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Can games help develop life-changing habits?

In my last post I talked a bit about how games can be used as a sandbox to train your mind to accept adversities as they come. However, this kind of response requires the player to be mindful about their behaviour. When we play video games its sometimes hard to be mindful, since it’s so easy to let your mind wander and let your feelings flow free. It requires discipline and daily practice to be able to develop habits and a virtuous cycle of improvement.

Currently we have many games that provide action, amazing storytelling and other great ways to pass the time. Then we have these “gamified education/self-improvement applications.” There are extraordinary examples of both of them, but not many that cross the border in between.

Games are a great way to active the parts of the brain that are in charge of our responsiveness to rewards. Many games sport mechanisms like daily quests, tasks or events that let the player accumulate experience, tokens or what ever. They aren’t actually helpful outside the game world and can feel like a mindless grind. Yet gamers all around the world are coming back every day to get those in-game rewards.

Jumping the border

If only we could apply the principles of video games into real-world habit formation. What if the daily tasks connected with the real world instead? What if they could be used to develop habits like meditating, learning a language or exercising?

According to Psychology Today habit formation is “the process by which new behaviors become automatic.” Gamifying this process makes it substantially easier. We like the feeling of achievement, and the lowest hanging fruits are usually the most tempting. And those daily gaming tasks hang really low. Maybe they could be somehow transferred to create meaningful habits?

What immediately crosses my mind is the data we have on our phones. We’ve seen some studios come up with companion apps for their games with varying success. If game studios expanded their functionality, these apps could be used to develop habits. Access to health data or integration with a to-do list app could be a powerful, habit-forming combination. By rewarding players in-game for forming real-life habits it would be possible to get both immediate satisfaction and long-term success.

Another option is to build the game mechanics to encourage good habits without the players even noticing. A prime example of this is Pokémon Go, the game that unified mankind and made us walk around like never before—for a while. The effect did not last for me, but I know there are those who are still playing. More importantly it showed us what games are actually capable of in terms of building communities. Strangers could engage with each other on the street and talk about the game! This is something very much out of the ordinary here in Finland, where it isn’t appropriate to stand less than five meters away from each other at the bus stop.

New frontiers

New technologies such as augmented, mixed and virtual reality are opening new doors on the front of forming habits as well. Just imagine how much more powerful the experiences we have in games become. We will be able to enjoy them with all of our senses, not just with our sight. But with great power comes great responsibility, and game studios will have to think how to get the best out of these possibilities.

There’s still a long way to go for the general public to think games can have a meaningful, positive impact. All this being said, I have yet to experience a game that would assist me to develop good habits. If you have some tips and tricks in mind I would definitely like to hear about them. Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter!