Girl doing her homework on her computer

Gamification in self-improvement apps

11 minutes to read
Rebecca de Jongh

What if there was a way to make life-long learning more accessible? While many people engage with video games to fully immerse themselves in playing and feelings of accomplishment, we see that gaming also provides a way of engaging and enhancing certain skills that could be used in different contexts. Through gamification, it is possible to explore a more engaging way of learning and to truly let learners deploy their creative potential.

Learning through gaming

Gamification can be best described as the implementation of game-like elements in certain tasks or learning tracks in order to enhance people's ability to understand or learn things more easily. Or, as the term was first defined, “gamification is the use of game design elements in nongame context” (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled & Nacke, 2011). It is a way to learn or reach a certain goal through playing rather than learning alone.

Education as we know it has the tendency to work in a linear pathway, where learning one thing leads to comprehending a learning goal, and from there the learner can move up the ladder of learning. A learning track is led by an educator that has the ability to motivate learners by adding mechanisms of encouragement to the class. According to Biró (2014), gamification focusses on adding a community-based evaluation and reward system, an emphasis on carrying out small tasks and therefore creating multiple paths to reaching a goal, while also adding a visual element in which the student can see the bigger picture of the learning experience beforehand. All of this focuses on creating intrinsic motivation in the students. But we should not only focus on the use of rewards and points. We should also consider why people play games. It is for the sense of engagement, immediate feedback, feelings of accomplishment, and the success of striving against a challenge and overcoming it (Kapp, 2012, p. 22).

Literacy and gamification

What about the degree of literacy needed when dealing with gamification? Playing elements do make learning more fun, but is it possible for someone to engage with game-like elements when this person is not used to playing games? For instance, Duolingo, the popular language learning app, only allows you to learn more advanced words once you have finished the basic level, i.e. standard words and phrases. Once the app determines you have enough skills, it allows you to "level up", by giving you access to more complicated grammar.

Apps like Duolingo are specifically made for self-learning, but this does not rule out that they can also be of great benefit in the classroom. According to Beach and O’Brien (2014), using mobile devices for both social and academic purposes gives students agency in meeting their own personal goals and can even improve their sanctioned literacy practices. Apps focus on the active use and construction of multimodal texts and could therefore help users develop digital literacy skills, deepen their knowledge about the subject and help them transfer knowledge from one context to another. The availability of our mobile devices could be a major benefit as we can always access them readily.

Playing elements do make learning more fun, but is it possible for someone to engage with game-like elements when this person is not used to playing games?

This “alters the places where learning takes place and expectations about where learning can take place. When something is perceived to be available all the time, anywhere, on any device, it changes the way that anybody, but particularly students, thinks about how they can access the information and media they want on the schedule they want.” (Waters, 2011, p. 1)

Gamifying the day-to-day

As we can see from different learning apps, gamification is not exclusively found in formal educational settings (e.g., classrooms). Rather, it can also be found on your very smartphone. Nowadays there are apps that aim to help you reach your goals through implementing game elements into your day-to-day life.

Games that are not just meant to provide you with a good time, but to help you learn a thing or two are what we call Serious Games. One such app that we will be focusing on is SuperBetter. SuperBetter is an app that focuses on improving your own chosen habits. In this article, we will look at the specific digital literacy skills that are needed in order to interact with such apps and what skills might be enhanced by using them.

SuperBetter turns your dailies into quests. For instance, it encourages you to step away from your desk every half an hour. If you complete this quest, you gain skill points like those shown in the example below. Through completing quests, you unlock more. Other game elements that can be found in the app are Bad Guys (which refer to bad habits), power-ups (e.g. drinking a glass of water) and achievements.

This particular app was designed by game developer Jane McGonigal. It rests on the firm belief that gaming in general will help change the world. A noble goal, but what about those who have no literacy skills when it comes to gaming? Game elements, such as experience points or gold that you can spend to deck out your character in new gear, might go completely over the heads of those who do not speak the gaming language.

To put this to the test, we did a little experiment. The two of us authors would try out SuperBetter for a week and see what digital literacy skills we already had, what we gained and what literacy skills were necessary to navigate the app properly. We found we have vastly different skills, so this made for a perfect test setting. Both of us are fluent in language skills, such as reading and writing, however one of us has more trouble with digital literacy than the other. Further, Rebecca has a background in playing video games from when she was a child and still plays them fairly frequently. This meant that she already had the upper hand on the specialized language register that was used. Roeliena, on the other hand, had never played video games before and was not familiar with the specific language and skills that are used in them. What follows is our experiences with the app and the literacy skills we discovered along the way.

The experiment

First, we looked at specific digital literacy skills that are obtained by people that play games on a frequent basis. Jane McGonigal, game designer, author and the creator of the app SuperBetter has found four different skills that gamers have and might be useful in the real world. It is by keeping these in mind that we will promote the further development of gamification.

First, gamers have a great sense of urgent optimism, they feel a great desire to tackle an obstacle with the belief that they have a reasonable chance to succeed. Urgent optimism is that moment of hope just before a person manages to overcome a problem (Chou, 2019). In other words, when they know that they can handle a problem, and that it is within their level of knowledge and skills, gamers feel a great desire to solve it.

Secondly, gaming helps create social fabric. We like people better after we play a game with them, even if they beat us. Having the same goal may help to create bonds between people, as we know learning is improved when learners have the same goal and they can help each other. Having experience in gaming teaches you that you sometimes need others in order to handle a problem and reach your goals.

Third, gamers are used to blissful productivity. Playing games in your spare time gives you a feeling of being productive and we are happier being productive and doing hard, meaningful work than doing nothing. Being used to being productive will naturally benefit a learning process.

Lastly, we will encounter a great deal of epic meaning. In this case, "epic" refers to the immense drive a person has to want to change the world for the better.

When gaming, you create meaning about the world in which your game takes place. At the same time, you are also giving meaning to your actions. A learner might find it easier to tackle a problem when they have an overview of it and see the meaning behind what they are learning. This relates to what Belshaw (2014) suggests when he speaks of the difference between learning on a linear pathway and seeing the "bigger picture". When you are always only one step ahead, it is hard to see the purpose of what you are learning. This suggests that there is only one path in reaching that certain goal. Letting the learner roam, however, can lead to a much richer and more enjoyable experience. Learners are able to see how it all fits together, even if it is without the detail and nuance (Belshaw, 2014).

These four digital literacy skills (urgent optimism, creating social bonds, blissful productivity and epic meaning) could be seen as a starting point to further develop gamification. We, however, looked at the overall skills that are needed in order to interact with apps like SuperBetter. In this specific context, the skills we found necessary during our small-scale experiment were: knowledge of gaming language, affinity with a levelling system (e.g., +1 resilience as if you were levelling up a character), and affinity with using apps as well as written language literacy (English).

Having a certain level of literacy can be useful, but can also shut some doors on experiencing things to their fullest potential.

In that sense, SuperBetter asks a lot from its users, already from the start. It assumes that the user is fluent in the language, as everything is written in English. There aren’t any symbols that might help people who are illiterate, which we find might impede someone’s ability to use the app as this would require them to attain those skills beforehand. The few symbols we did find also require a level of implicit understanding. The app has a small icon that takes you to a page that explains what each different element means, so even people who have little to no gaming literacy might understand. However, this symbol was that of an atom, better known in scientific fields, and it gave no indication of what its purpose was. For all we knew, it was a simple decorative element in the app. Only through using our own digital literacy skills (app usage) could we discover that we would be helped along with the specialized register that is used.

This brings us to the issue of gaming. SuperBetter uses a specialized register (i.e., gaming language), which might really alienate people who don’t have those literacy skills at the ready. As one of us had spent her childhood playing video games, she had no problem navigating the different terms that were used, though this prior knowledge posed a different problem. On the one hand, having the knowledge meant that using the app had more meaning, as levelling up meant more to her than to the other researcher. She found that this motivated her to use the app, as tapping on the various "power ups" gave her the feeling that she was achieving something. On the other hand, having this literacy skill meant the app became boring pretty quickly as she was used to a more challenging game setting. The other researcher that was not used to playing and interacting with games did not feel the need to level up. Therefore the app became more like a tool to keep track of the tasks rather than a game motivating her to actually do them. This perhaps shows that having a certain level of literacy can be useful, but can also shut some doors on experiencing things to their fullest potential as the app does not teach you more skills and thus only help you so much before the whole thing loses its meaning.

Excluding users

SuperBetter assumes that people who use the app are completely fluent in app usage, which alienates those who perhaps have literacy skills in one area (e.g., English language, gaming), but may not understand how apps work. One of us experienced the app crashing a couple of times. We could imagine that someone who doesn’t know how apps work, wouldn't know the “have you tried turning it on and off again?” work-around. We found that, had we not known that the app could merely be reset by indeed closing and reopening it, we might have given up on the app entirely. Using this app could lead to more exclusion within our digital networked society. Even though it is also meant to have a social aspect, the dichotomy could become even more visible through the use of this app. Excluding users from the digital arena has severe consequences, not just for them, but for society as whole (Ragnedda and Mutsvairo 2018).

In conclusion, we see that gamification can have some great advantages in learning and motivational processes. We live in a digital networked society where more and more people acquire gaming skills. Learners could benefit from these gaming skills as these have the potential to lead to motivation and pleasure in learning if people are provided with the right learning tracks (in the classroom as well as in apps). These experiences can also stimulate the social aspect of learning and can give more meaning to completing a task. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that using gamification is highly contextualized, as what benefits and motivates one person could exclude another. Gamification can provide opportunities to not only use digital literacy skills in apps, but also to implement them more and more in other learning experiences.



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