Gamification for Better Health and Well-Being?


A healthy and mindful lifestyle is not always easy to achieve and maintain, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, or – more precisely – the ‘new normal’ that we’ve been adapting to. And if you ever have recovered from injury or struggled to sleep at night, I’m sure you know how frustrating it could be…

So, what can you do to improve your health and well-being?

motivation by airpix (CC BY 2.0)

It’s been shown that motivation is a major factor driving our health behaviour change (Johnson et al. 2016:89–90). While various strategies have been developed to engage and motivate people in the healthcare domain, ‘gamification’ emerged significantly as it’s been found to provide promising possibilities and, indeed, have positive impact on individual’s health and well-being (Alahäivälä and Oinas-Kukkonen  2016:62–3; Johnson et al. 2016:104).

This blog post, of course, *is not* aim at telling you to stop taking prescribed medicine or downplay any health-related issues (listen and follow what doctor told you, not me!). It does, however, discuss the benefits and limitations of gamification in health settings through some of my experience so far. But first…

Why Gamification?

By applying certain features of games (or ‘game elements’) in, for example, physical exercises, hygiene or meditation, gamification seeks to motivate users to adapt and maintain good health behaviours (Alahäivälä and Oinas-Kukkonen  2016:62–3; Johnson et al. 2016:89–90).

Here’s a short video I made on how gamification can help you build healthy and mindful lifestyles:

To give you some more insights into this theme, let’s look at Fitocracy – a gamified fitness app, that I’ve been using to enhance my physical activities.

Workout Tracking, Coaching and Connecting

Fitocracy is designed to motivates anyone who want to achieve their fitness goals through applications of game and social elements. The app offers a range of predesigned exercises for various purposes, such as strength, cardio, weight loss or group classes.

However, you can easily create your own workouts and track them at your own pace. You can also create your own profile in a few taps. These features are what Yu-kai Chou (n.d.), a gamification pioneer, described as ‘Ownership’ in his Octalysis Framework, which means when you feel like you own something, you’re most likely to be motivated.

Another feature that I saw in Fitocracy, which is quite common in most fitness apps, is a timer (or sets and reps, based on the exercise). It can be referred as ‘Impatience’ (Chou n.d.), the core drive of gamification that motivates you to complete the exercise in a limited time or with specific reps and sets.

If you need some helps when first use the app or wonder what’s the right way to do an exercise (like me!), step-by-step tutorials are always available. Also, throughout your fitness journey with Fitocracy, you can earn points and badges every time you complete your workout or beat some quests. While I haven’t seen any progress bar on the mobile app, the points you earned will help level up your profile and ‘Achievements’ tab is where your badges will be displayed. A leader board is also available for you to see your rank and connect with top users. In short, these features are considered as ‘Development & Accomplishment’ (Chou n.d.), the internal drive of gamification that motivates you to progress, overcome challenges, and eventually achieve your fitness goals.

Besides, the app was also designed as a social platform where you can join the Fitocracy community to get support and motivation. You can even hire an expert coach and access nutrition programs, no matter you’re a beginner or an experienced athlete. These social features, or ‘Social Influence & Relatedness’ (Chou n.d.), thus, seek to motivate you based on your social connections with fitness-minded people and trainers.

Overall, Fitocracy has added to the evidence that the use of gamification is strongest when targeting health behaviour outcomes related to physical activities (Johnson et al. 2016:104). However, while the app did motivate me to challenge myself with new workouts, specifically through the collection of badges, it didn’t provide constructive feedback or rewards that are engaging enough for a long run. And the list of limitations could just go on and on…

You can still find other gamified apps for healthcare, such as Zombies, Run!Nike+Headspace or My QuitBuddy, to name just a few. Yet when it comes to applying gamification in the health context, whether for physical fitness, mental well-being, or e-health, they’ve all shared somewhat same challenges that might hinder its efficiency and effectiveness (Alahäivälä and Oinas-Kukkonen  2016:66–8; Johnson et al. 2016:104; Sardi, Idri and Fernández-Alemán 2017:38).

While more tests need to be done to measure the effectiveness of gamification in the healthcare domain, it should be clear that, for designers and healthcare providers, there’s no one-size-fit-all gamification to improve health behaviour changes and, importantly, ‘human-focused’ should always be the core drive in gamifying an app, so as create long-term engagement and motivation (Chou n.d.).

For users, on the other hand, the potential benefits of gamification in healthcare, as well as other non-gaming contexts, should be considered and utilised appropriately to maximise the desired outcomes.

“In transforming the future, there are no hard and fast rules. What gamification will become in the short and long term is in the hands of those who design it and those who participate in it…”

(Brown 2021)

References

Alahäivälä T and Oinas-Kukkonen H (2016) ‘Understanding persuasion contexts in health gamification: A systematic analysis of gamified health behavior change support systems literature’, International Journal of Medical Informatics, 96:62–70, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2016.02.006

Brown A (7 February 2021) Our World, GamifiedAdam Brown, accessed 22 April 2021.

Chou Y (n.d.) Octalysis: Complete Gamification FrameworkYu-kai Chou: Gamification & Behavioural Design, accessed 22 April 2021.

Johnson D, Deterding S, Kuhn KA, Staneva A, Stoyanov S and Hides L (2016) ‘Gamification for health and wellbeing: A systematic review of the literature’, Internet Interventions, 6:89–106, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.invent.2016.10.002

Sardi L, Idri A and Fernández-Alemán JL (2017) ‘A systematic review of gamification in e-Health’, Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 71:31–48, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbi.2017.05.011

All images created by Tuong Bach Pham with Canva, unless otherwise specified.


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