Gamification became a pretty serious buzzword a few years ago. Wikipedia tells me it got hot in about 2010, which matches my recollection because it seemed to stem from the Farmville craze that swept your relatives’ facebook pages in 2009. Farmville was one of the first big social media phenomena that started drawing non-gamers into a gaming world. This was not too long after the launch of the iPhone, when all of a sudden a huge market of consumers had a gaming platform that they carried with them throughout the day.
Farmville was, and this isn’t just me saying this, a remarkable shitty game. The basic idea was ripped off of other games, there was nothing particularly novel or even all that fun about it, and its main function seemed to be enlisting users to spam their friends and relatives with invitations. However, people poured hours and hours into this awful fucking game. People started thinking, “How can we use these powers for good?” Gamification is essentially this – using social gameplay mechanics to achieve some external purpose. This might be work productivity, mental health, healthy-eating, whatever. If you find yourself “leveling up” something other than your paladin, you may have been gamified.
So What Does Gamification Entail?
The main thrust of gamification is increasing motivation. A lot of healthy behaviors suck. Exercising sucks. Eating good sucks. Quitting smoking sucks. If you disagree with those statements, you are probably already doing these good habits and good for you. Otherwise, you need something to make this suck less. Farmville sucked, but somehow the gameplay mechanics made it fun to the point of addiction. The idea is that instead of getting addicted to spamming your relatives’ facebook walls with invitations, you get addicted to jogging.
Nobody really owns the concept of gamification, so this can vary significantly depending on who you ask. I tend to think of this as a 21st century version of a token economy – setting up a pretend reward system to encourage better behavior. When it’s at its best, though, gamification can be a lot more than this. Good gamification starts with a health behavior theory, layers gamification strategies on top, and incorporates some of the capabilities of social media and mobile applications all in the service of changing behavior.
I was actually part of a team that created an app that used gamification to encourage healthy eating in women using an app that was pretty similar to Farmville. We wrote a paper on it, and I somehow managed to slip this MIcrosoft Word monstrosity into the Journal of Medical Internet Research:
I encourage you to read the whole article, but this ugly-ass graphic gives you the gist of it. The main gamification strategies are:
- Help users clarify their goals.
- Encourage a sense of competitiveness.
- Reward progress.
- Make it accessible.
- Make it accountable.
- Make it fun.
How Does it Work?
That top strategy is one of the primary advantages of gamification. Most people suck at making goals. Some examples of really shitty goals:
- Get healthy.
- Lose weight.
- Meet new people.
- Be less anxious.
- Be happier.
What makes these goals shitty isn’t that they aren’t helpful or well meaning, I would just have no idea how to accomplish them. Think about how video games do it. This would be like being dropped in the middle of Skyrim with the mission of “Save the Kingdom”, and that’s all the instructions you get. No Quests, no journal, no highlighting important items or characters. You don’t know if you’re supposed to join a faction, fight the dragons, or establish a public education system.
That’s now how Skyrim does it. They give you a long term goal (defeat Alduin), broken down into quests (learn to shout), broken down into steps (meet with the Greybears), with specific instructions on how to complete each part. Sure, it’s up to you to actually do these things, and you can absolutely fuck off to climb the ranks of the Thieve’s Guild if that’s what you want to do, but even that has clear, achievable objectives.
Good gamification helps you do this. Think about if your own life was broken down into a series of quests, with a journal that you can easily reference when you forget what you’re supposed to be working on. Instead of working on “getting health”, you have two quests: eat better and exercise more. Your exercise quest has daily challenges – walk up one flight of stairs, take at least 4,000 steps – and longer missions – take a martial arts class, find a regular pick up game of basketball. Accomplish your missions and you level up into harder challenges – jogging, weightlifting, running a 5k. Your Fitbit tells you how you are doing on these missions. You get tokens for accomplishing challenges, and you can use these points to upgrade your equipment (by getting a coupon for running shoes). There’s a leaderboard, and you can see how your friends are doing. You can brag when you’re winning. Your friends can give you shit if you’re not keeping up.
Another potential advantage of gamification that is less talked about is the ability to push people outside of their comfort zone. Beyond encouraging people to engage in activities that they already know they should be doing, like eating vegetables or meditating, gamification can encourage people to try something they would have never thought of before – like going salsa dancing, or LARPing.
Most gamification apps will cover most of these. The ones that I’m most familiar with are Fitocracy, Habitica, and Superbetter, though there are dozens more. Most fitness tracking apps will have some gamification strategies built in, such as an ability to post your progress on Facebook and connect with friends. The rise of Fitbit and other such fitness trackers has been a great advantage to gamifying fitness, but it’s harder to find objective, measurable signs of progress to track for mental health. This gives general health behaviors a definite edge, but there’s a mountain of research that says that improving physical health has a great effect on mental health.
Even still, there are mental health specific benefits to gamification. One of the primary treatments for depression is “behavioral activation”. This is basically breaking the vicious cycle of “I feel depressed so I don’t want to do anything -> I didn’t do anything, so I feel depressed…” by essentially forcing people to just engage in pleasant activities even when they’re not in the mood. Gamification can give people that external reward, because sometimes “I can get a new funny hat for my avatar” is more motivating than “this will improve my depression.”
Exposure treatment is also easily gamified. This would be for a phobia, particularly social phobia. The app might suggest ways to put yourself out there, starting with the relatively easy (“smile at a stranger”) and building up to the difficult (“perform at an open mic night”). What’s incredible about this that you are actually increasing your skill. The easy stuff gets easier, the hard stuff is achievable. You’re putting +1 into Charisma each time you do one of these challenges, and you actually get more charismatic!
So I’m not going to give you step-by-step instructions on how to gamify whatever habit you want to work on, plenty of other people will help you with that. If you want a good starting point, I can generally vouch for Superbetter or Habitica. Share your own experiences with gamification in the comments and get 20XP today!