Gamify all my Behaviors, Please!

Author: Annie Escalante, MS, BCBA 

Author: Annie Escalante, MS, BCBA 

Alright, I’ve got a question for you: have you ever thought about how much fun it would be if life was more like a video game? Who wouldn’t want to be the stoic Master Chief, crafty Mario or the courageous Link? What if I told you we are on the cusp of these daydreams becoming a reality (kinda)! And what if I told you as you played the hero in these fantastical worlds, you would also be tapping into contingencies that may slowly shape prosocial and pro-healthy behavior development!

On the intersection of psychology and gaming, there is a growing body of research blending these two seemingly unrelated fields into one intervention known as Gamification. This new and budding web and app-based platform has been defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al. 2011).  The idea being, a user’s motivation may alter if the stimulus is embedded with an interactive and salient game design, has a rich token system in place, and delivers social praise sprinkled throughout the user’s experience. This all boils down to a self-management tool that can be applied in a micro and macro level.

Let’s explore some apps that focus on the individual level of behavior change. A prime example that incorporates many of the listed gamification traits is a fitness app for both iPhone and Android, Zombies, Run! The Zombies, Run! App features an intermittent schedule of movement requiring the user to walk, jog and run at different times, 200 “missions” for the user to interact with as a means to maintain an MO to engage in healthy fitness related activities and also integrating a token system of collecting game related tools and materials needed for game play.

This game and others like it, use a wonderfully deceptive tool known as a behavior trap to maintain your engagement in particular contingencies. Behavior traps requires the user to emit a small amount of response effort to engage in a contingency that increases the probability of shaping and developing behaviors in multiple environments (Baer & Wolf, 1970). Or in a nutshell, games like Zombie, Run! are developed in such a way that the user doesn’t have to work hard to play a game that that would shape a fitness routine because at the end of the day, it’s simply fun! Other gamification health related apps include the Nike Plus network of apps and tools and also the Samsung Health app embedded in Samsung phone that track varied health and fitness related behaviors.

Habitica is another web/app-based program that can help it’s users increase productivity and reach goal oriented contingencies for a number of areas, such as health, chores, school and work, just to name a few. In Habitica, you start off as a 8-bit simple avatar in a RPG setting, i.e.,  role playing game, and are asked to set up your goals or tasks as one of three different predetermined types: “Dailies, To-Do, and Habits”. Coins are assigned to each goal dependent on a self-assigned difficulty matrix, i.e., trivial to hard. Descriptive social praise is delivered after completing tasks and token economies are set in place to “cash out” earned coins for avatar accessories, such as a sword, staff and additional clothing. Users can also join guilds or social groups/forums where users with similar goals can socialize and support one another. Guild groups those who would like to increase their pro-health related behaviors, those who would like to increase the number of books they read, and those would like to learn a new language. In trueblue self-management fashion, the app allows for the quantification of your behaviors. This additional information could help determine how to better modify your own antecedent manipulations and environments to help improve your score and behaviors!

Another similar but equally fun self-improvement app is Epic Win. Similar to Habitica, Epic Win allows for you to pick from an array of silly cartoony avatars and  develop and create goals or quests for the user to complete. Goals have a user-assigned label indicating the “type” of quest or skill is needed to complete said task, e.g., stamina could be assigned for finishing a mile-run while  intellect could be assigned for completing a class project. This app also allows for push notifications to textually prompt the user to complete a task and tasks can be set on repeat if necessary. Another fun feature is seeing your character progress on a character map to predetermined “loot points” or checkpoints where users could collect extra items,  or loot, for their character.

Gamification is is also found in the world of academia. Putting aside traditional token systems found in school system, e.g., earn an “A” on a test and a student will earn 5 gold stars, gamification has found a solid footing in the realm of skill acquisition. Khan Academy is a free to the public academic resource and education based network of tools, designed assist students of all ages learn a wide variety of subject matters. Students create an account on the website and  access an array of subject matter materials, tests, forums, and videos. The more you interact with the website and the desired subject matter, the more “energy points” you earn. Energy points reflect on how much time and effort a student expels on the provided modules along with obtaining mastery of a subject matter. Another token earned through Khan Academy are badges. Badges are earned the more energy points a student collects, gaining fluency from subject matter questions, interacting with other students in module forums and assisting others in their own subject matter projects, just to name a few.

Let’s now view a few techniques and tools used in a macro/group oriented level. Kanban boards are a tool used by many software and project management oriented companies and organizations in order to better organize their employees’ tasks and duties. Originating in Japanese manufacturing companies to help reduce work bottlenecks and improve staff engagement, Kanban boards are now used in a multitude of different fields and organizations worldwide. These boards are typically white boards but an unused wall will do in a pinch where staff divide up the whiteboard/wall space into columns such as, “backlog, to-do, work in progress and done”. “Backlog” refers to tasks put on hold, while “to-do” refers to tasks an employee may choose to take on for themselves, “work in progress” indicates tasks employees are currently working on while tasks listed in the “done” section are completed tasks. Each column has a designated number listed at the top indicating how many tasks can be in each column at a time. This is number is placed on each column in order to reduce work bottleneck and increase overall task completion. Tasks are typically written on a post-it, defined in a simple and clear manner. Each task also contains a “DOD”, or a definition of done, indicating what task completion would look like for the selected task. Tasks are then listed from highest to lowest priority in each column and employees are able to select which task they would like to work on, keeping in mind the limit of tasks designated in each column. Companies have multiple Kanban boards to reflect the work of the individual staff member, a small team’s workload and can be broadened to reflect the workload of an entire organization. Staff are able to view their own task progress within their department and also assess under which tasks should be broken down to quicker/easier to complete components. Trello, a mobile/computer based virtual Kanban board allows for the user to transport their Kanban boards anywhere they go.

Some other potential avenues game/app developers may take include behavior momentum, developing salient initial cues and fade those out over time, novel storytelling features, matching law for in-game earned tokens/rewards and reduced bootleg reinforcement (I’m looking at you, Pokémon Go hackers!).

And this is where we as behavioral scientists need to come in: we have an arsenal of tools like behavior traps and like the wonderful maintaining power of intermittent schedules. These tools and techniques can be used to help ourselves and others with a multitude of behaviors! From recycling, decrease individual and organizational energy use, increase carpooling, to healthy food consumption and regulation. The list truly goes on and on! But in the meantime, I think I’ll happily put on my sweats, plug in my headphones and run for dear life as a herd of animated zombies increase my MO to run. Game on!


Alber, S. R., & Heward, W. L. (1996). “Gotcha!” Twenty-five behavior traps guaranteed to extend your students’ academic and social skills. Intervention in school and clinic, 31 (5), 285-289.

Deterding S, Dixon D, Khaled R, Nacke L. From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In: Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments 2011 ACM. 2011 Presented at: 15th International Academic MindTrek Conferencen visioning Future Media Environments; Sep 28-30, 2011; Tampere, Finland p. 9-15. [doi: 10.1145/2181037.2181040]

Run in the Real World. (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

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