Coercive gamification turns all of us into cheaters. Should we feel bad about cheating our workplaces and health insurers?
I confess: I cheat at my Apple Watch.
In the Before Times, I used to travel from my home in Edinburgh to Six to Start’s office in London every fortnight. The train took four and a half hours, but I managed to fill it most ways with a mixture of work, reading, and Game of Thrones. The main irritation came from my watch, which nagged me ten minutes before the hour if I’ve been sitting too much.
By default, the Apple Watch displays an “Activity Rings” icon showing how much you’ve moved, exercised, and stood up. You can change your “Move” target, but the Watch insists you do 30 minutes of exercise and stand for at least a minute during 12 hours each day. Miss your goals (which are really Apple’s goals) and you’ll receive passive-aggressive reminders to do better. Hit them, and your Watch will reward you with a shiny achievement badge – and there’s plenty more gamification woven throughout the Watch, like competitions against friends and time-limited challenges.
I know it’s meaningless, but I see those rings every time I lift my wrist and it’s dagger to heart to see them incomplete. Most of the time it’s easy to fill them, but when I’m on a four hour train, there are fewer opportunities to stand. So here’s what I do: at one minute before the hour, I stand up for two minutes so I get “standing” credit for both hours. I can then sit easy for another 118 minutes before rousing myself once more.
Is this cheating? Yes – and no. Who am I really cheating – and when did I even choose to play this game?
Wherever there’s a game, there’s cheating. When I moved to London in the mid-2000s, I discovered I could get a fancy gym membership on the cheap via Prudential Health Insurance (now known as Vitality). Because I was a young and I didn’t smoke, my premium was low, but more importantly, if I earned enough Vitality points I got a discount on the gym membership such that I was practically paying nothing for both the health insurance and the gym.
You could earn Vitality points with self-reported information (“how much do you drink?”) but reaching the higher levels required more work, like buying vegetable from the supermarket, walking more steps during the day, or visiting the gym. I know for a fact that at my gym, several members would regularly tap in, sit in the cafe for fifteen minutes, and then leave – long enough to register as a proper visit. It sounds ridiculous but you could save hundreds of pounds a year by gaming the system. It might have done it once or twice myself. What can I say? It was fun.
These days, health insurers track your movement via your phone, which has led to a thriving trade in “swinging cradles” that make my Apple Watch hack look like child’s play:
It’s funny, but it’s also incredibly sad. Something has gone desperately wrong if insurers and employers are driving people to cheat at being “healthy”. If someone’s bone-tired after clocking off from their low-paid job, no amount of cheery gamification will convince them to walk 10,000 steps rather than drop their phone into a swinging cradle while they collapse on the sofa.
That people would cheat at games shouldn’t surprise us. Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about how his mother and mother-in-law were so obsessed with Draw Something that they’d cheat in order to continue their chain of correct guesses by writing the word “rose” instead of drawing a rose.
To be clear: the point of Draw Something is for one player to draw something and for the other player to correctly guess what it is. That’s how they started out playing, but they became fixated on seeing a particular score going up that when my friend exclaimed, “That’s cheating!” his mum strenuously disagreed. Harmless enough, but it shows our natural human aptitude for cheating.
I didn’t turn on the Activity Rings and its attendant gamification features when I set up my Apple Watch – they’re baked in, just as gamification is baked in to so many other tools and services we use today, willingly or not. What happens when you turn the world into a game, when you coerce people into playing? What happens when you raise the stakes so high people’s livelihoods depend on winning?
You train people to cheat.Continue reading “If You Can’t Win, Cheat”