Motivating apps should offer more than entertainment

Researchers from Linköping University are planning to use gamification, techniques from game development, to encourage heart patients to increase physical activity, and school pupils to improve their maths skills. The apps created by the researchers must focus on core activities and offer more than just entertainment.

Apps for learning maths created by Aseel Berglund and Erik Berglund.

We all know that physical activity is good for us, but despite this many people sit still far too much. Simply knowing that something is good for you does not give sufficient motivation to change behaviour. 
One way to increase motivation is the process known as gamification. To put it simply, gamification uses techniques and methods from games development to change or reinforce certain behaviour. 
“Consider the loyalty programmes used by supermarkets, in which you collect points when shopping. This is one type of gamification. The stores encourage you to shop there. Another example is the dieting programme used by Weight Watchers. Here, participants also collect points and are members of a group that gives support”, says Aseel Berglund, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Linköping University. 

Creating games for people with heart failure 

Together with Erik Berglund, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer and Information Science, Aseel Berglund leads a research project on gamification. The project is looking at two areas: physical activity and learning. 
“Together with Professor Tiny Jaarsma and other colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and at Jönköping University, we are creating a game to encourage people with heart failure to become more active. It’s in the form of a mobile app, and we have been inspired by Pokémon GO and Farmville”, says Aseel Berglund.
The aim of the project is to encourage a player to be active ten minutes longer than the previous day. The game is based on, among other things, results from the Wii-project, led by Tiny Jaarsma, that looked at how people use Nintendo’s Wii console. The game is to be tested by 600 people in Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, and Israel.
Another project in Aseel Berglund’s group is an app to encourage office workers to take active pauses more often. Together with Erik Berglund, she has also developed several apps in learning and maths. 

Focus on the core activity

How can you increase motivation by gamification? Aseel Berglund emphasises that the most important aspect is to focus on the core activity. 
“Simply collecting points without an ultimate purpose decreases motivation.” 
One way to motivate behaviour using gamification is simply to create a game. The app for people with heart failure is one example of this. 
“But gamification does not necessarily mean creating a game. If you want to walk further, you can, for example, set up distance objectives and then visualise how well you achieve them. When you reach an objective, you receive some form of reward, such as a medal”, says Aseel Berglund. 
The Liopep program encourages office workers to take active pauses more often and is based on playing short, fun games in which they use the body. The game is played together with colleagues, which creates a sense of community. In this case, the two researchers have made the activity itself into a game. Liopep also contains ergonomic exercises in which a player copies movements seen on the computer. The program is now being tested in several companies. 
“It’s also important that people experience that they are improving. They must always feel that they are progressing and that they know how much remains to be done. Rewards along the way are also important”, says Aseel Berglund.

Too much entertainment

Gamification has become a widespread phenomenon, but many applications don’t work very well.
“One problem that I have seen with educational apps is that they focus too much on entertainment, on the game activity itself. Players will not learn anything if this is the case. My children have used apps in maths where they only have to click onwards to complete the game. No one can learn any maths from this sort of game.” 
But it’s also possible to go too far in the opposite direction – that the aspect of playing a game disappears completely. 
“Apps that focus solely on learning cannot be described as gamification: in this case they’ve become interactive learning platforms. It must be fun to carry out an activity, and you must get captivated when you do it.” 
Tests in real life

Not everyone enjoys games and competitions 

“Different people are stimulated by different things. Some people want to compete, while others want to collaborate. But everyone wants to have the feeling of making progress. To feel stimulated when carrying out the core activity, and to experience that they’ve learnt something. This is what we should be focussing on in the design”, says Aseel Berglund. 
Research in the field of gamification requires knowledge of technology, user experience, and interaction design. The two LiU researchers are themselves app designers. The app for those with heart failure uses augmented reality (AR), and the program to stimulate activity uses camera-based body recognition.
In addition to development, evaluation is an important part of their research. 
“When we create an app, for example, we have ideas about how we should design it to make it motivational. Then we measure its effectiveness. We carry out tests in real life.” 
Aseel Berglund describes her research as meaningful.
“I hope that we can manage to build a game that supports people with heart failure, and helps them become more active. If it works, then we want other groups to be able to use it, of course.” 

Translated by George Farrants

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