Oops. I gamified my life.

I am a grown man who is terribly pleased to get a sticker. What is worse is, this sticker is not even real. Yep. My partner bought me an activity monitor (if you’ve not heard of these think footstep pedometer on steroids).



Today I am mostly pleased because, since putting this device on, I have walked the same distance which emperor penguins migrate (112 km if you are interested). For this, my phone displayed a little picture of a penguin when I logged in. Super! Next, I want to climb stairs equivalent to a helicopters cruising altitude. I vow to avoid all elevators from this day on!

Why am I so motivated at the moment? This system works so well due to effective use of a concept called gamification. Gamification refers to the use of tools used to keep people engaged with computer games being re-purposed to increase motivation in other contexts. It has been used widely in areas as diverse as improving motivation to behave healthily[1], encouraging safer driving behaviour[2] and acting in environmentally friendly ways[3]. Gamification relies on various mechanics such as points (being awarded for desirable behaviours), badges (visual tokens which can be publicly displayed and which are only granted when significant activity milestones are met – go penguins!), leaderboards (comparing the self with others on performance on the desired behaviour dimension),progress bars (which illustrate how far to go until some goal is reached) and visual representations of recent past performance (to graph improvements). When daily, weekly and life time goals are achieved, the user is rewarded by happy faces, badges and the like to commemorate events and progress. Users can also compare their progress against others or set goals and challenges within the group.

Tell me I am great! Motivate me to be greater!

I’ll be honest, I love to hear I am doing a good job. A key concept of gamification is regular positive feedback and a sense that the next goal requires extra effort, but is also realistically achievable. This reduces negative feelings (and increases positive ones), magnifies feelings of competence and autonomy and generates a sense of group action. The mechanics used can also be matched to the expected profile of people using it.If the predominant motivators of ‘players’ is to achieve, badge type mechanics, and those which reward individual achievements will likely be effective. For those who like to compete, leadership boards and short duration competitive challenges will be highly motivating. For those who prefer a more co-operative style, group goals and group reward structures may be preferable. But what is it that actually makes me go up a few extra flights of stairs? A second key concept is a trigger – the delightfully named ‘Fogg Behaviour Model’[4] argues that depending on levels of ability and motivation an individual has different optimal triggers. These can include facilitatory actions which help you achieve the goal, signals for you to respond or a ‘spark’ which drives behaviour. For me, seeing how close I am to hitting that target when I log in triggers an extra effort.

When these things all come together well, something beautiful happens: people get engaged, motivated and do more of something. Designing these things well, however, is not easy. I had the opportunity recently to meet with some very smart folk at play-consult.com, who design gamification apps. This is director Marcus Thornley’s view on gamification:

Gamification, when done right, can be a very powerful engagement driver. It can help create a motivating environment where ‘players’ understand where they are (status), how far they’ve come (mastery) and help establish positive habits that can become behaviours. We’ve applied it to topics as diverse as wellness, team performance, learning and development, financial planning and shopping – with incredible success (both in terms of engagement and behaviour).

That said, it’s not a panacea in itself – you can’t just drop in a badge and a leaderboard and expect success. The real power comes from combining these mechanics with user-centred experience design – creating compelling products that are designed for the end user, as opposed to ones that are clumsily trying to manipulate.There’s a subtle but important distinction between products that are designed for end-users (think B2C) and those that are designed for a 3rd party to affect end-users (think classic ‘nudge’-type approach).

My own experience of gamification has been uniformly positive. However, it’s not all roses for everyone – as with most things, gamification has a dark side- many of the ‘almost there’ reward systems which try and keep people engage have been linked to problematic (even addictive!) behaviours, including internet addiction, or problematic app use. As always, all good things in moderation should be the rule…

[1] McCallum, Simon. (2012). “Gamification and serious games for personalized health.” Studies Health Technology Information, 177 ,85-96.
[2] Shi, C., Lee, H. J., Kurczal, J., & Lee, A. (2012, October). Routine driving infotainment app: Gamification of performance driving. In Adjunct Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications (pp. 181-183).
[3] Huber, M. Z., & Hilty, L. M. (2015). Gamification and sustainable consumption: overcoming the limitations of persuasive technologies. In ICT Innovations for Sustainability (pp. 367-385). Springer International Publishing.
[4] Fogg, B. J. (2009, April). A behavior model for persuasive design. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Persuasive Technology(p. 40). ACM.
Pac Man image by Perlinator via pixabay
P.s. I love my Fitbit*
P.P.S One neat thing this little device measures is the duration and quality of my sleep.So, when the new-baby-related argument about who is more tired inevitably (re-)occurs, I have statistics to fall back on. My partner just has to rely on reality 😉

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