Play or Perish? Motivation and Habit-Building

I’ve shown students a *lot* of videos over the years, but there is one in particular that stands out to me as endlessly valuable. Before I explain why, I recommend having a watch of it below. I know these days it can be a lot to ask anyone to give their attention to something that exceeds 10 minutes – unless it’s Bling Empire (so I’ve heard) – but I can confidently say you won’t regret it… and if you do, you should watch it again! 😉

I screen and share this year after year to students learning about gamification not because it has over 18 million hits on YouTube, but because it raises some fundamental questions about human motivation and behaviour. The video might feel dated aesthetically – although I think it still holds up pretty well given the pace and style of delivery – yet the ideas it puts forward are undeniably fascinating. After every time I’ve screened it for students and once even in an industry forum, a deep and productive discussion about what drives us to get things done has always ensued. In fact, the ‘Drive’ video has had considerable influence on gamification practitioners – underlining, as an aside, that an apparently ‘small’ piece of media can have a damn decent impact! And as this blog seeks to point out, having an impact on people these days – no matter what your area, purpose, or audience – is never an easy thing to do…

Crises of Engagement

The quest to inform, persuade, educate, or entertain people has arguably never been tougher. The museum Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, located on the Gold Coast, has been trying to engage visitors with what are fairly conventional and dated exhibits for many decades. In some instances, it attempts to do so through forms of play, such as in the example pictured, where pulling the coloured chains in the correct order will solicit a song from the deceased pirate. Even with this, Ripley’s has been feeling rather ancient for some time and I dare say many visitors are underwhelmed. But forms of play – and particularly new and innovative digital forms – are increasingly perceived as central to capturing and holding people’s attention in countless contexts.

Are we now in a situation where for those wanting to motivate their various publics, it’s a matter of play or – like that 100% authentic pirate – perish? Well, not all the time. My colleague Danielle Teychenne (pictured below speaking at ArkGroup Australia’s ‘The Content Safari’ industry forum in 2016) perfectly articulated once that ‘there is no cookie cutter model’ for gamification. Gamification is not a solution for every situation or problem – and certainly not the same kind of solution for different situations or problems – but it can be a highly effective means of breaking through the crises of engagement that apply to so many industries in the present day.

Danielle Teychenne gamified student learning about health policy through the interactive experience ‘The Story of Hemp’

The crises of engagement are deep and widespread. In a time when people are very time-poor, when they have divided attentions (I don’t like the phrase ‘shortened attention spans’, though this is often the judgement made), and when an all-pervasive entertainment culture is available at their fingertips, attracting and maintaining the interest of an audience is increasingly difficult. Employers, politicians, activists, journalists, teachers, curators, and professionals of all kinds are faced with the problem of how to engage people.

The complexities of how to motivate and sustain behavioral change are not new, but the difficulties involved in doing so are widely viewed as problems that have taken on greater urgency in recent years. Every single time I’ve mentioned ‘crisis of engagement’ when speaking to an audience of industry practitioners, I am greeted with an audience full of slowly nodding heads. Everybody knows what I’m talking about. Every. Single. One.

Given this state of affairs, organisations of all kinds – from corporations to not-for-profits, and from local councils to school and universities – have begun to consider how certain elements of game design might help them make money, enhance their brand, advance a social cause, engage people in dialogue, boost employee morale, improve professional development, or assist in student learning. Rather than pretend to comprehensively cover this massive issue here, I’ll focus on just one aspect of how gamification and motivation intersect. Let’s look at this theme on an individual level through gamified motivational apps, such as Habitica.

Killing Dragons for Better Habits

Screenshot from Habitica app (with thanks for permission)

Habitica is an innovative means by which people from all walks of life can develop better personal and professional habits, and thereby achieve their goals. The app (or website, if you and your mobile device are taking a break from each other) adopts aesthetic elements of the fantasy adventure/role-playing and retro gaming genres, and therefore won’t be to everyone’s tastes. For those who are more turned on than off by swords and sorcery, Habitica enables you to obtain experience points; level up you avatar; and collect, feed, grow, and ride a range of cute (or not-so-cute) creatures. You can, furthermore, purchase weaponry, suit up in armour, and take part in narrative-based quests. This can be done collaboratively with other users in a ‘party’, or you can grind it out on your own, knowing that if you die you at least only have yourself to blame!

dead knight‘ by Steve Slater (CC BY 2.0)

I became aware of Habitica (a rebranding of what was previously called HabitRPG) when a former student, Sarah de Vries, discovered it while studying a Digital Media unit I was teaching. On her own initiative, Sarah began to use Habitica to motivate herself to become more efficient in completing daily tasks relating to her learning and her life. You can hear Sarah’s story in the video embedded at the end of this blog. Since then I’ve seen Habitica work for a number of people who’ve used it – and continue to use it – over a sustained period of time. One postgraduate student even contacted me months after I talked about it in a research presentation to let me know that using Habitica had helped him cope with depression and had fundamentally changed, if not saved, his life.

In 2018 I was very fortunate to be able to interview Vicky Hsu, a practitioner of gamification and the CEO of Habitica. I spoke to Vicky about Habitica and the subject of motivation and habit-building generally…

The core mechanic underpinning Habitica and many other motivational apps like it is a checklist, although there are a number of other game elements that complement their habit-building design. Here is a list of just some of these game elements that have been harnessed by designers:

  • virtual currencies
  • experience point (XP) systems
  • unlockable content
  • side quests
  • level ups
  • progress bars
  • leaderboards
  • polls/voting
  • badges
  • instant (or real-time) feedback
  • customizable avatars
  • interactive narrative
  • mystery

These game elements are for the most part fairly intuitive to understand on a surface level, although they can be applied in very different ways across different gamified platforms and solutions. Importantly, not only do the ways in which game mechanics might be used vary, but completely new mechanics are developed by game designers all the time as well. As a result, the nature of gamification will always be a dynamic one. And a fundamental part of keeping up with developments is to get practical, hands-on experience with our gamified world.

Set Yourself a Challenge!!

Understanding how something like Habitica works for the most part involves trying it out for yourself, but this early episode of Our Gamified World might be useful in highlighting some key features too…

One feature of Habitica gestured to in this episode is the setting of one’s own rewards. You may have noticed that Sarah added a ’15 minute break’ to the app’s template rewards so that she could work toward something more tangible while studying. This level of personal customisation isn’t required by Habitica; there are plenty of creatures to hatch or feed and heaps of virtual commodities to buy in the shop. However, setting more personalised rewards is a particularly valuable method of motivating oneself. People who consciously set themselves goals to accomplish tend to do this on a regular basis, and given that there is a frequent need for many – most? – people to reinvigorate their motivation, being proactive about setting both challenges and rewards is often half the battle.

Storytelling is a crucial part of many gamified applications, though it can be employed in very different ways and to very different degrees. Unlike almost all fantasy role-playing games, an in-built story plays only a very small role in the Habitica app, and it’s likely the narrative text of a quest won’t be fully or even partly read by a large number of users. Many ‘Habiteers’ might not go on quests at all. More important is the fragmented, step-by-step journey that those who gamify their everyday life set up for themselves. In other words, user agency is key: people can use the app in ways that work for them, ignoring some features completely and adapting their use over time to keep themselves motivated.

Returning to the ‘Drive’ video with which I began, it’s clear that the key concepts highlighted in it are all central to the thinking behind motivational apps. Themes of challenge, mastery, purpose, and autonomy can certainly be applied to users who engage with Habitica. The app won’t work for everyone, but you can hardly find fault with those who do find it makes a significant difference to their everyday lives…

Screenshot from Habitica app (with thanks for permission)

A World of Choice

As I mentioned earlier, the fantasy theme of Habitica doesn’t always win over the hearts and minds of all users, but there is no shortage of other options! I’ve included a selection of these below in case you’d like to check them out:

Old apps disappear and new ones are born all the time, but you should also still be able to find more examples such as LifeRPG, Task Hammer, Pledge, HabitBull, Habit Streak, and GoalTracker in your app store. Let me know if you find any others I should add to the list!

And if you’re keen for some further thoughts from me on gamification and motivation, check out my earlier blog ‘It Started with a Pack of Cards: Motivation and Reward’ – and find out what the hell this picture is all about!

Thanks for reading/watching, and good luck with your goals this week. If you’re having trouble getting motivated, get gamifying…

That dragon’s not going to kill itself!! 🙂

Featured image: Dragon by Selena N. B. H. (CC BY 2.0)

All images property of Adam Brown, unless otherwise specified.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post Adam! 4thewords is a fun gamified writing app you might like to play. You kill monsters with your word count and can team up with other writers on quests.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      That is a *fascinating* example Brett – thanks heaps for letting me know about it! Will definitely have to let students know about it and give it a go myself. Cheers for reading and engaging 🙂

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