People who were competing against one another did more exercise and formed better exercise habits than people who worked together.

Gamification is the turning of everyday activities and tasks into a ‘game,’ so that they might become more appealing to undertake. Think daily chores. Instead of a written list, you might have an app that gives you points for every task you complete and lets you ‘level up’ if you make enough progress.

The hope is that gamification encourages people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t and helps to build habits that stick around even when the game stops. Gamification is popular in the world of health apps eg there are plenty of exercise apps that give out points and levels. The trouble is, do these apps actually help people to do the behaviour they’re meant to encourage?

In a recent US study, the authors wanted to test out their theories with an app that asked people to increase their step count over a period of six months. They designed the app to include principles of ‘behavioural economics’ – a theory that leverages human psychology to push us towards decisions we might not otherwise make.

The people involved were sorted into three groups. One was the ‘support’ group; they had a friend who was nominated to provide them with encouragement during the six months of the trial. Another was the ‘collaboration’ group; they were randomly assigned into groups with other game players, and all members had to achieve their weekly step counts for everyone to get a reward.

The final group was ‘competition’ where players directly competed with each other for step counts and the person with the highest count got the biggest reward. All of these people were compared to a control group, who got a more basic version of the app.

Which of those groups do you think increased their steps by the most over the six months? If you guessed competition, you’d be right. All three of the social groups improved their step counts, but competition increased the most and after the app was taken away, a curious thing happened.

Those in the collaboration and support groups fell back to their pre-study step count, but the competition group kept up their activity. That suggests some level of habit formation, motivated by competition.

Implications

Gamification has permeated health interventions and mobile applications but not all are created equal. There’s a lot more to be done in understanding what motivates human behaviour, how apps can be designed to keep people healthy and even the ethics of nudging people towards certain choices if they’re unaware of the forces pushing them in that direction.

Last Reviewed: 24/07/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Patel, et al (2019). Effectiveness of Behaviorally Designed Gamification Interventions With Social Incentives for Increasing Physical Activity Among Overweight and Obese Adults Across the United States - The STEP UP Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3505.

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