The Dark Side of Health Gamification

The use of gamification by businesses and consumers has become widespread. It’s more visible in the digital health arena, but there are hidden dangers for users.

Gamifying our lives may seem like an easy way to motivate ourselves and others toward healthy behaviors. However, gamified incentives could also lead people away from their goals—and even make them more vulnerable to unhealthy habits.

In an Information Processing & Management study this year, researchers developed a theoretical model to investigate the effects of characteristics on stressors (privacy invasion and social overload) and strain (gamification tiredness) on humans.

The study concluded that gamification’s competitiveness and interaction are linked to privacy invasion and social overload, both of which can lead to gamification exhaustion. Furthermore, they discovered that health status moderates the connection between gamification characteristics and stressors in a negative way.

We asked experts, as well as developers who work in this industry, to share their thoughts on the findings of the study.

“Gamification holds the promise of increasing motivation,” says Brian Dean, founder of Exploding Topics. He explains that video games have been increasingly popular in recent years, as they are enjoyed by people of all ages and genders. Thus, he believes one needs to come to terms with the potential that video gaming has for future applications, outside of merely being a form of entertainment. “The core concept is to take game building blocks and apply them to real-world events, with the purpose of driving specific behaviors inside the gamified environment,” he adds.

Bradley Bonnen, founder and CEO of iFlooded, believes that gamification positively impacts behavior, cognition, and user experience. He says that in most studies he has read, gamification has been portrayed as something beneficial. Though, he says he also noticed many issues with it, including “a mismatch between the gamification techniques used and the target audience in those cases where gamification had mixed or negative effects, e.g., non-beginners feeling that gamification interfered with access to the target activities.”

Brad Cummins, principal agent at Insurance Geek, considers gamification more “beneficial” than “detrimental.” He says gamification is a powerful tool for motivating patients to adopt healthier behaviors.” Gamification protects user’s health, and although it may jeopardize the privacy of patients, privacy-friendly systems have been devised to keep this data as secure as possible,” he explains. Despite the privacy challenge, he still believes gamification should still be utilized due to its high success rate.

Alex Mastin, founder and CEO of Home Grounds, talks about the difficulty of developing a habit, saying that creating a habit takes a level of dedication that few of us are capable of. He thinks it requires dedication that few of us have. He stresses that gamification can help us form healthy habits. He explains it is often difficult to get started with healthy habits, but apps that make it fun and provide incentives can help you stay motivated throughout the first weeks. He notes these apps do not only change your physical health, but also your mental health. Mastin explains, “With apps for morning routines, including ensuring a healthy breakfast or even consistently making the bed before leaving for work, can help encourage a healthy lifestyle that would otherwise be difficult to feel motivated to even begin with.” He also notes concerns about data collection are valid, but it’s not a major issue, as users can take steps to protect their data.

Katie Hodge, content director for Generator Magazine, says that “gamification causes disinterest, loss of performance, undesirable conduct, and fading effectiveness.” Megan Ayala, fitness and health blogger for Patricia and Carolyn, tends to agree. She says gamification is largely used to inspire, encourage, and excite participants of any environment. “However, most people don’t realize that gamification forces constant competition pressure, leading to severe fear of underperforming,” she explains. This, she adds, leads to people suffering not only from acute exhaustion, but also from severe burnout, which has a detrimental impact on their mental health.

Gamification is a powerful tool that drives and incentivizes participation. While experts agree there might be challenges, it is also true that there are many advantages with gamification.

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