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Playing hunger games: Are gamified health apps putting odds in your favor?

Study breaks down prevalence of apps using game-like rewards to motivate

For many people, finding motivation to exercise is a challenge. Thankfully, there are Zombies chasing you.

At least that’s the approach of Zombies, Run!—one of more than 31,000 health and fitness apps on the market today, and one of the growing number of apps that use games to increase physical activity.

Gamification is currently the popular trend for mobile fitness app makers looking to cash in to help people get fit. Whether or not it’s the best way to exercise remains to be seen.

“It’s just been assumed that gamified apps will work, but there has been no research to show that they’re effective for people long-term,” said Cameron Lister, lead author of a new BYU study on gamified health apps appearing in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. “Does earning a badge on your screen actually change your health behavior?”

Lister, along with BYU health science professor Josh West, analyzed more than 2,000 health and fitness apps and found that the majority of the most popular and widely used apps feature gamification.

As part of their study, the duo also downloaded and used 132 of the apps personally to see how well they worked. In addition to Zombies, Run! they tried out:

  • Pact: An app that pits users against friends to see who keeps their exercise routine. Those who keep their goals make money at the expense of those who don’t.
  • Fitbit: Users can enlist friends to help them reach goals by sharing stats, joining fitness challenges or competing on leaderboards.
  • DietBet: Like Pact, users put their money on the line to keep weight loss goals. Those who lose 4 percent of their starting weight in four weeks earn money from those who don’t.

The researchers are concerned that gamification is ignoring key elements of behavior change and could be demotivating in the long run. For example, over time people can view the rewards and badges on these apps as work instead of play. Once the rewards disappear, the motivation drops.

One suggestion is for the apps to also focus on skill development.

“There’s a missed opportunity to influence healthy behavior because most gamified health apps are only aimed at motivation,” West said. “Motivation is important, but people also need to develop skills that makes behavior change easy to do.”

According to the study, the most common form of motivation in the apps centered on social or peer pressure (45% of apps), followed by digital rewards (24%), competitions (18%), and leaderboards (14%).

“It’s like people assuming that you hate health and you hate taking care of your body so they offer to give you some stuff in order for you to do what they want you to do,” Lister said. “But really, you should intrinsically want to be healthy and be engaged in healthy activity.”

While they found the health games are fun and engaging, West and Lister aren’t sure they can sustain major changes in healthy behavior. They believe more research needs to be carried out in an industry projected to hit the $2.8 billion mark by 2016.

But funding for this type of research is scarce because the technology is so new and developers either don’t have the money or are conflicted about subjecting their apps to scrutiny.

“I would caution developers and users to not have unrealistic expectations about the potential impact of gamified apps,” West said. “Everybody wants to know if they result in more sustainable behavior change but we just don’t know yet.”

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No one hates to be healthy.
  8/30/2014 3:14 PM by Timothy

"It’s like people assuming that you hate health and you hate taking care of your body..." No one hates health. I don't see anyone actively abusing their body because they hate how it functions. Sometimes it's easier to sit on the couch and rationalize your weight than it is to get up and do something about it.

Some people love the feel of the pavement and the motion of running. Some people love the feel of lifting heavy objects or feeling the intense burn of muscles after a long workout. I'm not only *not* one of them, I actually hate all of the above, so I try to find workouts that distract me from those things I don't like. Some people do dance workouts, water aerobics, martial arts, etc. I can imagine games providing a similar distraction from other people's annoyances of working out for others while providing some sort incentive to just do it.

The "activities" in games like this are not too different than when trainers ask you to set workout goals. Sure, some people respond to setting a weight-loss or strength-training goal by reaching it. Other people need more "creative" goals and supportive mental imagery to motivate them.

All in all, I think games are a great tool to motivate more people toward health. I think the researchers are trying to say that people aren't working out for the "right reason", working out to stay healthy because you enjoy being healthy, and this won't help them keep fit over the long term. For me, that's like saying rewarding your kids for behaving won't help them behave over the long term because they're just doing it for the rewards. Sometimes we need the spoonful of sugar to make us take the medicine.

Cheaper than buying a gym pass
  8/26/2014 10:35 AM by Chandler

People use commitment devices like buying a gym membership to try to motivate themselves to go work out. Most people who buy them for that reason don't use them nearly enough for it to make sense financially (when compared to paying each time at the gym). If you aren't as awesome as Cameron, and don't get jazzed just at the thought of just being healthy, looking for a cheap alternative to push you over the edge might work for you. Sometimes it's about working out a few times to get into the rhythm, then once you're in shape, the cost of working out is down and you can take it from there without using the app. I'd be surprised if they don't work for people.

It worked for me.
  8/24/2014 3:57 PM by Curtis

I loathe running, but I love to analyze information. Up until I discovered the Nike Running app I had maybe run a cumulative total of 10 miles in my entire life. Since I discovered it, I've found myself running two or three times a week and running faster and longer than I ever thought possible. My love of analyzing and tracking data (facilitated by the Nike Running app) has helped me overcome my hatred of running. Maybe it doesn't work for many, but it worked for me.

Story Highlights

Of the apps analyzed for this study,

  • 52% contained gamification elements
  • 24% relied heavily on gamification
  • 45% used social/peer pressure to motivate


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BYU researchers have found that health and fitness apps are taking on more game-like elements.
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