Level Up! The Gamification of the Fitness Industry

Can the fascinating science of gamification make exercise easier? Maybe it can, but only with a little help from the world of video games.

Level Up! The Gamification of the Fitness Industry

Can the fascinating science of gamification make exercise easier? Maybe it can, but only with a little help from the world of video games.

Exercise is difficult. 

You don’t need too much research or science to figure that out. It can be painful, exhausting, and you just sweat so much! 

But it’s important.

Exercise is key to leading a healthy lifestyle. It helps you control your weight and body fat levels, it can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease, and it can have profound positive effects on your mental health and mood. Countless studies have been carried out looking at how exercise impacts the body and mind. Honestly, the list of good reasons to exercise seems like it just keeps on growing longer and longer.

This paper discusses the benefits exercise has on the heart. This paper looks at the more invisible positive effects of exercise on mood. And this paper downright states that exercise is so effective that it should be considered a drug! Don’t believe us? Here’s an actual quote from the paper…

Our general conclusion is that exercise is so effective that it should be considered as a drug.

Vina and colleagues, 2012

Maybe we went too obvious with that one…

But those are literally some of the first papers we found when we searched for “benefits of exercise” on Google Scholar. Like we said, the list just keeps getting longer.

But bearing that in mind, we also said exercise is difficult. We’re big believers here at PartyLab in the importance of exercise, but we never want to try and claim that it’s in any way easy. Regular exercise can require commitment, dedication and planning. Despite all we know about how great exercise is, the world is still gripped in an obesity epidemic.

The Obesity Epidemic

Obesity has tripled worldwide since 1975, with close to 2 billion adults classified as overweight in 2016. Add to that almost 400 million children and adolescents, almost 40 million of whom are under the age of 5, and you can clearly see the crisis we’re in!

Obesity is one of the world’s largest health problems, accounting for almost 5 million deaths every year. It’s a risk factor for the development of issues such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and numerous forms of cancer. The only risk factors that cause more deaths worldwide than obesity are high blood pressure, smoking, high blood sugar, and air pollution. Obesity can be directly linked to two of these, meaning it’s probably even more damaging to the world than it’s given credit for.

Our society has inherently changed. We’re now more stationary than ever. We work in jobs that require plenty of mental capabilities, but few physical ones. Transport is getting better and better, despite what we might think, and the world is getting smaller and smaller as everything becomes more accessible.

If we aren’t going to get enough physical activity during our day-to-day lives, then the other option to combat rising obesity is exercise. But, as we mentioned before, exercise isn’t always easy. It’s not natural for everyone and, depending on your individual circumstances, can be difficult to start.

Added to this, exercise has the unfortunate quality of not providing you with instant results. If anything, you’re likely to feel tired or even sore if you start exercising more than you’re typically used to. Progress might not be seen visually for weeks or even months. It’s a slow process that requires patience and immense willpower.

So how exactly do we make exercise more appealing?

Well, maybe we can turn to an unlikely source…video games.

The Gamification of Exercise

As anyone who’s ever played a video game will know, there’s a certain satisfaction to be felt when you achieve a task. We don’t care if it’s Candy Crush or Dark Souls, we all enjoy the sense of accomplishment we get when we see “Winner” pop-up on our screens. 

We drive ourselves crazy trying to beat difficult levels, and spend way too long looking for the last item just because we have to collect them all and we’re only one away. What if we could use these same ideas to motivate us to exercise? That’s where gamification comes in.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is simply the act of using game elements and principles in things that aren’t games. Let me give you an example.

For anyone reading who’s wearing a fitness tracker on your wrist, how many steps are you on today? Do you have a goal? Do you get excited when you reach it? Have you ever walked around aimlessly just to try and get your steps past your target? Even if you haven’t, We’ll bet you know someone who has.

That’s gamification. Wearable fitness trackers take the game element of collecting points (steps) with a clear target for you to achieve (your step-goal) and give you a small reward when you achieve it (a celebratory notification or badge). They’ve taken a key element of what makes games addictive, and used it in their products in order to get you to engage with them more.

In a word, it’s addictive.

The Science Behind Gamification

Let’s take a deeper look into how this actually works. 

Why exactly do we do anything? Well, there’s a simple answer – motivation. Motivation underpins essentially all of our actions. If we’re motivated enough to do something, we’ll do it. Motivation is a very complex construct however. There’s a massive difference between the motivation to eat or drink (survival) versus the motivation to get up and go exercise. Researchers have developed many different theories and constructs to describe motivation, but we’re going to focus on something known as Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) works on the basis that everyone is motivated by three universal needs:

  1. Competence – feeling that you’re good at whatever you choose to do
  2. Relatedness – feeling connected to others or that you belong
  3. Autonomy – feeling that you have a choice in your behaviour

The theory can then be structured around a straight-line scale that goes from not having any motivation at all to having the “best” or most healthy type of motivation. The levels of competence, relatedness, and autonomy you experience will determine where you lie on the scale.

  • Amotivation is the state of having absolutely zero motivation.
  • External regulation describes someone engaging in a task purely because of the presence of external reward or punishment. They’re essentially doing it because they have to.
  • Introjected regulation begins to involve a person’s sense of ego. They are no longer acting because of external reward, but instead to avoid feeling guilty or because they feel acting participating will boost their self-worth.
  • Identified regulation describes doing something because you feel it’s important.
  • Integrated regulation is when someone acts because it helps define exactly who they are, it has gone past being important to others and is now important to you.
  • Intrinsic motivation is when all motivation is taken from a pure desire to act. Quite simply, you want to do something because you enjoy it.

So how does gamification influence motivation? It does so by increasing the amount of dopamine we produce. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a response to a reward. It’s often referred to as the “happy hormone” and typically results in strong feelings of contentment or well-being. People often seek out dopamine spiking activities in attempts to elicit these strong positive feelings. Gamification feeds off of this feedback loop.

When you earn points, win a competition, or get an achievement through a fitness app you’re rewarded with a dopamine response. In time, you become trained to replicate actions that brought about that glorious hit of happiness. By gamifying fitness, these apps are influencing both your intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by linking exercise to a chemical reward. It effectively reinforces “good” behaviour.

Leaderboards and competition also serve to motivate certain people, but not all of us, unfortunately. Competition typically taps into our biological drive to survive. The desire to best an opponent on a leaderboard (we’re coming for you Jane, this month’s step challenge is OURS) plays on our intrinsic motivation, while the prospect of a prize in the form of a badge or even just bragging rights works on our extrinsic motivation.

It must be noted though, that gamification isn’t perfect. Contect is extremely important. If we have zero desire to exercise, a gamified app simply isn’t going to help us. There needs to be some form of underlying desire to engage in the activity. Also, studies have suggested that gamification may not be a viable long term approach, and might only be effective for short term goals.

Critics of the games themselves have also appeared. Concerns were raised over the fact that many so-called “gamified fitness apps” have had no input from any psychologists. This is extremely concerning, as it borders on outright exploitation of actual scientific evidence. Design of these apps needs to be evidence-based and research-led. Gamification needs to be implemented from the ground up, not simply added on  as an extra value proposition for cash-hungry developers.

Making Gamification Work For You

So how can you reap the rewards of gamification for your own personal fitness? That’s where this becomes a bit less of a science. Ideally, we’d all like to be intrinsically motivated to exercise. Unfortunately, this is the real world. Sometimes external factors are going to influence us and motivate us. While this isn’t an amazing strategy for long-term success, it could help get you on the road to intrinsic motivation for fitness! So what type of game elements will appeal to you?

Are you a win at all costs competitor? Then maybe something with a physical leaderboard would work for you. Alternatively, there’s plenty of apps that allow you to directly challenge somebody you know to a “fitness challenge.” It doesn’t get more competitive than establishing your dominance over one of your closest friends!

What if you prefer constant rewards as opposed to “losing” all the time? Fitness apps with a social element could be right up your street. Posting a completed workout that people can like or comment on could be just what you need to get that sweet, sweet hit of dopamine that we all crave.

What if you’re so absolutely unmotivated that you need to be physically scared into going out and exercising? Well how about a game that simulates being chased by blood-thirsty zombies as you go about your walk or run? We’re not even joking. But don’t worry, if it all gets too real and you start having nightmares about those dastardly undead assailants, just take a read over our article on using science to survive the zombie apocalypse and all your fears will melt away.

Like we said at the very beginning of this, exercise is difficult. But maybe turning it into a game could help us all do a little bit more. At some stage in our lives we all play our last game. For far too many it happens as children. Turning fitness into a video game isn’t going to solve all our problems, but if it gets us off our chairs and makes us smile a little bit, isn’t that enough for a start?

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