At the start of this new year, I am trying to internalize something that I have learned through teaching online: gamification assists with motivation and boosts engagement, especially when it comes to achieving (overwhelmingly) large or long-term goals, such as an entire university course through distance education. Task lists and checklists, ‘awards’ and achievements, ‘levelling up’ and sequentially ‘opening’ new virtual content, all contribute to student motivation, and can be used to increase student retention and student success in online learning.
A little bit of new year’s reflection has helped me discover that outside of my teaching life, I also rely on gamification in my personal motivational toolkit. I use (minimalist) bullet journalling to fill in habit trackers, checklists and task lists; I am part of a FaceBook fitness challenge group to workout 220 times in 2020 (The group helped motivate me to 219 workouts in 2019, so here I go again); I ‘play’ Zwift, an indoor cycle training program and game; and I am trying to increase my writing productivity, with the help of a daily writing challenge.
I am simultaneously grappling with the ways that gamification can be pernicious, for exactly the same reasons. Gamification drives habituation, but habituation is not inherently good. Indeed, some types of habituation are decidedly bad.
For one, gamification can drive habituation in a way that can diminish motivation, and overwhelm identity-constituting values. Compulsive and addictive behaviours can be driven by gamification, bear a family resemblance to habituation, but are not well motivated behaviours as those are commonly understood.
In his book Stand Out of Our Light, James Williams writes about how the attention economy, along with intrusive technological design – his focus is on social media design – use gamification to drive habituation in a way that undermines personal values, individual choice, and motivation. Successful social media design, seen from the perspective of the social media corporations, is defined in ways that are in tension with individual choice and motivation:
Instead of your goals, success from their perspective is usually defined in the form of low-level “engagement” goals, as they’re often called. These include things like maximizing the amount of time you spend with their product, keeping you clicking or tapping or scrolling as much as possible, or showing you as many pages or ads as they can (8).
Williams goes on to explain the implications in terms of habit formation and habituation:
In the hands of a few dozen people now lies the power to shape the attentional habits – the lives – of billions of human beings. […] The total effect of these systems on our lives is not analogous to that of past communications media. The effect here is much closer to that of a religion: it’s the installation of a worldview, the habituation into certain practices and values, the appeals to tribalistic impulses, the hypnotic abdication of reason and will, and the faith in these omnipresent and seemingly omniscient forces that we trust, without a sliver of verification, to be on our side. (87-88)
Williams reflects: “I began to realize that my technologies were enabling habits in my life that led my actions over time to diverge from the identity and values by which I wanted to live” (56). Here, too, gamification drives habituation, but this time it habituates apathy, so that habituation to social media becomes a wedge between motivation and considered goals.
In Williams’ apt critique of social media, the technology driven attention-economy creates systems of short-term motivation (for clicks and likes and immediate attention) that supercede our considered priorities. Williams reflects on how social media has effectively changed his own motivations through habituation, and his language reflects the gamification of the enterprise: “These dynamics had made me more competitive for other people’s attention and affirmation than I ever remember being: I found myself spending more and more time trying to come up with clever things to say in my social posts, not because I felt they were things worth saying but because I had come to value these attentional signals for their own sake. Social interaction had become a numbers game for me, and I was focused on “winning” – even though I had no idea what winning looked like. I just knew that the more of these rewarding little social validations I got, the more of them I wanted. I was hooked” (57, emphasis added).
The pernicious side of gamification is not limited to social media. Many types and designs of metrics are problematic. Indeed, the link between counting and motivation can range from counterproductive to dangerous.
So where does that leave me, and my New Year’s Resolutions? I am trying to deliberately build habits, and use gamification to my advantage. But I am also warily using social media to do some of my counting and accountability. So I realize that I am walking a fine line between building habits and motivation on the one hand, and losing control of my goals and motivational ability on the other.
The wariness and the worries are my best bet for staying on the advantageous part of the ledger. The hardest part of habit formation seems to be the intentional piece, so that is where I will focus my energy. My aim, after all, is a positive contribution to my motivation.