Should fitness be a game?

By Francesca Jackman and Morgan Jackson

Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbowne, Misfit, Microsoft Band. No matter the fitness tracker, you probably know someone who owns one. If you don’t, you will soon enough.

About 275 million more wearable devices will be sold worldwide this year, according to Gartner Inc., an information technology research company based in the U.S.

© Morgan Jackson

[The Microsoft Band is one of the many popular activity trackers fitness enthusiasts are now using to stay fit. Photo © Morgan Jackson]

So what makes them so popular? Based on a new study, researchers in the information technology department at Carleton University say wearable trackers are good links to gamified health and fitness apps. They designed a wearable prototype which combines gamification and health and fitness, and performed preliminary user studies that seem to indicate the effectiveness of making fitness a game.

So gamification – using incentives to influence consumers to perform desired behaviours – adds to the appeal of using a wearable tracker to meet fitness goals. But, exercise psychologists wonder whether these devices can really foster long-term motivation.

So how does gamification work in wearable fitness devices?


“Gamification is basically a rewards system at its core,” says Chris Elliott, who researches gamification and fitness at Algonquin College’s Health and Wellness Centre. “There’s a huge psychological component. Everybody likes to be rewarded for stuff that they do,” he adds.

Gamification can be seen in the way the Fitbit measures step count. If you’re a Fitbit user, you’re rewarded with an acknowledgement when you meet the automated target of 10,000 steps in a day, Elliott explains.


“We like to think as these highly evolved mammals that we are not susceptible to those things, but we are.” – Chris Elliott, Algonquin College Health and Wellness Centre

It manifests in the sense of instant gratification, whether on the device itself, or on a Health and Fitness app that the device syncs with using Bluetooth technology, says Robin Brouwer, a gamification expert at The Octalysis Group, an international design company. Not only is the device updating you on your progress, but it’s also compiling all of your data through algorithms and its GPS to provide constant feedback.

The resulting sense of achievement triggers motivation, says Brouwer. Elliott agrees, adding that the applied research he does in this field for his clients, shows that immediate satisfaction is “what’s driving people psychologically.”

Behind the interface: How gamification is motivating users


Based on research in behaviour economics and psychology, The Octalysis Group has established a framework that identifies eight types of motivational drives, says Brouwer. Some of these drives, which he refers to as “White Hat” motivators, are considered to be more positive, and are more likely to contribute to motivation in the long term. In contrast, “Black Hat” motivators can produce effective results, but don’t typically make the user feel good or translate to long-term motivation, he says.



There are about 20 different gamification techniques for each of the drives that the company uses to create a customized design, Brouwer explains. He says the better devices incorporate the ability to make meaningful choices, and the opportunity to make fitness social, through being able to share progress for example, which keep the user engaged and motivated.

In theory catering to a combination of these drives should foster long-term motivation


Research has shown that to generate long-term motivation, three psychological needs must be satisfied, explains Katie Gunnell, a research scientist for the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group. These three needs are competence – successfully completing challenges that are optimal for your level, autonomy – exercising control over your actions, and relatedness – a sense of belonging, she says.

For motivation to be long-term, it must be intrinsic, meaning it becomes part of your identity through enjoyment and the fulfillment of these needs, she adds.

These external fitness trackers seem to be able to cater to the three basic needs. A recent study in the U.S., on the Nike Fuelband tracked participants over eight weeks and found that the device did facilitate intrinsic motivation.

But Gunnell still wonders, “How is the app going to help you when you just don’t feel like going outside for a run because it’s raining?”

Michelle Fortier, a physical activity psychology scientist, says the trackers seem to work in the short term, but can’t necessarily generate enjoyment, which is an essential part of intrinsic motivation.

“They focus too much attention on the performance of it, instead of the positive experience they get out of physical activity,” she says.

People are still fascinated by fitness trackers
Does your activity tracker motivate you?

Does your activity tracker motivate you?


We surveyed 45 fitness tracker owners, and found that the majority seem to find these devices useful for reaching their fitness goals. In fact, 73 per cent say they use their tracker regularly and 82 per cent say they find the device motivates them.

People are either motivated by the gamification elements, or purely by the data itself, says Elliott. “We like to think as these highly evolved mammals that we are not susceptible to those things, but we are.”



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