You may think of wearable tech as just a fitness band and an app to accompany it. But many elements that make up your overall experience with a wearable; like badges, points, showing your progress and providing support, are all also key ingredients in what makes a good game.
The question is, are these game mechanics actually being used to create compelling experiences? Or are we throwing meaningless badges out into the ether in the misguided hope someone will be motivated to run a 10k in exchange for one?
Defining a game
There's a long tradition of studying the definitions and meanings of games and more specifically, game mechanics.
But for the purpose of this feature, let's use Salen and Zimmerman's definition from Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The pair dissected different definitions of what makes a game and came up with this unified one:
"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome."
Let's apply this to wearable tech. The game is reaching 10,000 steps, players (wearers) engage in an artificial conflict to hit these 10,000 steps, the rules are you have one day to do it and the quantifiable outcome is you've hit 10,000 steps, which then can be displayed on a graph, as a little fanfare, or as a virtual badge.
Essential reading: How to set your fitness goals and actually stick to them
A very different example, but one that's also in the word of fitness, is Zombies, Run! which is an example of creating a really compelling artificial conflict defined by very different rules. The game is out-running zombies, players have to run faster than them, the rules are gathering supplies, rescuing people, getting to specific spots and the outcome is you made it to X location - and didn't end up on a zombie dinner menu - and you get to hear the next part of the awesome story.
These are very simplistic breakdowns, but you can see how the basic definition of a game can ring true to wearable tech and fitness apps, just as well as it can to Monopoly or Tomb Raider.
What makes the game work
Now let's take a closer look at what game designers refer to as contingencies. In Behavioural Game Design, John Hopson writes:
"As in any contingency, there are actions on the part of the participant which provide a reward under specific circumstances."
So contingencies add another level to Salen and Zimmerman's definition of games. They aren't solely the rules. They're the way the rules work in relation to when and how you get the reward.
He then delves into these different contingencies, made up of ratios and intervals:
Ratio schedules provide rewards after a certain number of actions have been completed. So a fixed ratio is killing a certain amount of in-game characters (or in our case taking a certain amount of steps) and getting the same reward every time. So let's say it's 10,000 steps and each time I get a little badge.
Hopson writes that this kind of reward often gives certain kinds of behaviour, mainly a slow start and then a steady rise to the challenge over the course of the day or the game. So often people will hit the goal, but there isn't the consistency.
In wearable tech terms we can see how this makes sense as well. If your goals are far away, like 10,000 steps by tonight or even 5 runs this week, what are you compelled to do now? The answer is nothing.
A variable ratio schedule gives you different goals to hit each time. Hobson states that in video games this produces the best kind of action. There's a steady flow of activity that's consistent. In fact, sometimes the player doesn't even know when the reward is coming. Often this can bring on the best kind of motivation. People will do things not because they feel a reward is there, but because they want to. If a reward happens to come, then all the better.
Interval schedules give rewards as time has passed. In wearable tech terms, it's the devices and apps that give you a badge for say completing five days with it on - even if you didn't hit the goals for each day.
So what Hopson highlights here is that it isn't solely about doing x for x reward. The manner in which people can achieve the rewards and the contingencies that are in place can actually have a huge impact on whether someone reaches a goal and whether they stay motivated enough to get there.
This is why simplistic models that ask people to run and then get a reward for it aren't delving deeply enough into how we react to various contingencies. And their affect on our mood, motivation and likelihood to feel accomplished.
Exploring rewards and motivations
There's a lot of literature online about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Crudely speaking, intrinsic is about personal satisfaction and feelings of achievement. It's all internal. Whereas extrinsic goals are more about recognition and social standing. It's not solely external, but it's much more about what's going on around you.
Many wearable tech companies put a focus on the extrinsic in an attempt to make you feel the intrinsic. So you'll get a badge that may say "well done you're an athlete today" and get a spot on a leaderboard. These are extrinsic, a badge and a spot on a board with your friends. But they're trying to get you to feel a sense of accomplishment.
There's a lot of debate about how and why this can (and can't) work. But in The Psychology of Rewards in Games, Max Seidman writes about some of the issues with focusing on extrinsic motivations.
He also writes about "overjustification", which is when the push to achieve an external goal actually pushes you away from actually enjoying it. So in the pursuit of an extrinsic reward, you become disinterested and get nothing from it in an intrinsic sense.
Sometimes game designers rely on the face you keep wanting the extrinsic stuff, the badges, the social acceptance, etc. But there's a chance you'll become demotivated by it. Which is a real concern in terms of wearables. It takes effort to put on your wearable, put on your workout clothes and get outside. You need some intrinsic get up and go to, well, get up and go.
Maybe if the extrinsic reward was huge - like money - you'd find the motivation to go. If you feel no intrinsic need to go and the only reward is an arbitrary badge or point, then there's a chance you'll lose interest.
How constant rewards can be motivating (and damaging)
What's Seidman's answer? Well, it goes back to the variable ratio schedule. If people don't know a motivation is coming and it does, they'll feel more accomplished. Changing the goal posts can be massively beneficial. Not working towards one goal.
Nikola Hu, co-founder of Moov, told us that it's this constant, real-time variable ratio model that's what the wearable's ecosystem is built on:
"The frequency of the reward is on the real-time level: every few seconds when you hit a target in Cardio Boxing or beat the goal for an interval on your run. Then you can level up every few days, with every level representing new, more difficult goals.
This is key in habit formation. It may take you weeks or months to see the weight loss or muscle tone you're looking for, but with more frequent rewards, you can see small amounts of progress more consistently and know you're taking the necessary steps to get there."
That sounds like a spot on strategy from Moov. But my issue with this is that some frequent rewards can lead to Seidman's idea of overjustification quite easily.
For example, the Withings ActivitÃ© Steel is one of my all time favourite trackers, but for me it's constantly let down by Withings' condescending badges that seem to pop up in a constant flurry and yet work to actually somehow piss me off rather than motivate me.
Appealing to our basic needs
So it's not all about a variable ratio schedule. Surely something about these rewards, and the contingencies in place to help us get them, has to be appealing to us on different levels. Otherwise why would one wearable company's tactics be so appealing and the other's a massive turn-off?
Shoshannah Tekofsky presented a Theory of Gaming Motivation that some have since described as far too simplistic, but it serves as a great introduction to the idea that gaming can fulfil certain needs - and that's why we go back and continue to play, continue to put on the wearable and continue to work towards our goals.
She divides up 11 basic needs that can be fulfilled by gaming. All come under a heading of Achievement, Recognition and Satisfaction. You'll notice that satisfaction is an intrinsic need identified earlier.
Most wearable tech brands have got the achievement part nailed in theory. They want you to think you've achieved something. Maybe recognition is up there too, especially if you're all about sharing your achievements online. But for me satisfaction is tricky. Possibly the hardest of the bunch to artificially create.
I was interested to read just what a huge role satisfaction plays for Moov. Nikola told me:
"People like to feel they've accomplished something. Moov pushes users, but doesn't make it easy on them so they have earned every level they beat. The satisfaction one gets from accomplishing their goals is the motivation people use to 'get to the top of the mountain'. In the case of Moov, by advancing levels in your training or by obtaining a faster time, our users are advancing themselves. Who wouldn't want that?"
The issue here is likely to be that it's very subjective. Satisfaction to one person who ran 1k and never dreamed of leaving the couch will likely need to be dealt with in a different way to the girl running her first Iron Man.
This is when I discussed with Naomi Alderman, the co-creator of Zombies, Run! with games company Six to Start, whether it's satisfaction that she believes drives so many people to put on their trainers and run away from zombies each and everyday.
She told me it's definitely satisfaction. But not for really achieving fitness goals or getting on top of a leaderboard. It's all about building the best narrative, or as we explored in the original definition, the best artificial conflict.
"That's the only way it works as a reward or a motivator, if you are desperate to find out what happens next, so desperate that you keep running an extra few minutes to hear the next story clip, or you go out for a run even though you're feeling lazy," she said.
"The story has to be good enough to overcome your natural indolence - and as someone who finds it hard to motivate myself to get exercise, I know that means it has to be really, really good. Not just adequate, which is sadly where a lot of video games end up."
When reading about game theory, it's important to remember there's a huge difference between getting lost in a virtual world for hours on your Xbox and earning a badge from your Fitbit, but the basic motivations behind what gets us 'playing' are the same.
Although we could read and write about gaming for days, what we've found is that gaming isn't half as simple as some would believe. Sure, creating badges and rewards can be compelling for certain people in certain scenarios. But it's about far more than that. It's about adopting mechanics that actually compel people to stay motivated.
And like most things, that's very subjective. Some people may not want to move from the couch for anything other than an immersive, super exciting game like Zombies, Run!. Others want challenge and to feel accomplished and proud of themselves. Others may want that cheesy badge that drives me round the bend. Others may want to take a selfie for approval. As Naomi Alderman put it:
"I think what makes us different is that neither Adrian Hon, my co-creator, and I are fitness professionals; we don't come from that background of competition, personal bests, optimising performance, we just want people to have a great time while they're working out. So we don't have the usual industry mindset - which can be very helpful in coming up with new approaches. "
The challenge for wearable tech brands is to define an audience and truly get to the core of what will make them want to wear their wearable, what will make them want to play their game and what will keep them interested enough to carry on playing further down the line.
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