Know Thyself... And Then What?: Using Games to Provide Meaning to the Quantified Self

We’re hardly two weeks into 2011 and, undoubtedly, many of us are already struggling to maintain a hold on our New Year’s resolutions.Every year we make new promises to ourselves to take X in moderation or to do Y more often. But it seems we often (sometimes inevitably) fall right back into too much X and not enough Y – it’s easy to rationalize that “This one time is OK” or to indulge ourselves when no one’s looking.But, unfortunately, this “one” time often becomes two, three and so on.Indeed, it’s easy to fall off the proverbial wagon when 1) we can lie to ourselves and 2) no one is watching.

Maybe this sort of occasional weakness (along with a healthy dose of egotism) explains the recent spike in available self-monitoring technologies – that is, a deluge of new techs meant to help us track, record, and visualize our decisions and behavior.Take for instance the web-based software applications (such as Personal Informatics, Beeminder, and Rescue Time) promising to assist users in measuring their actions and offering visuals of user progress towards personal goals of improved health or increased productivity.To capture data on the go, new apps and hardware are cropping up for mobile self-monitoring of all sorts of information, ranging from sleep patterns & bio stats to perceived contentment.And let’s not forget the mainstreaming and increasing incidence rate of homes with smart meter hook-ups (enough so for Google to develop an API, anyway).

All of this is part of the growing “Quantified Self” movement, in which people both individually and as groups are geeking out over the mounds of data they can collect about anything and everything in one’s daily life. Surely for some this is just a flash in the pan, a novelty or narcissistic diversion that grows old after a short period of time.Yet for others this appears to be a revolution in lifestyle.But even for the committed a growing question (as noted on the formal homepage of the movement) is “I’ve got all this data… how do I interpret it?”In other words, the data is collectible; now what good is it?How can I use it?What does it mean?How do I incorporate the feedback (and reflection) into my actual decisions and choices?

I personally think gaming mechanics, at least in some situations, may offer an answer to these questions.Specifically, I think they can help provide performance feedback data with a more palatable, interpretable, and actionable meaning.

I should make the following distinction clear: I’m not talking about slapping a motion sensor and display screen onto every material object in the world, a la Jesse Schell’s visions or a twist on the “internet of things” concept.Schell speaks of the growing preponderance of motions sensors that will translate into opportunities to create new games and new gamers (indeed, Schell notes that the original motivation for producers like Nintendo to incorporate motion technology into their devices was to allow for more intuitive gameplay and to in turn attract new players).Sensor data already has people attracted to it – some fanatically so.What I’d like to talk about below is how games can help people more intuitively make use of that data.That is, I’m presenting a case for inputting real world data into a game that is based on existing opportunities and affordances (where games help people already seeking to change their behavior), and not on a potential apocalypse of gaming restructuring daily life.Additionally, I’d note that I sympathize with Jared’s concern that mixing the real and the virtual can be dangerously demotivating for players who are just trying to escape reality.However, I also feel such mixture, whereby game mechanics are leveraged and applied to reality, can serve to amplify and assist those individuals already motivated for making change.

That said: the literature on goal-setting and behavior change tell us that the magnitude and persistence of changes is increased by setting not only a big-picture goal, but by targeting smaller, more manageable and immediately relevant interim achievements.Additionally, literature on group dynamics and social presence also tell us that (with consideration to certain moderating factors) task performance is generally enhanced when public.

Such scenarios are inherent to many game designs.Games commonly couch minor achievements within the journey to longer ones (a characteristic of games that Steve Johnson has previously referred to as “telescoping”).In addition to this compartmentalization of goals, games also naturally structure advancement through interpretable progression tracks (ranks, levels, skill trees) and display performance publicly (either in the moment or through leaderboards and virtual trophy cases).Taken together, these features offer feedback that is not only easy to understand, but has relatively immediate and proximate relevance to the player even when pursuing long-term payoffs.

Part of the difficulty in incorporating real world feedback into our actual behavior is that it is often quantified in metrics or time domains that are inconsistent or trivial in comparison to those of the user’s goals.As such, the feedback is less than readily meaningful to users.For example, losing 1 lb. is not much in light of a potential goal of, say, losing 50 lbs.Or, perhaps you are trying to conserve energy at home or money in your bank account. A once-a-month billing statement listing energy levels or expenses is disconnected from your minute-by-minute or daily decisions and behaviors.

But what if a game skin was added to these scenarios?First, it could easily break these larger, sometimes abstract goals into smaller, more defined steps of achievements (through the progression tracks noted above). Second, it could fit feedback on one’s behavior to a time domain that made sense when targeting interim goals (perhaps daily check-ins or a minute-to-minute display of energy consumption). Third, it could use sensors to detect real world achievements that are typically negligible or lack larger context (the loss of 1 lb. or a 3-day streak in reducing daily energy consumption) and tie them to in-game rewards. Such virtual attachments would draw attention to these minor changes in performance, allowing for reflection and, in turn, assist in reinforcement (which is aided by feedback proximate to performance).In other words, a game skin can add a meaningful context to fine-grained feedback data, and in turn assist in evoking a real long-term change in one’s decisions or behavior.

Moreover, this process would likely be heightened with the incorporation of social dynamics already common to games.Team-based goals (e.g., extra points for each day you and three friends all stay below your recommended daily caloric intake) and prestige markers (not only individual badges, but weekly community rankings of both individual and team performance) would not only attach virtual rewards to real world interim achievements, but would help formally set additional interim goals that might not have been considered in the first place outside of the game setting.

Moving forward, I think there is a lot of potential for games to add meaning to the vast data offered by new techs, in that they can transform what is often dull, distanced, or confusing feedback into extra, easily interpretable short-term incentives for resisting temptations that disserve long-term goals.As such, from a practical standpoint we should be asking ourselves: What sorts of problems might be solvable with new sensors? And what sorts of data might be made more tangible (or even just more useful) with a game?From a theoretical standpoint, we could then tease apart answers to questions like: Does a game environment amplify the inherent motivation someone has for a real world goal, or just leverage external reinforcements to help reach the same goal (that is, the same end but by different means)?As the development and ubiquity of new self-monitoring technologies continue, such finer details of the science underlying motivation and behavioral decision-making may become more apparent.

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We’re hardly two weeks into 2011 and, undoubtedly, many of us are already struggling to maintain a hold on our New Year’s resolutions.Every year we make new promises to ourselves to take X in moderation or to do Y more often. But it seems we often (sometimes inevitably) fall right back into too much X and not enough Y – it’s easy to rationalize that “This one time is OK” or to indulge ourselves when no one’s looking.But, unfortunately, this “one” time often becomes two, three and so on.Indeed, it’s easy to fall off the proverbial wagon when 1) we can lie to ourselves and 2) no one is watching.

Maybe this sort of occasional weakness (along with a healthy dose of egotism) explains the recent spike in available self-monitoring technologies – that is, a deluge of new techs meant to help us track, record, and visualize our decisions and behavior.Take for instance the web-based software applications (such as Personal Informatics [http://www.personalinformatics.org/ ], Beeminder, [http://beeminder.com/about ], and Rescue Time [http://www.rescuetime.com/]) promising to assist users in measuring their actions and offering visuals of user progress towards personal goals of improved health or increased productivity.To capture data on the go, new apps and hardware are cropping up for mobile self-monitoring of all sorts of information, ranging from sleep patterns & bio stats (http://www.fitbit.com/ http://4thmainsoftware.com/) to perceived contentment (http://www.trackyourhappiness.org/).And let’s not forget the mainstreaming and increasing incidence rate of homes with smart meter hook-ups (enough so for Google to develop an API [http://www.google.com/powermeter/about/about.html] anyway).

All of this is part of the growing “Quantified Self” [http://quantifiedself.com/] movement, in which people both individually and as groups are geeking out over the mounds of data they can collect about anything and everything in one’s daily life. Surely for some this is just a flash in the pan, a novelty or narcissistic diversion that grows old after a short period of time.Yet for others this appears to be a revolution in lifestyle [http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-01-04/news/26358009_1_logging-smart-phones-medications ].But even for the committed a growing question (as noted on the formal homepage of the movement) is “I’ve got all this data… how do I interpret it?”In other words, the data is collectible; now what good is it?How can I use it?What does it mean?How do I incorporate the feedback (and reflection) into my actual decisions and choices?

I personally think gaming mechanics, at least in some situations, may offer an answer to these questions.Specifically, I think they can help provide performance feedback data with a more palatable, interpretable, and actionable meaning.

I should make the following distinction clear: I’m not talking about slapping a motion sensor and display screen onto every material object in the world, a la Jesse Schell’s visions [http://fora.tv/2010/07/27/Jesse_Schell_Visions_of_the_Gamepocalypse#chapter_12] or a twist on the “internet of things” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things] concept.Schell speaks of the growing preponderance of motions sensors that will translate into opportunities to create new games and new gamers (indeed, Schell notes that the original motivation for producers like Nintendo to incorporate motion technology into their devices was to allow for more intuitive gameplay and to in turn attract new players).Sensor data already has people attracted to it – some fanatically so.What’d I’d like to talk about below is how games can help people more intuitively make use of that data.That is, I’m presenting a case for inputting real world data into a game that is based on existing opportunities and affordances (where games help people already seeking to change their behavior), and not on a potential apocalypse of gaming restructuring daily life.Additionally, I’d note that I sympathize with Jared’ concern that mixing the real and the virtual can be dangerously demotivating [http://www.motivateplay.com/2011/01/can-games-fix-our-broken-reality/] for players who are just trying to escape reality.However, I also feel such mixture, whereby game mechanics are leveraged and applied to reality, can serve to amplify and assist those individuals already motivated for making change.

That said: the literature on goal-setting and behavior change tell us that the magnitude and persistence of changes is increased by setting not only a big-picture goal, but by targeting smaller, more manageable and immediately relevant interim achievements.Additionally, literature on group dynamics and social presence also tell us that (with consideration to certain moderating factors) task performance is generally enhanced when public.

Such scenarios are inherent to many game designs.Games commonly couch minor achievements within the journey to longer ones (a characteristic of games that Steve Johnson has previously referred to as “telescoping” [http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Bad-Good-You-ebook/dp/B000OI1AB6 ]).In addition to this compartmentalization of goals, games also naturally structure advancement through interpretable progression tracks (ranks, levels, skill trees) and display performance publicly (either in the moment or through leaderboards and virtual trophy cases).Taken together, these features offer feedback that is not only easy to understand, but has relatively immediate and proximate relevance to the player even when pursuing long-term payoffs.

Part of the difficulty in incorporating real world feedback into our actual behavior is that it is often quantified in metrics or time domains that are inconsistent or trivial in comparison to those of the user’s goals.As such, the feedback is less than readily meaningful to users.For example, losing 1 lb. is not much in light of a potential goal of, say, losing 50 lbs.Or, perhaps you are trying to conserve energy at home or money in your bank account. A once-a-month billing statement listing energy levels or expenses is disconnected from your minute-by-minute or daily decisions and behaviors.

But what if a game skin was added to these scenarios?First, it could easily break these larger, sometimes abstract goals into smaller, more defined steps of achievements (through the progression tracks noted above). Second, it could fit feedback on one’s behavior to a time domain that made sense when targeting interim goals (perhaps daily check-ins or a minute-to-minute display of energy consumption). Third, it could use sensors to detect real world achievements that are typically negligible or lack larger context (the loss of 1 lb. or a 3-day streak in reducing daily energy consumption) and tie them to in-game rewards. Such virtual attachments would draw attention to these minor changes in performance, allowing for reflection and, in turn, assist in reinforcement (which is aided by feedback proximate to performance).In other words, a game skin can add a meaningful context to fine-grained feedback data, and in turn assist in evoking a real long-term change in one’s decisions or behavior.

Moreover, this process would likely be heightened with the incorporation of social dynamics already common to games.Team-based goals (e.g., extra points for each day you and three friends all stay below your recommended daily caloric intake) and prestige markers (not only individual badges, but weekly community rankings of both individual and team performance) would not only attach virtual rewards to real world interim achievements, but would help formally set additional interim goals that might not have been considered in the first place outside of the game setting.

Moving forward, I think there is a lot of potential for games to add meaning to the vast data offered by new techs, in that they can transform what is often dull, distanced, or confusing feedback into extra, easily interpretable short-term incentives for resisting temptations that disserve long-term goals.As such, from a practical standpoint we should be asking ourselves: What sorts of problems might be solvable with new sensors? And what sorts of data might be made more tangible (or even just more useful) with a game?From a theoretical standpoint, we could then tease apart answers to questions like: D

We’re hardly two weeks into 2011 and, undoubtedly, many of us are already struggling to maintain a hold on our New Year’s resolutions.  Every year we make new promises to ourselves to take X in moderation or to do Y more often.  But it seems we often (sometimes inevitably) fall right back into too much X and not enough Y –  it’s easy to rationalize that “This one time is OK” or to indulge ourselves when no one’s looking.  But, unfortunately, this “one” time often becomes two, three and so on.  Indeed, it’s easy to fall off the proverbial wagon when 1) we can lie to ourselves and 2) no one is watching.

Maybe this sort of occasional weakness (along with a healthy dose of egotism) explains the recent spike in available self-monitoring technologies –  that is, a deluge of new techs meant to help us track, record, and visualize our decisions and behavior.  Take for instance the web-based software applications (such as Personal Informatics [http://www.personalinformatics.org/ ], Beeminder, [http://beeminder.com/about ], and Rescue Time [http://www.rescuetime.com/]) promising to assist users in measuring their actions and offering visuals of user progress towards personal goals of improved health or increased productivity.  To capture data on the go, new apps and hardware are cropping up for mobile self-monitoring of all sorts of information, ranging from sleep patterns & bio stats (http://www.fitbit.com/ http://4thmainsoftware.com/) to perceived contentment (http://www.trackyourhappiness.org/).  And let’s not forget the mainstreaming and increasing incidence rate of homes with smart meter hook-ups (enough so for Google to develop an API [http://www.google.com/powermeter/about/about.html] anyway).

All of this is part of the growing “Quantified Self” [http://quantifiedself.com/] movement, in which people both individually and as groups are geeking out over the mounds of data they can collect about anything and everything in one’s daily life.  Surely for some this is just a flash in the pan, a novelty or narcissistic diversion that grows old after a short period of time.  Yet for others this appears to be a revolution in lifestyle [http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-01-04/news/26358009_1_logging-smart-phones-medications ].  But even for the committed a growing question (as noted on the formal homepage of the movement) is “I’ve got all this data… how do I interpret it?”  In other words, the data is collectible; now what good is it?   How can I use it?  What does it mean?  How do I incorporate the feedback (and reflection) into my actual decisions and choices?

I personally think gaming mechanics, at least in some situations, may offer an answer to these questions.  Specifically, I think they can help provide performance feedback data with a more palatable, interpretable, and actionable meaning.

I should make the following distinction clear: I’m not talking about slapping a motion sensor and display screen onto every material object in the world, a la Jesse Schell’s visions [http://fora.tv/2010/07/27/Jesse_Schell_Visions_of_the_Gamepocalypse#chapter_12] or a twist on the “internet of things” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things] concept.  Schell speaks of the growing preponderance of motions sensors that will translate into opportunities to create new games and new gamers (indeed, Schell notes that the original motivation for producers like Nintendo to incorporate motion technology into their devices was to allow for more intuitive gameplay and to in turn attract new players).  Sensor data already has people attracted to it – some fanatically so.  What’d I’d like to talk about below is how games can help people more intuitively make use of that data.  That is, I’m presenting a case for inputting real world data into a game that is based on existing opportunities and affordances (where games help people already seeking to change their behavior), and not on a potential apocalypse of gaming restructuring daily life.  Additionally, I’d note that I sympathize with Jared’ concern that mixing the real and the virtual can be dangerously demotivating [http://www.motivateplay.com/2011/01/can-games-fix-our-broken-reality/] for players who are just trying to escape reality.  However, I also feel such mixture, whereby game mechanics are leveraged and applied to reality, can serve to amplify and assist those individuals already motivated for making change.

That said: the literature on goal-setting and behavior change tell us that the magnitude and persistence of changes is increased by setting not only a big-picture goal, but by targeting smaller, more manageable and immediately relevant interim achievements.  Additionally, literature on group dynamics and social presence also tell us that (with consideration to certain moderating factors) task performance is generally enhanced when public.

Such scenarios are inherent to many game designs.  Games commonly couch minor achievements within the journey to longer ones (a characteristic of games that Steve Johnson has previously referred to as “telescoping” [http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Bad-Good-You-ebook/dp/B000OI1AB6 ]).  In addition to this compartmentalization of goals, games also naturally structure advancement through interpretable progression tracks (ranks, levels, skill trees) and display performance publicly (either in the moment or through leaderboards and virtual trophy cases).  Taken together, these features offer feedback that is not only easy to understand, but has relatively immediate and proximate relevance to the player even when pursuing long-term payoffs.

Part of the difficulty in incorporating real world feedback into our actual behavior is that it is often quantified in metrics or time domains that are inconsistent or trivial in comparison to those of the user’s goals.  As such, the feedback is less than readily meaningful to users.  For example, losing 1 lb. is not much in light of a potential goal of, say, losing 50 lbs.  Or, perhaps you are trying to conserve energy at home or money in your bank account. A once-a-month billing statement listing energy levels or expenses is disconnected from your minute-by-minute or daily decisions and behaviors.

But what if a game skin was added to these scenarios?  First, it could easily break these larger, sometimes abstract goals into smaller, more defined steps of achievements (through the progression tracks noted above). Second, it could fit feedback on one’s behavior to a time domain that made sense when targeting interim goals (perhaps daily check-ins or a minute-to-minute display of energy consumption). Third, it could use sensors to detect real world achievements that are typically negligible or lack larger context (the loss of 1 lb. or a 3-day streak in reducing daily energy consumption) and tie them to in-game rewards. Such virtual attachments would draw attention to these minor changes in performance, allowing for reflection and, in turn, assist in reinforcement (which is aided by feedback proximate to performance).  In other words, a game skin can add a meaningful context to fine-grained feedback data, and in turn assist in evoking a real long-term change in one’s decisions or behavior.

Moreover, this process would likely be heightened with the incorporation of social dynamics already common to games.  Team-based goals (e.g., extra points for each day you and three friends all stay below your recommended daily caloric intake) and prestige markers (not only individual badges, but weekly community rankings of both individual and team performance) would not only attach virtual rewards to real world interim achievements, but would help formally set additional interim goals that might not have been considered in the first place outside of the game setting.

Moving forward, I think there is a lot of potential for games to add meaning to the vast data offered by new techs, in that they can transform what is often dull, distanced, or confusing feedback into extra, easily interpretable short-term incentives for resisting temptations that disserve long-term goals.  As such, from a practical standpoint we should be asking ourselves: What sorts of problems might be solvable with new sensors? And what sorts of data might be made more tangible (or even just more useful) with a game?  From a theoretical standpoint, we could then tease apart answers to questions like: Does a game environment amplify the inherent motivation someone has for a real world goal, or just leverage external reinforcements to help reach the same goal (that is, the same end but by different means)?  As the development and ubiquity of new self-monitoring technologies continue, such finer details of the science underlying motivation and behavioral decision-making may become more apparent.

oes a game environment amplify the inherent motivation someone has for a real world goal, or just leverage external reinforcements to help reach the same goal (that is, the same end but by different means)?As the development and ubiquity of new self-monitoring technologies continue, such finer details of the science underlying motivation and behavioral decision-making may become more apparent.

Know Thyself... And Then What?: Using Games to Provide Meaning to the Quantified Self by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

3 Responses to “Know Thyself... And Then What?: Using Games to Provide Meaning to the Quantified Self”

  1. An article from a 2009 issue of Wired that came to mind when I read this:

    http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-07/lbnp_knowthyself

    Also, how do you tie this with your earlier commentary on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? It seems everything you describe here would fall under the extrinsic motivation category, á la the Epic Win app. Then again, I don't think that's necessarily all that bad. I've actually been playing around with Epic Win for a week or two now, and am surprised by how motivating the little RPG has been (contrived and pointless though it may be). I have to admit I still can't decide how much of the appeal of gameplay, broadly construed, comes from the intrinsic enjoyment of the game, and how much from the external motivators of leveling up, trophies, etc....

  2. Jim Cummings says:

    Jared, IMO what you’re noting may end up being the single most significant way that the new wave of persuasive gaming technologies will contribute to the research literature on motivation: a new conception of the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

    For me, the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is often treated as an operational one – we as researchers, educators, and designers attribute one label or the other to motivating factors largely based upon a tangible distinction between internal drive and external reinforcers.

    However, such a distinction, as you pointed out, can become muddled when dealing with games (the good ones anyway). That’s because these environments – whether video games, sports, or other venues – are composed of tasks that are intrinsically enjoyable in and of themselves, but also situated in a structured set of rules and consequences. Generally, I’d argue that bad games are those we enjoy only because we accomplish the win-state, while good games are at least somewhat fun even when we lose. That is, good games offer both processes and ends that give us pleasure.

    In using real world behavior data as an input for virtual performance, technologies like those described above blur not only the line between reality and virtuality, but the line between process and effect. I enjoy an intense round of Call of Duty in the moment; in comparison, I do NOT enjoy a grueling P90X work-out when it’s happening, but I do enjoy the delayed benefits of improved fitness and health. Now what happens when I combine the two activities into a single task that offers interim rewards on the way to the delayed goals?

    IMO, this is where the role of the time domain of feedback comes in. If the feedback is still somewhat removed from the behavior, I’d suggest the motivation to continue is still mostly extrinsic. However, if the rewarding feedback is more temporally proximate to the behavior, and experienced as being _part of_ the process, I think one could argue we’re dealing with an intrinsically motivating experience.

    I think it’s well realized that these new sensing technologies permit an expansion in one’s individual knowledge and monitoring capacity. But, in addition, I’m expecting that when such techs are coupled with the right gaming mechanisms, the transformation is something more: the cybernetic system of human actor, technological sensor, feedback UI and reflection represents a psychologically novel motivation process, one in which the operational distinction between internal drive and external reinforcer becomes unclear. While the time domain of Epic Win and other current techs include feedback loops in which sensor feedback and user reflection are still divided by a large expanse of time and cognition, I think as development continues new techs will have smaller loops, finer details, and in turn a less discrete distinction between internally gauged process and extrinsic end goal.

  3. Thanks for another excellent article. Where else may just anyone get that type of information in such an ideal method
    of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the look
    for such info.

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