Why turning life into a game is a good thing

Do you have a FitBit? How about myWOD, MyFitnessPal, Fitocracy,  or the plethora of other apps that take everyday healthy activities and turn them into a game? A buzzword that’s been making the rounds in business and social science circles for a few years is “Gamification”, and the fitness industry has been slowly – but steadily – embracing the idea in an effort to get people more active and more engaged in their own health and wellness. But what is gamification?

Gamification: the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as a technique to encourage engagement.

In it’s simplest form, gamifying something involves adding incentives and rewards for completing activities that you would normally do in the course of pursuing something. For fitness, it might be earning badges when you log a healthy eating day, providing a team environment to compete on total steps taken in a day, or just providing a social medium to share your progress. All of these are a form of gamification that helps keep you engaged in the activities you’re doing. Research suggests that gamification in health is having a huge impact on us, as a society. And for once, it’s not a bad thing.

Fun

We like to play. It’s really as simple as that. When you see people working hard at a task, chances are it’s because they enjoy it, and that makes it play, makes it fun. Gamification doesn’t necessarily turn everything into a real-life game, but what it does do is add some of the more fun game elements – motivation, guidance, progression, investment, and discovery – into your life in specific areas. Adding the elements that make games fun can help transfer that feeling to things you might not otherwise see as fun on their own.

Said another way, people will do whatever you want them to do as long as they’re enjoying it.

Motivation

Would you ever play a game that had no reason to play? Of course not! Whether it’s simple or complex, short-term or long-term, games always have a reason for playing them. Sudoku, one of the simplest games out there, is just about getting numbers to add up. It’s literally gamified basic math. But millions of people spend hours playing because the addition of one little factor – predetermined number placement for one or more numbers in the square – means that it goes from “add this row/column” to a puzzle that asks to be solved.

Good life-style gamification is the same way. Some people truly enjoy walking, but not everyone wants to slog through 10,000 steps every day for what seems like no immediately tangible reason. Yes, we all know it’s good for you, but we humans don’t always indulge in the good stuff if it doesn’t feel good right away. But as soon as you make walking into a social challenge – competing with friends, family, and anyone else to see who can walk the furthest that day, week, or month – you now have an immediately tangible reason for getting 10,000 steps every day: someone else got 9,000 and you want to do better.

However, not all motivations need to be competitive. Many non-competitive people prefer personal achievement in their games. These are the people who love the idea of earning badges, points, and levels as a measure of their progress in the game. For them (and by that I mean “us”, because I am definitely at least half achiever) accruing those incremental rewards as a sign of progress is what matters.

A good example of the difference would be two martial artists: one trains to win at sparring matches, while the other trains to earn higher ranks. Both may be of comparable skill and experience in the end, but their journey will look and feel very different due to their motivations.

Guidance

A great game doesn’t leave you hanging out doing nothing. It provides guidance from one objective to the next, and breaks down larger goals into smaller pieces so you can tackle them in a more manageable way. Most games start out slow, teaching you how to play, showing you the basic controls & mechanics, and then letting you go through some easy levels until you understand what you’re doing. It’s the “on ramp” phase of the game, becoming progressively more difficult as you play longer and, in theory, get better at it. Along the way, you may receive notes, objectives, or cinematic scenes that provide more information about where to go and what to do next.

Adding a gamification layer to other thingscan work much the same way. You enter into an area where you are not the expert (like fitness, for example) and run into the problem that 90% of people have: where to start, what to do, when to progress, and where to progress to. But what if you had an app on your phone, Facebook, wherever that gave you these markers and guidelines when you needed them?

A good example might be an app that helps you train for a marathon by helping you log your running (distance, time, and a five-point “effort” scale), then provides your next day training plan based on how long you have until the marathon date. Or, on the other side, a website that logs your workouts, calculates the effort expended, and then provides points/badges for completing certain milestones (like Personal Records, maximal lifts, total reps, etc), then suggests areas of improvement based on what you tell it.

Both these examples of are ways that adding a small gamification engine to life can support your goals by giving you direction.

Progression

When you think about it, the game “Super Mario Bro.” is really just a series of jumping over, jumping on, or avoiding other blocks of stuff, some of which are also moving in one or more directions. Sure, there’s colors and sounds added in, but what is the game itself? Jumping, hitting, and avoiding. A lot of games can be broken down into the same components, but as a plant we spend about three billion hours playing video or computer games each week. A hallmark of many of these games – ones that would seem otherwise repetitive – is progression. You beat a level, you get a new level (usually harder), and then you do it again. You progress through the game, meeting harder challenges as you go, and garnering feelings of accomplishment with every small step you take.

An endless level where you can never win and there’s no way of telling how far you’ve come would eventually wear you down until you no longer wanted to play. Ask anyone, and they would probably be able to see the same thing with only a little effort. So why do we treat life – and specifically, health & fitness – like an endless level that leads to failure, rather than a series of micro-challenges that lead to success? Seems like a dumb way to do it, if you ask me.

Gamification can add a layer of progression onto your lifestyle that, in addition to providing fun, motivation, and guidance, will also provide you with the feedback you need to see yourself becoming better over time. Whether it’s seeing a series of tasks that need to be done to eat healthy (plan meals for Monday, check food stock for ingredients, go shopping, etc), or earning points for lifting heavy and attending your target number of workouts that week, adding a steady progression helps you, well, progress!

Investment

Games get you invested by using the other factors to draw you in and help you care about what’s going on. With three billion hours going into games every year, there has to be a certain amount of investment to keep us all playing! Outside of video games, this can be a good thing, too. Too often, the things that are the best for us, aren’t the things we spend the most time actually doing. Generally, this is because the good stuff has long-term payoff, whereas the bad stuff tends to be immediate: vegetables today for a healthy body later, or cake today because cake! Most people go with the cake. The elements of gamification discussed above all help you invest in the long-term while still enjoying the short-term.

Fun things are fun. They keep you coming back because, in the end, we all like to play.

Motivation is the key to accomplishment, whether it’s external or internal, and gamification lets you figure out what motivates you the most. When you’re truly motivated by something that works for you, you stay in longer.

Guidance and Progression work on a similar mechanism to keep you invested. When you have a road map to follow and can see the way to your goal, it makes it easier to break things down into small steps. At the same time, being recognized for accomplishing those small steps gives you a boost of motivation and purpose to move towards the next step.

Rinse, repeat, accomplish.