January 14

Life (™), the Game

I emerged from the haze of 2015’s consumer season with “FitBit”, one of the biggest names in wearable technology, staring at me from my bank statement. Turns out, my brother’s job, like many others, has monthly competitions, awarding prizes to the employee averaging the most daily steps. Never one to be beat, my sister in law requested one for the holidays, which I found myself purchasing. Even my two year old niece even wears a FitBit, mirroring the general public’s enthusiasm for wearable technology (think FitBIt, iWatch and Google Glass). According to BusinessInsider, 3.3 million fitness trackers were sold in the  US in 2014, and most were FitBits.


From *1


But now that the drunkenness of giving has worn off, I have to wonder what it’s all about. According to Wikipedia, pedometers have been around since the late 1700s, and that’s FitBits’ main function, right?  Plus, my smart phone already logs every step I take. The display is just so boring that I rarely look at my data unless I’m justifying a post-hike San Diego beer. So what did I spend my money on if devices from the 1700s can track my steps? And why do other people apparently find their steps so much more interesting than I?

Turns out that simply recording steps doesn’t work in the long term; after initial gains step counts plateau and even decrease after just 2 or 3 weeks (4, 5).  To avoid following the FitBit trajectory outlined by BuzzFeed, we have to be engaged in our data for the long term. From companies like my brother’s, to schools, many have already stumbled upon one solution- gamify it!


We’re used to gamification, think back on school reading challenges (like this from the Tacoma public library system)

Gamification describes the “use of game design elements and game mechanics in non-game contexts” to increase motivation (1). There are two broad types of motivation – Intrinsic motivation is highly personal and driven by the activity itself, whereas Extrinsic motivation is caused by external factors such as reward (15). Because of this, intrinsic motivation is a more long-lasting influence on performance and self-regulation (16,14). In fact, repeated extrinsic motivation can replace the more effective intrinsic motivation, meaning gamification may actually harm highly motivated people in the long term (13). My beloved brother is an example of this failure in his company’s attempt to externally motivate – although he ran track in college, I caught him attempting to attach his FitBit to our cat to increase his step count. And he’s not alone, as up to 88% of people may cheat (10).

This attempt to increase intrinsic motivation sets Fitbit apart from simple pedometers. FitBit relies on a suite of online gamified apps where you can set goals, win achievement badges and challenge friends, and they’re not alone:

  • 78% of employees use some sort of game-based motivation at work (19). 
  • 87% of retailers said they plan to use gamification to engage customers within the next five years, as of 2015. (18).  
  • 53% of health related apps featured at least one element of gamification. (17).  

Clearly the consumer is convinced enough that gamified step counters enhance our quality of life to buy them, and FitBit was convinced enough to invest in gamifying. But is there research to support that gamification works to motivate us to achieve our new year’s resolutions in a lasting, intrinsic way?



From *1


One challenge of gamification is developing games that engage a variety of personalities.Video game designers have been doing this for a long time, often designing with something like Richard Bartle’s player types in mind. Bartle divided players into four types: explorers (discovery), PsychTaskachievers (winning), socialisers (interaction) and killers (dominating others) (3). Most developers think of people as possessing differing amounts of each of these four components with some success (11). However, designing gamified applications to meet the needs of all these different types of players isn’t as easy as it is in an immersive game. In fact, psychologists have found that participants actually perform worse on gamified tasks as compared to simple counterparts (9).


In a recent study, participants that engaged in FitBits gamified elements increased their physical unlike those who don’t (7). However, this effect was small and nonsignificant between groups. Additionally, further studies suggest that any effects seen may be primarily driven by social features (the “stay connected” option) (2).


From *3

The use of social features brings up the ethical issue concerning data collection (12). Use of this feature means FitBit users are willingly giving away not only moment-by-moment location and body composition data, but also volumes of social media data. FitBit’s privacy policy (which is very standard) :

What Data May be Shared With Third Parties?

First and foremost: We don’t sell any data that could identify you. We only share data about you when it is necessary to provide our services, when the data is de-identified and aggregated, or when you direct us to share it.

Data That Could Identify You

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is data that includes a personal identifier like your name, email or address, or data that could reasonably be linked back to you. We will only share PII data under the following circumstances:

  • With companies that are contractually engaged in providing us with services like order fulfillment, email management and credit card processing. These companies are obligated by contract to safeguard any PII they receive from us.

Data That Does Not Identify You (De- identified Data)

Fitbit may share or sell aggregated, de-identified data that does not identify you with partners and the public in a variety of ways, such as by providing research or reports about health and fitness or in services provided under our Premium membership. When we provide this information, we take legal and technical measures to ensure that the data does not identify you and cannot be associated back to you.

Sure, this opens up the possibility for identify theft and hacking, but your data will most likely just end up in the libraries of companies like this. Not a huge deal, but users should be aware of the massive amount of data collected by all wearable technologies, especially if they aren’t intrinsically motivated enough to ensure success and make the privacy vs fitness trade-off worth it.





Citations and further reading

  1. Gamification defined
  2. Social aspects account for step gains
  3. Bartle’s Gamer Types
  4. mhealth.jmir.org/2015/4/e96/#Results
  5. Chan, C. B., Ryan, D. A., &  Tudor-Locke, C. (2004). Health benefits of a pedometer-based physical activity intervention in sedentary workers.Preventive medicine, 39(6), 1215-1222
  6. Metacognition and gamification
  7. Cadmus-Bertram, L. A., Marcus, B. H., Patterson, R. E., Parker, B. A., & Morey, B. L. (2015). Randomized trial of a Fitbit-Based physical activity intervention for women. American journal of preventive medicine, 49(3), 414-418.
  8. Designing gamified experiments is tricky
  9. Gamified psychological experiments don’t work
  10. Gal-Oz, A., & Zuckerman, O. (2015, October). Embracing Cheating in Gamified Fitness Applications. In Proceedings of the 2015 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (pp. 535-540). ACM.7e9f
  11. Component model of player types
  12. Gamified labor is ethically complicated
  13. Hanus, M.D. and Fox, J. Assessing the effects of gamification in the classroom: A longitudinal study on intrinsic motivation, social comparison, satisfaction, effort, and academic performance. Computers & Education 80, (2015), 152–161
  14. Richter, G., Raban, D.R., and Rafaeli, S. Studying Gamification: The Effect of Rewards and Incentives on Motivation. In T. Reiners and L.C. Wood, eds.,
  15. Tohidi, H. and Jabbari, M.M. The effects of motivation in education. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 31, (2012), 820–824.
  16. Extrinsic motivation can set you back
  17. There are a lot of gamified apps
  18. Companies will keep gamifying stuff
  19. Employees use gamification to be productive



*1 http://www.businessinsider.com/33-million-fitness-trackers-were-sold-in-the-us-in-the-past-year-2014-5

*2 http://www.applift.com/blog/player-retention-discovery

*3 https://www.fitbit.com/

Thumbnail image from: http://emarketingblog.nl/2014/12/gamification-as-an-online-marketing-tool/