Gamification has taken the fun out of exercise and learning

Andy Walker/Android Authority

While some of its initial enthusiasm has died down, the concept of gamification (rewarding mundane tasks by turning them into games) has not only survived, but has become fully embedded in society. It’s especially common when it comes to digital learning and fitness tracking, so much so that you probably don’t even think about it when you launch an app like Google Fit or Duolingo.

There are certainly benefits to gamification, but it may come as no surprise that the push actually backfires in some cases, making people want to ignore these systems or abandon the very things they encourage us to do. I’m going to focus on fitness as it’s my specialty, but it should be easy to recognize the issues I talk about in many other apps and platforms.

Our picks: The best fitness trackers

The drive to do more, and do it every day

A woman wearing a lunar white gold fitbit charge 5 working out with weights.

If you have a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, you’re intimately familiar with notifications about daily activity goals. Movement. Steps. Standing. Asleep. You’re rewarded when you hit milestones, and you’re often urged to work that little bit harder, whether it’s reaching those milestones, surpassing previous performance, or competing with friends. That in itself can be stressful if you’re an average Joe or Jane who is already doing your best under the circumstances.

On the learning front, I used to use Duolingo to brush up on my German, and I remember being nearly harassed by the app for using it every day. When I started going several days without touching it, I also got alerts about that. The pressure wasn’t what made me stop improving my German (blame that on time and other pressing concerns), but it certainly didn’t help.

Gamification can be stressful if you are your average Joe or Jane who is already doing your best under the circumstances.

Constant reminders can be too annoying for many of us, especially if we’re already distracted by kids, work, studies, politics, or just a flood of notifications from other apps. It’s possible to turn off some or all of these alerts, but not everyone is technically savvy, and to some degree it’s up to developers to recognize how tiring their barrage of notifications can be.

Cumulatively, you can be bombarded with notifications to the point where you have the reverse problem. Digital noise can be so loud, in other words, that even positive reinforcement gets lost in the shuffle. Being congratulated on a test hardly matters if you’re drowned out by news headlines or Instagram posts.

Related: Fitbit and Apple Fitness should stop punishing people for taking days off

Guilt and resentment for broken stripes

Apple Fitness Plus Gamification

Perhaps most importantly, gamified goals can generate (or directly manufacture) guilt. While it has a lot of great qualities, Apple Fitness is actually one of the worst platforms in this regard, not only urging Watch owners to close their activity rings every day, but making a lot of their rewards dependent on of keeping the ring streaks. You could be deadlifting 500 pounds three days a week and still miss out on weekly or monthly badges, never mind forced days off when sick or injured.

Gamification can potentially make people feel like they are doing too little or not getting enough credit.

The systems that companies use tend to detach themselves from reality beyond certain use cases. Exercising seven days a week, for example, is recommended when it comes to activities like walking, light yoga, or a short jog. But once you get serious about fitness, you need rest days to recover, something that the major health platforms don’t take into account. The best you get is something like Google Fit, which rewards you for hitting a certain heart point total in the space of a week, rather than just every day.

See also: Everything you need to know about Google Fit

It’s no wonder then that some people resent gamification, as it can potentially make them feel like they’re doing too little or not getting enough credit. That’s true with both learning and exercise apps: while you need to keep to a certain pace if, say, you’re learning a language or how to code, someone who’s just educating themselves informally doesn’t need to be pressed with achievements and reminders. . These are most likely developers who want engagement that drives their bottom line, whether through ad revenue or subscriptions.

Do you think that gamification (daily goals, prizes, etc.) helps improve your learning or your health?

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How to restore the fun

Home Fitness Martial arts — gamification

Disclaimer: This is not my house… I took this picture a while ago!

The first principle is obvious: deliberately ignore or disable gamification unless it suits you. If you’re into something niche like weightlifting, in fact, it’s pretty much a must. Most health platforms are biased towards cardiovascular activity, so only part of their metrics are relevant. Likewise, if you’re learning to play guitar, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping 12-bar folk or blues lessons if you never intend to play those genres.

The more personal your goals are, the better, since you are more likely to meet them.

More than this, you need to set your own goals and define your own meaning for success. If you’re learning to code Python, for example, the goal of creating a real, practical application may be a better motivation than projects suggested by services like Sololearn, precisely because it suits your interests. In exercise, you can set a satisfying benchmark like running a 5K or pressing your body weight.

The more personal your goals are, the better, since you are more likely to meet them. As you can imagine, there are a variety of things that keep me going to the gym, but one of the strongest these days is my four-year-old son. I want to be able to lift it as long as possible and be a model of health at a time when most dads are resigned to the couch. I want to teach him how to lift and box when he is old enough.

To be clear, I am a fan of digital learning and health platforms in general. They tend to be more efficient, not to mention affordable, since they are cheaper than paying for classes or hiring a trainer for several weeks. When gamification works, it can change lives. But these platforms should always serve our own ends, rather than the games that tech companies want us to play.

Read more: The best digital learning apps on Android

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