OPINION: Gamification can be a solution to improved health

An Apple Watch has an exercise activity tracker pulled up.
Gamification can be instrumental in transforming our relationship with health, writes Alexander Chao PO ‘25. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

What have you been eating? Are you exercising enough?

These questions were easily drowned out amid waves of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. While maintaining healthy habits may seem unimportant compared to our other worries, it deserves more attention than you think — many of us are still battling unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyles we developed during the lockdown. As the virus becomes less prevalent in our lives, it is time for us to focus again on leading healthier lives for greater happiness and productivity, and gamification can help with that. 

Gamification is more than just the games that ordinary teenagers are addicted to these days. It is also not just the integration of game elements like points and scores into our everyday lives. Rather, as the early gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou puts it, gamification is a design that uses all the “fun and engaging elements found in games” that motivate players and “applies them to real-world or productive activities.” Essentially, gamification is a human-centered design that focuses on motivating our core drives. If effectively applied, gamification can make being healthy not something you have to do, but something you actually want to do.  

Gamification has become increasingly prevalent in our smartwatches as well as fitness and nutrition apps: think Fitbit, MyFitnessPal, Apple Health App, to name a few. Since people naturally struggle with sticking to and completing long-term goals, gamification helps you create a plan and tackle the long-term goal of maintaining good health by rewarding you for your short-term accomplishments and motivating you to consistently reach milestones and earn progress badges. For instance, if you are trying to build a running habit, being able to see your run completion data, collection of streaks and receive badges serves as empowering short-term rewards that may motivate you to maintain the habit. 

Instead of browsing through the internet for workout and nutrition videos, you can follow engaging guided programs offered by these apps. The Fitbit app offers one to three weeks of personalized programs to help you develop better sleep habits, mindful eating and weight training. Depending on the types of goals you set, such as improving sleep quality or learning weight training, the app comes up with the best strategies to help you achieve your desired outcome, such as meditating before going to bed and suitable workout videos. It also engages you and keeps you on track by sending reminders throughout your day and shows your progress bar and streaks. The personalization aspect of gamification appeals to people’s desire for ownership over their health journey, and may drive more commitment to improvement. 

Users can also connect and share their progress with friends, family or public groups with shared interests such as running or meditating to motivate each other. While people who are more driven by competition can join and create challenges with friends to engage in fun competition, others can join supportive online groups and collaborative challenges. These social features are just a few examples of how gamification can motivate us through social influence, by encouraging competition and collaboration. 

A common concern may be that gamification encourages a toxic competitive culture where people are primarily driven by numbers and rankings, instead of truly appreciating the benefits they would gain from exercise. While there are people that are better motivated by competition—which is not necessarily toxic and can be friendly—other people can join supportive online communities and collaborate with friends and family to complete challenges. For example, Fitbit’s All for One and Custom Challenges allow up to 100 people to collaborate and reach a customized common goal, such as 100 combined hours of exercise over three weeks. These teamwork challenges are intended to make people feel bigger than themselves, since they are part of a group effort to achieve better health.

The potential and positive influence of gamification in healthcare have plenty of room for growth. While it may not be the only or the best way to motivate everyone to develop healthier habits, it is certainly one of the most promising and easily accessible. 

In the coming years with technological advances, health apps may be groundbreaking tools that can transform our relationship with health and motivate people to engage in healthy behaviors. Take charge of your and your family’s health by giving gamification a shot.

Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime and road cycling. 

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