As our understanding of sleep has improved, so has the incentive to achieve good sleep. Good sleep is one of the best things we could do for our health. But despite this, many still struggle to prioritise our slumber.
A new incentive has arrived, building on the heels of the world’s most popular brand: Pokémon. A mobile game, Pokémon Sleep, encourages users to track their nightly snooze by offering them Pokémon in exchange.
Within days of its release in July, the app garnered over three million downloads. By the end of August, it was sitting at 10 million.
While many videogames can garner downloads, few have the kind of impact on habit and body that the Pokémon franchise has demonstrated. The 2016 release of Pokémon Go (an augmented reality game that encourages users to explore the real world in search of Pokémon) increased activity levels in the US by 144 billion footsteps within just 30 days.
Also read: Sneaking in some exercise into daily life
Years later, Pokémon Go remains a case study for gamified health interventions, with one paper that looked at wearable sensor data estimating it increased average player physical activity by 25 per cent. Later papers have been more optimistic, with one finding at least half of the game’s players reporting positive health benefits from playing.
The game has left its impact in India, too. Rithvik Raavi, a 19-year-old undergraduate student in Electronics and Communication Engineering, says he walks five kilometres each day just to complete objectives in the game.
This is a question of the health of an entire population. Is gamification an effective tool to promote healthy habits?
Dr Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist with a background in videogame psychology, explains that motivation is a big part of making changes to behaviour. “The difference between building habits in video games and building habits outside of games is that most of the time people want to be playing the game while habits outside of the game world are often boring and unrewarding [or] not instantly gratifying,” she tells Happiest Health.
She says pairing gaming elements with “things that are generally less entertaining (i.e. eating healthy, exercising, going to bed on time)” makes people more likely to engage with them. But just having a points-based system might not be motivating for everyone.
Gamified apps that target fitness goals too have grappled with this question. Some apps try to make the healthy habit “fun”, while others try to add a social dimension to it. One study found that the latter proved a better incentive than the former.
For those who love Pokémon, the incentive is often just wanting to collect all the mystical creatures from the series. While Pokémon Go made the act of finding Pokémon into a real-world social treasure hunt (thereby promoting walking), Pokémon Sleep makes getting the right amount of sleep a factor for raising healthy Pokémon.
Players of the sleep tracking game must keep their phones by their pillow before hitting the hay. The game tracks their motion and breathing while they sleep, offering some data in the morning on how many hours of rest they got and of what type (dozing, snoozing or slumbering).
Benefits of gaming: gamification for healthy habits
Through Pokémon Go, Deepansh Kaushik, a 28-year-old manager based in Meerut, found himself exploring places he would never have visited otherwise. With each step, his pursuit of Pokémon unintentionally turned into strides towards better fitness. “Pokémon Go didn’t just encourage physical activity—it turned me into an accidental fitness enthusiast,” Kaushik reflects.
Shreyas Hebbar, a 27-year-old software engineer in Bengaluru, has walked through most of Bengaluru thanks to the game. He now recognises most of the city’s landmarks based on the Pokémon he captured there. A single week sees him walk 50 kilometres!
Kaushik says Pokémon Sleep significantly enhanced his sleep pattern monitoring. “While I used to manage around six hours of sleep earlier, I now strive to attain a more optimal eight hours and 30 minutes of sleep,” he shares. Hebbar says the game made him more conscious of getting enough sleep, resulting in an additional 20 minutes of sleep per day.
Designing videogames to promote healthy habits
Pokémon but other videogame developers have explored ways of promoting healthier life habits through play. Dr Dunlap notes that the Wii Fit console helped directly engage people into improving their health.
She gives the examples of Habitica, a role-playing game (RPG) that gamifies the act of doing daily chores (picture ticking off items on your real-world to-do list to progress a character in a virtual story).
Roleplay can also be a powerful tool for such games. “‘Zombies, Run!’ is a mobile app for runners that incorporates interactive fiction — as people run in the real world, a zombie apocalypse audio adventure is unfolding in their headphones; runners can finds items for survival depending on where they run and when zombies are nearby they need to speed up,” she notes.
Building lasting habits with gamification
Apps that can improve adherence – be it to a diet, a study programme, or a healthy lifestyle – could become an important tool in the wallet of future netizens. The US FDA has already approved the first example of “digital medicine” with the approval of EndeavourRX, a videogame that promotes attention in children with ADHD (We have covered EndeavourRX in an online article).
However, amid the success, challenges remain—adherence rates (which can drop in the first 4-6 weeks of an app’s popularity), the right application of gamification strategies (nudges), and user perceptions all need further improvements.
For Kaushik, the game’s reward mechanisms transmitted into his IRL life. “Much like accumulating virtual rewards, I now approach my fitness objectives with a similar mindset, aiming to collect healthy habits and achieve real-life milestones,” he notes.
The other challenge of gamification is when a habit exceeds its utility. Prior to playing Pokémon Sleep, Hebbar says he would often break his routine of getting a good nights’ sleep by playing late into the night. And yet, gamifying his sleep helped him become aware of this and got him to restore balance.
Dr Dunlap cautions that reflecting on your game time is important to building a healthy relationship with play. It also helps if the game’s incentives are well-aligned with your personal goals. It is important to check in on how you feel during play, how you feel after play, and how you feel toward the playful activity in general. “Are you raiding a gym [a common task in Pokémon Go] because it’s a fun activity that gets your friends together, or do you feel obligated to show up for the raid because you don’t want to let your friends down?” she asks.
It helps to become aware if one is building an unhealthy relationship with a game. “I’d encourage players to reflect on if the game is acting as a space for play or as just another task, responsibility, or obligation,” she adds.
The double-edged sword of videogaming is that they can invariably end up increasing your screentime. As Hebbar humorously adds, “The only new feature I would ask [for] is kind of counterintuitive. I would like them to make a feature that makes me use my phone less.”
While video games can be an enjoyable form of entertainment, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with excessive gaming. Video game addiction can have adverse effects on both mental and physical health.
To mitigate the potential risks to your eye health while gaming, it is recommended that you follow the “20-20-20” rule. This rule suggests taking a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes of screen time. This simple practice can help reduce eye strain and discomfort.