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  • Writer's pictureRob Haisfield

What's Appening? Gamification and Playfulness in Headspace

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

It's about more than rewards

Imagine you are on a date and at the end of the night you want a goodnight kiss. You ask, “would you like to kiss me?” They says yes, but let’s say you weren’t too sure if they would, so you sweeten the deal and say “I’ll give you $10 if you kiss me.” Do you think they would still be interested?

It’s a silly thought experiment, but it illustrates an important point- if you’re already motivated to do something, adding a reward like money or points won’t make you more motivated. They are probably not thinking, “Oh I get to kiss you AND earn $10? Big win!”

Behavioral economics research shows that adding external rewards often backfire if you’re already intrinsically motivated. Why might that be? Well, the first reason could be that paying money for intimacy is generally frowned upon. Alternatively, your date could be replacing the question of whether they want to kiss you with the less favorable question of whether $10 is worth a kiss. Being offered an external reward takes away one’s ownership of the decision. People can justify it as doing it for the money, and if they’re getting paid, they better be paid enough.

In studies of volunteers canvasing for donations, the group that wasn’t paid at all collected the most donations, followed by the high pay group, followed by the low pay group. Rewards can work, but they generally only work for short rather than long term change. As I wrote in my previous article,

“Enhancing and enabling intrinsic motivation is one of the best ways to create long-term behavior change. According to self-determination theory, our intrinsic motivation is based on three main drives for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is about a need to improve our skills and knowledge. Autonomy describes wanting to personally identify with the task at hand and be in control of our own actions. Relatedness has to do with wanting to connect to others through our actions.”

The big reason that rewards in an app work for short rather than long-term behavior change is that if you stop caring about or receiving the reward, then you stop doing the behavior that it’s trying to encourage. Variable ratio rewards like I’ve described in my article on Tinder can cause the behavior to last longer, but eventually it’ll stop. Even so, when an app is gamified, it usually relies on externally rewarding desired behaviors with points, badges, achievements, and leveling up. This doesn’t create meaningful change, and leads you to eventually stop using the app when you get tired of it.

Gamification is about using elements from game design in non-game situations to increase engagement and encourage desirable behaviors from users. What so many gamification designers seem to miss is that games aren’t just about points and achievements. They’re about being fun and playful.

Headspace is a guided meditation app that uses game elements that increase and enable intrinsic motivation to create long-term change. In this article, I’m going to look at how they do that, as well as how they might be able to do that better.

Creating a playground

Playfulness is about facilitating the freedom to explore and fail within boundaries.Players can use the app how they want, engaging with what they want within the app, and establishing their own constraints. Picture a schoolyard playground- there are a lot of fun things that you can choose to interact with. However, if you were forced to use the monkey bars, it might just feel like exercise.

According to “A RECIPE for Meaningful Gamification”:

“The concept of a space where people can roam, explore, see where others are, engage with those others, and set temporary rules and goals can create a gamification space that people engage with because it’s playful.”

Headspace has the roam and explore part down pat. As you can see, you have a lot of options (45 meditation packs, 54 singles, 6 minis, 8 meditations for kids). Normally an app designer might worry about choice paralysis, where users have so many options that they don’t pick any. However, Headspace bunches its packs together into categories (for example, the packs for creativity, productivity, and finding focus are all under “Work & Performance”). This makes it so you first just look for a category that’s interesting, and then you pick a pack within that category that you like, which reduces the options you need to pick from at each decision point.

However, they don’t literally ask you to make each of those decisions in order, which is important. They present all of this information to you at once, inviting you to scroll and explore. You’re encouraged to try any that’s interesting to you. If they wanted to make this exploration more playful and fun, they could add art to the cover of each pack instead of just sorting them by color. Another app that has the same layout to encourage exploration is Netflix. Look familiar?

The social interaction in Headspace is “passive,” opting to show you your friends’ meditation stats instead of give you ways to interact with friends. It does not show you which meditations they’ve done, which is understandable for privacy reasons. You can “nudge” your friends to meditate more, but instead of sending a simple “poke” notification, it asks you to write out a text or email without a template, which is a little cumbersome.

Due to the lack of interactivity, this “passive” social network does not encourage you to engage more heavily with the app. Headspace needs “active” social interaction so users can actually connect to others by engaging the service more deeply. If I do a meditation that I think my friend would like, I should be able to send it to them. I should be able to make meditation groups, or have groups made for me by Headspace, where we want to complete challenges together each week, cooperating to “meditate for 500 minutes” or “try every Single.”

To really nail down playfulness, they need to give users the ability to “set temporary rules and goals.” You know how kids on a playset might try to see who can go down the slide the fastest, start saying that certain areas are theirs, or climbing to the top just because they can? Same concept.

Headspace doesn’t do this explicitly, but they could. They could let you “favorite” meditations that you like and put them into playlists. They could give you a template for setting up challenges for yourself. If you set your own goals, you’ll feel more autonomy and be more intrinsically motivated to complete them. Perhaps they could let you write down a short goal for the week that pops up every time that you open the app. This allows the app to use your desire to behave consistently with your self image for your betterment.

Storytelling that engages your sense of self

The use of narrative storytelling in video games is another way that they draw you in without explicitly rewarding you. Narratives allow the player to draw connections between their past experiences, present reality, and future benefits. The challenge comes with giving the player a sense of control and autonomy over the story, rather than just being along for the ride.

There are four main types of narrative that exist in games. An evoked narrative sets the game in a world that already exists, like real life. Enacted narratives are non-interactive, think cut-scenes and videos that interrupt gameplay. Embedded narrative is when the story is built into other game elements, like picking up items or exploring a new territory. The most powerful type, however, is an emergent narrative. This allows the player to create the story by making choices that matter, inviting the player to identify with the story. Headspace works primarily through an embedded narrative, as the meditations you choose and the animations you watch determine the story that you’re exposed to. This type of narrative encourages the user to explore, because they know that they’ll unveil more by trying more.

There’s a little bit of emergent narrative that is shown to you in the “My Journey” tab on your profile, where it shows you the meditations you’ve done, the landmarks you’ve achieved, and the animations that you’ve unlocked.

There could be more though. See the “profile picture” of the smiling cartoon creature? As far as I can tell, you can’t change it. But what if it changed every time that you did a meditation? If you did a creativity one, it might start painting, or if you do one of the running singles, it (you guessed it) runs. This cartoon creature is supposed to represent you, so if it acted like you as well, that would add a playful piece of emergent narrative that connects your actions in real life to what’s happening in the app.

Reflection to enhance learning

If a gamification service wants the players to make real changes in their life, then adding reflection as a feature is invaluable.If you want to utilize reflection well in your app, there are three main components: description, analysis, and application. Description is about figuring out what happened, analysis is about realizing its connections with your real life, and application is about ideating about how to use what you’ve learned in new situations.

Nike+, a brilliant app in the gamification space, incorporates reflection directly into the user’s journey. After a run, it asks you how you feel, shows you a map of where you’ve run and your running speed, asks you what shoes you were wearing, and what sort of turf you were running on. Then they ask if you want to share your post-run reflection on social media.

Meditation is an act that’s basically begging to be reflected on. After you finish, Headspace could ask you how you felt on an emoji scale and if there were any particularly important thoughts that came to mind that you want to jot down. They could compile these thoughts into a “meditation journal” on your profile, adding an extra layer of emergent narrative. Alternatively, they could build it into the way your “Journey” is already displayed, so if you tapped on a meditation you completed that had a little notebook icon, you could read what you wrote.

Reflection is done best when it’s done with others with a shared experience. You might miss something that others noticed, and vice versa. Headspace could allow you to share your reflections on Facebook, with people on your buddy list, with meditation groups that you or the app created, or with other people working on the same meditation pack as you. This sort of social reflection causes you to learn more and brings you closer to other people through the app, tying Headspace to relatedness, one of the three main drivers of intrinsic motivation, which will in turn cause individuals to use the app more.

Doing rewards right

What little Headspace does with rewards, they do right. Upon reaching certain milestones which aren’t clear to you ahead of time, you unlock animations that teach you how to enhance your meditation practice. This works (and does not reduce intrinsic motivation) for a few reasons.

The first is that the rewards are unexpected. Because you did not plan ahead for them, you can’t justify your actions as being just for a prize. As a result, they feel more like a celebration of your work, rather than payment.

The second is that it touches on a core driver of intrinsic motivation, the desire for competence. As you meditate more, you naturally improve. Once you start to feel like you might have hit a plateau, Headspace gives you new things to think about that allow you to improve and meditate more.


- Games are engaging for more than just the rewards they give you

- You can picture a playful environment by imagining a schoolyard playground, where you can see and engage with a variety of structures and people

- A game’s narrative and the way it’s exposed can engage and motivate the player

- Reflection is a key component of the learning process that invites the player to connect their actions in the game to the game’s real-life value and lessons.

- If you’re going to use rewards, put a lot of careful consideration into how you’re going to do it. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in how to do them right.

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