19194385_6ade3697b3_zAs a kid, I was always impressed by the list of initials that appeared on the video games at the arcade announcing the high scores (I didn’t at the time realize how many quarters had gone into making that happen). There is something exciting about reaching a high score or even just beating your own personal best score. Competition, even against ourselves, is highly motivating. How then, can we turn this motivation from gaming into something that can change who we are?

Life doesn’t seem to have a score board, so as a school psychologist, I have frequently turned to token economies, behavior charts, and other systems to help reinforce desired behaviors in the children that I work with. Sometimes, these desired behaviors are assigned points or are worth some kind of tangible reward. The challenge with implementing them in the classroom is that they can be difficult to layer on top of existing routines and can feel forced. This leads to a lack of fidelity to the intervention and then the behavior chart fails.

Given that these systems involve gathering points and getting things, why don’t they work the same way that a game does?What’s missing is the excitement and energy created by playing a game. Games have rules where you get special badges and power-ups. There are mini-quests and sometimes a compelling story. A token economy or a behavior chart is missing this.

Thinking about this made me realize that I have been gamifying my own life for a while now without even realizing it. I’m working on becoming fitter and I’m using the points on a fitness site to track my progress, plus using the feedback in steps and calories burnt that my fitness tracker provides. I’m also studying for a professional test and using the results of mini-quizzes to keep me motivated and engaged. Without the gamification, I might not have the motivation to study as regularly as I am.

When we turn things into a game, the excitement builds. This is something that Jane McGonigal realized in her TedTalk about her battle with post-concussion symptoms and suicide ideation. She created her own game, SuperBetter, which now exists as an iOS and Android app, to help her through the challenge of healing. The gamification kept her active and involved in a way that goes beyond a simple token economy.

Gaming is powerful. Just look at how quickly Pokemon Go has spread or see how many people you see playing Candy Crush. Imagine if we could harness the power of gaming to change human behavior on that wide a scale. We just need to figure out the right game for it.