I know people who can spend hours per day playing video games. The activities they do in their virtual world are similar to jobs that exist in the real world. They build cities, solve problems, and hunt for opportunities—all without getting paid or needing external motivation.
I’ve wondered what it is about games that make them so absorbing. When I’m playing a video game, a board game, or even a competitive sport, it’s as if time doesn’t exist. I’m focused on the situation at hand and fully engaged in making the best next move.
While I think our relationship with technology has its issues, there’s wisdom in learning from what works and keeping the best. That has certainly been the case for me in applying the principles of gaming to my personal health. The results have exceeded my expectations, and I think the principles can be applied broadly.
My 1st Smart Watch
I bought my first smart watch several months ago. I heard it could track my sleep, daily movement, and heart rate—all things I was interested in knowing. What I didn’t expect was that having this information displayed on my wrist would also turn out to be a big motivator.
As a former cross country runner in college, I still consider myself to be a reasonably fit person. But there’s no denying that 10 years of working behind a desk hasn’t been ideal for my health. I’m 20 pounds heavier and much more sedentary. While I’ve exercised sporadically over the years, I’m less motivated and consistent than I was when I had a track team and daily practice to keep me in line.
My biggest health concern has been poor sleep habits, which was a major influence in purchasing the watch. I thought if I could see the broad patterns of my sleep, I could make some positive changes.
Beyond what people have learned over centuries through lived experience, there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that exercise, moving around, and getting enough sleep are vital parts of a healthy lifestyle. The problem isn’t that we’re unaware of this; it’s that we don’t have the habits to consistently live it out.
After a month with my new watch, it was clear that something had changed. Not only had I achieved my new health goals, but I was doing so without willpower. What once required discipline was now the very thing I was eager to do.
It would be easy to credit the novelty of the watch for my progress, but the truth is that the watch managed to change my relationship to many of those activities. The watch’s designers have tapped into deep psychological truths about human nature. They’ve taken many of the same elements that make playing games so rewarding and applied them to the user experience of their product. In the tech industry, this is called gamification.
Elements of Gamification
Gamification is the art of applying the elements of game playing to other activities. It’s not as complicated as it may sound. Here are a few ways that my watch does this.
In any game, there are clear goals to achieve. These bring a sense of clarity and simplicity to the gameplay, which helps to keep the players engaged and focused. My watch does this by asking me to input measurable goals across a number of categories. Many people never break down their goals to this level, but rather stick with vague goals, such as getting healthier or having more energy.
Short Feedback Loops
With some goals, there’s a long gap between starting and realizing if we’re on the right track. This leaves us with a degree of uncertainty, which can be demotivating. However, a good game provides a lot of feedback, checkpoints, and milestones to keep you motivated. My watch provides real-time feedback on my wrist, and I can see by mid-afternoon if I need to pick up the pace to reach my goal.
Sense of Progress
A great game keeps the play moving and builds a sense of forward progress. In sports, the clock keeps ticking; in board games, the card pile gets smaller; and in video games, you see your score climbing. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have this constant reminder of our progress as we journey toward our goals. My watch makes this simple by showing my progress over time, including best days and longest streaks—all of which motivate me to keep going.
Technology Not Required
While my watch has been the catalyst for gamifying my health, the technology itself isn’t even necessary. There are many creative ways to apply the elements mentioned above to your own life right now. For example, my wife loves to create beautiful charts to hang on our refrigerator to track family chores. Our kids might earn a sticker for completing a chore and a reward for doing so consistently over time.
Whether you use an app or a sheet of paper, the real power of gamifying your life is that it forces you to think intentionally about how you structure and track your goals. The responsibility will always be on us to make positive changes in our lives, but I believe that we can take the best of what game designers have learned about human nature to support ourselves in those efforts.