes every night" and "Cook every meal at home" sound huge, but "Keep the sink empty" is surprisingly easy -- and then the sink is ready when I do feel like cooking.

Possibly the best part is that the game aspect makes that old trick of telling yourself, "Just wash one dish" or "Just sort papers for 5 minutes" actually work. Normally your brain knows it's a trick: "You just want me to do ALL the dishes, REALLY, and I don't feel like it." But with HabitRPG, there's an outside motivation -- albeit a small and arbitrary one -- to honestly just do one dish or 5 minutes of sorting, so why not. And sometimes, yes, you then choose to do all the things, but you didn't have to.

Things don't look good against this world boss. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

There are several other interesting features, such as a class system with powers that change the rules a bit. You can tag all your goals for easy sorting. There are mobile apps for Android and iOS that sync with the browser-based game, and there are even related browser extensions that will penalize you HabitRPG health points for browsing Reddit during working hours and such, if, you know, you feel that's a bad thing.

The optional social aspect is probably the most motivating part for many people. You can form parties with other players so that your personal successes and failures help or hurt the whole group, with quests, boss battles, and rare loot.

There's also a big chat room called the Tavern, where you can learn about monthly developments in the RPG-d world of the game. A world boss called the Dread Drag'on of Dilatory showed up recently next to the Tavern chat window. Its health bar takes some damage every time any player completes a daily or a to-do, but it also has a rage bar that fills a bit every time any player skips a daily. Though the community rallied to make an extra push to do tasks, the rage bar filled much too fast. That means the Drag'on is about to unleash a devastating attack, so the Tavern and other HabitRPG buildings may look very different tomorrow.

So if you're seeking motivation to spend more time outdoors or less money on Steam sales, to write more epic sagas or read less Bigfoot erotica, HabitRPG is worth a try. I've been surprised by how much it's helped me take care of things I've been putting off. And I have definitely had plenty of ice cream.