The idea of the pedometer can be traced back to the sketch books of Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was popularised as a method to promote physical activity. With subsequent advances in digital technology, the 21st century pedometer can sync with or be embedded in mobile devices. Furthermore, gamification is providing new avenues of engagement with pedometers, ranging from leaderboards to the zombie apocalypse. Industry analysts estimate the revenue from connected pedometer devices will rise to over $5bn by 2019. The high value of this industry is driven, in part, by the obesity epidemic causing consumers to seek out new ways to become more active. Nevertheless, given the large size of the industry, there is an alarming gap in the experimental research literature examining whether gamification of pedometers can help bring about long-term increases in physical activity. Moreover, surveys have found that between a third and a half of consumers stop using their pedometers within six months of purchase.
With many neglecting their pedometers so early on, more effective gamification could help prolong engagement with this device and thereby help users sustain increases in physical activity levels. Gamification, the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, is theorised to bring about this long-term behavioural change through increasing motivation to engage in particular behaviours. Examples of popular game elements used with pedometers include leaderboards, levels, digital rewards, competitions, social pressure and narrative context. However, it is unclear whether these game elements appeal to extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. If they appeal to extrinsic motivation, then gamification could in fact undermine people’s intrinsic drive to stay physically active.
Moreover, every individual user is unique. What motivates one person to increase their physical activity may not motivate another. This is well understood by behavioural counsellors who draw on a variety of techniques including knowledge shaping, social support, goal-setting and self-monitoring to provide their patients with an exercise plan tailored to their disposition and lifestyle. If gamification of pedometers is to be truly successful as a long-term health intervention, there is a need for private companies to engage with medical professionals in order to incorporate and adapt well-established behavioural techniques into the design of game elements. In fact, many game elements already lend themselves to the translation of behavioural techniques. Nevertheless, if framed incorrectly these game elements may not be effective at bringing about behavioural-change and at worst could even be harmful, reducing a user’s motivation to undertake physical activity.
As much as companies should seek to engage health professionals in the gamification of pedometers, health professionals equally need to embrace these advances in technology. Gamification of pedometers has the potential to open up new avenues of communication between physicians and patients. If gamified pedometers are able to engage patients, then physicians should seek to engage with the technology also. For example, physicians could remotely monitor their patient’s activity levels and provide input into the gamified system by recommending a patient’s step goal or by adjusting the narrative context of a patient’s story-based game to appropriate knowledge and fitness levels. By adapting game elements to the individual needs of their patients, physicians can use gamification as a tool to facilitate long-term increases in the activity levels of their patients.
In conclusion, research into whether and how gamification of pedometers can encourage long-term increases in physical activity levels is still in its infancy. But if the gamification of pedometers is to be truly effective in helping to combat the 21st century obesity crisis, then an ecosystem of players, physicians and private companies all working together to study and improve the efficacy of gamified pedometers will be needed. Within this ecosystem it must be recognised that individual players will be motivated differently and will have varying levels of both knowledge and physical abilities. Game elements must be designed to identify and adapt to the differing needs of individual users. If this is not achieved, then the gamification of pedometers is at serious risk of being a profit-oriented fad rather than a health fix.