Sienna Leslie is one of the founders of Habitica, which is a gratis task management application in form of a role-playing game (RPG). The application uses game mechanics to help the player keep track and be motivated to achieve a specific goal. I talked to Sienna Leslie about how their application can change people’s health behavior, what defines a successful gamification approach, and future developments.
Background. Gamification is the use of game-elements in real-life settings (see previous blog entry). Habitica is a gratis gamified self-management web and smartphone application. The game takes the form of a RPG, in which a player creates his/her own avatar, with it’s own health and experience bar. Loosing one’s entire health leads to a decrease in level and loosing of items (e.g. armor, weapons). By fulfilling real-life tasks the avatar gains experience and levels up to become stronger. The activities are displayed in the form of Habits, Dailies and To-Do’s. Habits give experience and gold, e.g. “Do sports 3x a week”, or decrease health, e.g. “Drank soda”. Dailies give experience and decrease health automatically if they are not done at the end of the day, e.g. “Floss teeth”. Finally, To-Dos are single activities that give experience, e.g.” Buy gym membership”. Moreover, doing these activities leads to rewards in form of gold and armor that can be used to become more powerful.
 = signals a comment I made
Q: Which psychological principles does Habitica use?
We are using a lot of the tools of people who design games, and those tools were developed in part based on Psychology. So for example the stochastic rewards [different rewards rates for same activity] that we use when people complete their task, that is something that is very successful, because it has been shown that this makes a behaviour addictive, which is something that we use to get people to be really excited about completing just one more of their task. Or answering just two more of their e-mails, washing more dishes or whatever they try to work on. That is also something you see in games that is part of what makes these popular games very additive, because it falls under that same category. [Habitica makes use of principles of operant conditioning, for more info click here].
Q:What is the difference between a normal self-management app and a gamified app?
In many productivity apps you spend a lot of time setting up all of the things you want to do and then you have absolutely no motivation to get any of this done. So that is when gamification comes in. We really wanted to put the game back in gamification, so we have an old-school nostalgic pixel art. We have a ton of social components, because it is easier to form habits when you are accountable, but it is also more fun to play games with friends together, so that was killing two birds with one stone. I think that are some of the biggest differences. Quests, you battle monster, you earn equipment, there is a ton of motivational components in our game, which is really the biggest difference
Q: How important is the reward component?
Very important, we actually try to make that rewards happen as fast as possible. So that we are having the triggering action and the rewards very close together to help make it sticky and engaging and provide that extra motivation that a lot of these task inherently lack. For example, flossing your teeth. There is no instant reward, there is no fun there. Your reward for flossing you teeth is when you go to the dentist three month later, and the dentist says you don’t have any cavities, that is not compelling enough to keep you hooked on flossing your teeth, whereas when you floss your teeth and your rewards is that you earn 15 gold and then get an egg that you can hatch, but first you need to earn a hatching potion, so you brush your teeth to get a potion to hatch the egg. You suddenly create these chains of rewards that are very motivating.
Q: How can games such as Habitica help to change people’s unhealthy behaviours?
We also have a feature where your little avatar character that represents yourself has health, if you do something that you were not supposed to do, for example smoking a cigarette, and you hit that minus it damages you. There is an instant, visual punishment, and you can lose a bunch of progress if your health gets to zero and your character dies. And worse, there is also social accountability, so if you are playing with a bunch of friends and you are in a quest and you said you are going to do a bunch of things, such as “I am not smoking more than one cigarette per day”, if you then fall of that wagon, the monster will attack all of your friends in addition to attacking you, so there is this additional social pressure that keeps you accountable.
Q: Can Habitica help to fight psychological diseases, such as ADHD, or depression?
Yes, we have a lot of users who use Habitica for those exact things [more info here]. When you have this extra level of reward that you put into, suddenly it is much easier to feel that even the smallest things are worth doing. And we try to be very flexible in letting users define success for themselves, because we know that for each individual person success might not be the same thing twice.
Q: Is Habitica currently used in research or in clinical practice?
We have some people who approached us to use Habitica for their research [e.g. Kalde (2015)]. We obviously get a little more information about it, in general we say yes with constraints, making sure you respect the user’s privacy that kind of stuff. But there is often interest. We occasionally have people who tell us “Hey, I am a therapist and I recommend Habitica to my clients”. We don’t have any official partnerships of that scale, but we do have people who tell us that hey use Habitica in that way.
Q: Will people continue their healthy behavior even when they stop using the application?
The feedback that we often hear is that yes, people continue their habits, for instance making their bed every day. Or sometimes they fell out of their habits and they think “Oh man I used to be very good at going to the gym, then finals hit, and I stopped going to the gym. But now finals are done, I want my muscles back”, they get back to Habitica to give that habit a reboot.
Q: People might lose their ability to seek natural rewards by using Habitica.
We don’t have seen cases of that, because usually if something has a lot of natural rewards, people don’t need to use Habticia for it. Unless people are using it for things, such as to make sure to watch their TV show, because they are having issues with overworking and not giving themselves a fun time. Usually people use Habitica for stuff that does not have a natural reward to them.
Q: Are also women and older people using Habitica?
We are about 50/50 for gender split, we tend to see people from 18 to 35 as our biggest group. We do have people who are using it who are younger or older than that. For example, we sometimes see that people use it over three generation: the children, parents and great-parents use it all in a group together to keep each other motivates so it’s like “Did you do your homework honey?”, “Grandma did you take your heart medicine?”.
Q: How important is the game design?
I think it is very important to make sure that it is fun and choose things that are compelling. A lot of gamification tools just try to hack things together, so let’s give people badges, but you are not thinking about making something that is actually fun. Of course that is an elusive concepts and it depends. It depends on what predictor people enjoy or don’t enjoy, I would like to see more of a focus not just on hacking people’s brains, more on giving people experience that they find consistently rewarding and fun, so that you are tying in both, the joy of the rewards in the application but also merging it with the joy of looking around and saying “Hey, my room is the cleanest it has ever been, this feels satisfying, and I wouldn’t have got there without the other gamified reward”.
Q: How important will gamification be in the future?
It definitely has the potential for a wider reach, whether or not it will I am not sure. It will depend on how well it is being implemented. There will always be room for well-implemented gamification, but I think a lot of it might get lost by poor implementation. Already now the word gamification has become a buzzword in some context. People say gamification is just sticking on a badge, well that kind of gamification doesn’t work. If you look at the game component you have something stronger you can actually rely on.
Q: What makes a gamification approach successful?
Listening a lot to the user and their feedback and trying to put in a lot of fun, sticky experiences. Figuring out what the different things are that motivate people to play. For example, satisfy people who are interested in collecting, people who are interested in social engagement, people who just want to super optimize their character. Think about all the different things that motivate people when they are playing games. Making sure that there is enough in there for all the different types of people. There has been research done on this in the video game community of what makes a game satisfying for someone, and the answer is “it depends”. It depends heavily on the person who is playing, and you can find various archetypes.
Thank you very much!