Gamifying Health Behavior

Will Gamification Help You Age Better?

July 03, 202419 min read

Will Gamification Help You Age Better?


What Really Really REALLY matters to you?

Let’s start out today thinking about some of the things that really, really, really matter to you.  What do you want to make sure are a part of your life now and all along the way until you’re 95 years old?  If you’re an overachiever, pause and write them down.  If you’re like me, and you listen to podcasts only while doing things that are not conducive to stopping and writing a list, make a list in your mind.  What things do you want to make sure are part of your future and part of who you are?  Here are a few of mine just to give you a starting point to get your own ideas flowing.  

  • Continuous improvement (being a little better today than I was yesterday)

  • Integrity (doing what I said I would do and always choosing what’s right over what’s easy)

  • Being forward-thinking (hooking my future self up with awesome opportunities)

  • Doing hard things

  • Being kind

  • Being courageous

  • Being grateful

  • Seeking wisdom

  • Helping others

  • Developing antifragile resilience

  • Seeing the good

  • Experiencing wonder and joy

  • Respecting life, including the biological functioning of my physical body.  

Ok, your turn.  All that matters here is what matters to you.  What needs to be part of your life in order for you to feel like you created what you were here to do?  Now’s your chance to pause and think of your list.

Benefits of Games

Ok.  Keep those things in mind, we’re going to come back to them.  Since we’re here to talk about gamification, are you a gamer?  I’m for sure not.  I do love board games, but the only digital game I’ve ever enjoyed was a desktop computer game that came out in 1990 called “Life and Death 2.”  I have a hard time trying to believe that video games don’t just categorically rot everyone’s brains.  Haha.  I’m kind of kidding, but kind of not.  But I can appreciate from my experience of board games and sports that games are fun and engaging and that there are certainly plenty of things in life that could benefit from gamification.

In my family, we use an app for household chores that rotates who’s assigned to do what when and each chore has points assigned to it and there’s a bar graph showing who has the most points.  It’s kind of funny to have my boys up at 11:45 Saturday night wiping out the oven or polishing the faucets because points reset at midnight Sunday morning.  For one of our chore app reward sessions, I bought us one of those boxes of unclaimed amazon packages and we picked them white-elephant style based on how many points we had.  It was kind of fun to see what we got.  I got a usb-charged laptop light.  Which I don’t need.  Anyhow, gamification has helped with dividing up household chores, although it only occurs to me to claim the points for the chores I do anyway about 10% of the time.  Which is fine.

My coaching approach to help women age at an elite level is based on a quote from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honorable finally become, for you, the same.”  He goes on to say that in order to do that, “you have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.”  Anyway, I see that as the holy grail, I guess you could say, of aging like a professional.  The things that are most enjoyable and that you naturally most want to do and the things that are the highest leverage drivers of genuine long term health from a subcellular level up become, for you, the same.  That’s where I want to get you, because it’s so, so powerful.   Having the things you crave and the things that promote an incredible healthspan be the same.  We can do it together, it’s so fun.

Can Gamification Help Us Get There?

Will we age better if we gamify our approach to aging and health optimizationJane McGonigal thinks so.  She gave a TED talk way back in 2010 that has 6.5 million views.  Good for her.  She’s a game designer who said, in her 2010 talk, that people spend 3 billion hours per week online gaming and she thinks that the only way to save the planet is for people to spend 21 billion hours per week playing online games.  What?  She has her reasons for that and makes some really good points.  She talks about how the best thing to happen when gaming is called an ‘epic win.’  An epic win is when you’re shocked to discover what you’re truly capable of.  It’s an outcome so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it.  I love that.  It reminds me of what we talked about just 2 weeks ago when we were talking about reframing uncertainty to be the uncreated.  Remember, it was on the other side of the Monsters Inc door and it can be more amazing than we realized was possible.

Jane McGonigal points out that gamers are motivated to succeed and inspired to cooperate and collaborate to solve problems.  Gamers are inspired by important missions and ready to evolve into better versions of themselves and help others get better, too.  Improvement is easy when you have constant feedback in the form of a score.  She says that gamers are an unprecedented human resource that can be tapped into to make the world better.  She says that the 4 best things about gamers are:

1- Their urgent optimism.  They are extremely self motivated and hopeful

2- They weave a tight social fabric.  Studies show that we like someone better after we play a game with them and gamers are excellent at coming together, communicating and collaborating.

3- They are virtuosos of blissful productivity.  Many world of warcraft players spend 22 hours/week playing.  That’s as much time as you’d spend at a part time job.  And they love it because they know that you’re happier and more fulfilled when you’re working hard.

And lastly,

4- Gamers care deeply about meaning.  They are inspired by missions and meaningful goals and ready to go on difficult quests, so long as there’s a deeper meaning behind them.  She has designed some online games that are meant to solve some of the world’s biggest real world problems.  She’s on a mission to make the world a better place and believes that gamification of everything, especially the important stuff, is the way to do it.  

Does Gaming Make You Better in Real Life?

Pretty cool.  The problem, as I see it, is that gamers are often way better in games than they are in real life.  They run away from the real world with its real problems into a fantasy world where they can be awesome.  It totally reminds me of- have you seen the movie “Free Guy?”  For someone who doesn’t like games or gamers, I loved that show.  I must have a thing for Ryan Reynolds or something, bec- well, actually, I guess if you know the plotline, that really means I have a thing for Steve Harrington for Stranger Things.  Hmmm.  Anyway, I loved that show, especially the part where you see the real guy who’s the character in the game called Revenjamin Buttons.  He’s a rockstar in the game (played by Channing Tatum) but in real life he’s a 22 year old loser whose mom does everything for him.  It’s so hilarious when he’s eating his red vines and yelling at his mom about his socks and vacuuming.  He’s played by Matty Cardarople, who’s also the arcade manager in Stranger Things.  So funny.  

So if we go nuts gamifying our real life and making ourselves into Revenjamin Buttons, which is the perfect name for someone aiming to age backwards-> that couldn’t be more perfect <- Revenjamin buttons- then who are we in real life?  Channing Tatum or Matty Cardarople?  Can gamifying our high leverage health behaviors make optimizing our health easier, more fun, and even a little bit addicting (in a good way)?  It seems to me like fitbit, garmin, oura, my fitness pal, strive, pantheon and a lot of other companies seem to think so.  And research does show that you tend to like doing things more just from doing them more.  So if you adjust what you normally eat to get more lean protein so that you get more points in your app, you tend to start to like eating meals and snacks with more lean protein over time.  I’m hoping my kids become more naturally inclined to wipe out the oven and polish the faucets over time, too.  I care about my sleep score and readiness score and love that I can check them in my oura app and I do adjust my life a little bit based on the data I get from my oura ring, which I think is helpful.

Are There Downsides to Gamification?

So, gamifying is always great, right?  Using it to help us do more healthy things will help us live longer and better.  Maybe.  Humans have been making wine for about 6,100 years.  That’s a long time.  Only about 50 years ago, Robert Parker introduced a wine scoring system that gives wines points for whatever things he thinks are important.  And the impact on the wine industry has been huge.  Anyone can look at the score and make a snap judgment about a wine without understanding any of the intricacies or nuances of the wine.  If a wine with a lot of interesting and delightful qualities gets a low score, nobody will bother to be curious enough to try it and find out about things they never knew about.  

downsides of gamifying health behaviors

Giving a simple score oversimplifies the complexities of wines and takes away some of the opportunities for curiosity of the consumer.  Consumers value judge’s opinions more than their own even though the scores are subjective to whoever is drinking the wine, be it a judge or a regular joe.  Higher scoring wines, of course, can jack their prices way up, so there are advantages to shmoozing and otherwise persuading the judges to score your wine as high as possible.  Corruption is possible. Many people say the only people who truly benefit from the wine scoring system are the judges.  What has happened to winemakers since the point system was invented in the 70s is that instead of producing wine from heirloom family growing practices and recipes and celebrating the subtle differences, they are attempting to produce wines that will score well.  They’re sacrificing tradition and diversity for the chance at a high score that will mean a high profit.  You can’t blame them, this is a business, of course they’re motivated by profits.  But there is for sure something being lost to playing for points.  Especially subjectively assigned points.  

Thi Nguyen is a philosophy professor right by me here at the University of Utah.  He’s a gaming expert and a deep thinker who makes some awesome points I had never thought much about.  Gamification requires metrics.  The wine points, number of hours in deep sleep, number of steps walked, number of calories eaten, grade point average, etc.  Metrics are, of course, useful in so many ways.  Having a quick and easy measure that can be tabulated is super appealing because it gives us a target, which we need, and makes things simpler and more clear, which feels great.  It feels good to know what you’re aiming for, to be able to assess your proficiency, and to make a game of getting better at hitting that target.  The problem is that doing so takes away what’s truly good about the good thing you’re doing.  You internalize the metric.  He’s a professor, so gave the example of GPA and said that then the things that he believes are truly important about doing well in school are no longer considered.  Curiosity, creativity, empathy, the ability to self-reflect, thoughtfulness, the development of the ability to positively contribute to the world and enjoyment are all hard to measure.  So we tend to lose what truly matters to us and our college experience because our values have been overridden by being forced to play the GPA game.  We’re not even given a chance to figure out for ourselves what we want to value about the experience, because we’re told, by experts who mean well, what matters.  Because GPA is much easier to measure than creativity and the ability to self-reflect.

Who’s In Charge of Your Agency?

I think more data, especially biomarker health data, is awesome.  But we run the risk of ending up with a more simplified experience of life that doesn’t represent the entirety at all.  In a game, the rules of the game are what make it fun.  They tell you what you’re trying to do, how to do it, and what obstacles will be in your way.  Most people think that a game designer’s job is to tell you a story that you can get caught up in.  I’m not a gamer, but I think people want epic quests.  Something to jump on board with.  The satisfaction comes from the internal logic of the game rather than its service to things we care about in the real world.  If that’s getting more steps, eating more broccoli, sleeping longer, improving your cardiorespiratory endurance, or increasing your strength, that all seems great to me.  Dr. Nguyen says that what a game designer actually does is sculpt your agency.  They tell you what your environment is, what your abilities are (and are not), and most importantly, what your motivations are.  This is huge.

Gamification makes things more fun and more motivating, but at the expense of our autonomy.  Do you want someone else in charge of your agency?  Maybe sometimes.  I like to be in charge of my boys’ house cleaning agency.  There are people who I trust that I wouldn’t mind putting in charge of my nutrition agency.  But I’m sure you can see the problem of gamifying everything, the way Jane McGonigal suggests is the only way to save the world.  We’re trusting the game designer with our agency.  And, even if we don’t mind giving up our agency, like wine buyers do, because they trust the sommelier judges, we’re sacrificing the subtleties and nuances that create a deeper and more meaningful experience.  We’re told what matters and we’re told what we are and are not capable of doing, understanding and integrating.

Most of us know that many of our digital experiences have been gamified (ie. designed to act like slot machines) without our permission or knowledge.  Social media being the most obvious one.  They talk all about this on the great movie “The Social Dilemma.”  The little notifications and unpredictable rewards attempt to force us to play the game.  And ofcourse, the objective of the game is to keep us on social media for as long as possible and keep us coming back constantly.  Michael Easter has a section in his book “Scarcity Brain” that talks about how twitter use changes politics.  Politicians who tweet in an honest attempt to connect more with their constituents somewhat subconsciously see that they are rewarded more with the metric of likes, comments and re-tweets when they say more divisive and inflammatory things, so they start doing more of that, thinking they’re growing in popularity, and it affects the way they behave in office.  Scary.  

There’s a whole idea called moral contagion, part of which is that the information that’s optimized to win the social media game of “engagement” becomes what people see the most, because the algorithm feeds it to more and more people and that information shapes how we see the world, what we believe to be true and, in turn, who we fundamentally are.  The world starts to become more black and white.  Or seem that way.  Because we lose the ability to see all the shades of gray and, potentially, all of the beautiful different colors.

Numerical Data Is of Limited Value

I absolutely love numbers.  Tracking them changed my life in a lot of ways, and I think they can change yours, too.  Send me a message through my website or at and we can talk about what numbers I think are important to your healthspan and how they can change your life, too.  Writing down how much weight you lift, tracking your pace, getting a dexa scan, so many more things can all close the gap between who you’re capable of being and who you’re actually being, which is really freaking exciting.  Metrics are valuable.  But metrics can’t account for the full human experience and how what we do affects all aspects of our life and our influence on other people.

Playing numbers games and tracking data can be motivating and fun, which is great, but part of why it feels good is that there is no uncomfortable uncertainty in it.  It’s safer and easier, because we immediately know whether we did good or bad.  But real life’s not that black and white.  What we should value is often unclear and our values are hard to balance.  Playing by arbitrary rules for silly rewards is easier than figuring out the answers to deep questions.  Abdicating our agency to a set of game rules that makes good and bad clear is easier than trying to create a nuanced life of deep meaning.

So, gamification is bad, right?  Don’t forget Jane McGonigal’s good points.  Gamifying our objectives gives us a sense of urgent optimism.  It can increase our self motivation.  Game play leads to blissful productivity.  We’re happier when we do hard things and see that our efforts matter.  Games can give us a sense of epic meaning, a way to see that our small actions now matter to our ultimate goal.  They also give us constant immediate feedback, which improves the development of skills more than anything that I know of.  Gamifying can weave a social fabric of cooperation.  

I haven’t read his book, but I heard him talk about it once, so I might get this wrong, but Scott Young in his book “Get Better at Anything,” says that tetris scores were pretty slow moving in the 80s, when the game came out.  Every once in a while someone would beat the previous high score at the arcade by a point or two.  It was that way for 30 years or so.  Then, sometime around 2015, or something, high tetris scores started to rapidly rise by crazy amounts.  People were all of a sudden getting dramatically better at tetris.  Why?  Was there a new generation of humans with an improved gene for spatial reasoning?  It was because that’s when gamers were first easily able to watch other people play tetris and see how they were solving problems and integrate strategies from multiple other people to improve how they tackled obstacles themselves.  Observing someone else’s excellent game play elevated your own in a way that endless practice by yourself in the back of the arcade never could.

What Do You Think About Gamification?

Ok, so, gamification.  What’s your verdict?  Will it help you age better?  Certainly, making the behaviors that lead to powerful health outcomes that improve your health over time and prevent the long, slow rot approach to aging more motivating and enjoyable is a good thing.  Tying your efforts to your epic quest helps you stay on target, which is great.  And I’m a firm believer that life is meant to be enjoyable.  Yes, we have to do some hard things, but accomplishing hard things is inherently enjoyable.  A defined game where you can collaborate with other players and see how they level up can help all of you improve exponentially together.  I think gamification can be beneficial for all kinds of things that matter.  Just remember that entering a game means giving your agency to the game designer.  Which isn’t always a bad thing- but it can be.  And it might mean sacrificing nuance and the richness of all the colors for the easy feel-good black and white score.

Back to What Really Really Matters to You…

Ok, overachievers.  Now’s your chance to shine.  Remember your list of things that really, really matter to you that you dutifully paused and wrote down at the beginning of the episode?  What was on your list?  Rather than playing pre-created games, even ones that seem like they might be good, how can you play your own game, based on what you value the most?  How can you play for continuous improvement, integrity, doing hard things, kindness, being forward-focused, gratitude, wisdom, seeing the good, joy or wonder?  

What metrics would you track to determine your score?  It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how to focus on what really matters, like kindness and honesty and doing difficult things, but that’s kind of the point.  You can’t win an exceptional game if you’re playing the same lame game as everyone else.  I know that you’re destined for an epic win.  An outcome so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it.  Just remember that, as Thi Nguyen said, “gamification can increase motivation at the cost of changing our goals in problematic ways.”  So use games to boost your motivation and enjoyment, but remember that the point of the game isn’t to be the one with the most points, the most steps, the fewest calories, the most hours of sleep, the highest heart rate…it’s to become the type of person capable of achieving wonderful things and contributing to the world in a positive way.  

I firmly believe that you’ll be more able to do the amazing things the world needs from  you if your biology is functioning well.  You have a lot of control over that and more is possible in your later decades of life than you’ve been led to believe.  It takes an intelligent approach, some of which may include gamifying the behaviors required to create the outcomes you’re looking to create.  And you need to start now.  You can do it.  I’m here to help you.  Send me a message at if you’d like some support or would like to be part of a group of forward-thinking women who are upleveling their futures together.  Thank you so much for being here today, you are so awesome.  

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Christina Hackett, Pharm.D.

Healthspan Coach and founder of The Health Courage Collective

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