Do ‘Gamified’ Health and Nutrition Apps Work? Who Knows

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By now, exercise and health apps are pretty well-known, and more of them are released every day. Some, like Fitbit, have a physical component, but most consist only of software. In many cases, these apps are "gamified" — that is, they include the sorts of elements you often see in video games. You can earn badges or points, advance to new levels, and so on, the idea being that this is a stronger motivation for behavior change than, say, reading your 500th article about how your daily French-fry habit is killing you.

Some of these apps are certainly a lot of fun and quite addictive. But a new article in the the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that many of them don't establish best practices for getting people to exercise more or eat healthier.

A team of researchers from BYU downloaded 132 diet and exercise apps from the Apple App Store and analyzed how they were structured — which sorts of game elements they had, how the positive health behaviors in them were reinforced through gamification, and to what extent these gamified mechanics adhered to current theories about how people change their health behaviors for the better.

The results, summed up in the paper's conclusion, pointed to a very mixed bag: "As it stands, the current industry use of gamification, game elements, and behavioral theory are subpar, illustrating a proliferation of apps available for download following no set industry standard that is currently available." In other words, a fun, gamified app is not automatically a gamified app that will actually keep the calories off.

There's a bit of an incentive problem here: Why would any developer agree to have his app tested in a rigorous way? It takes forever (in app time), is expensive, and is likely to blunt the developers' claims. Ideally, there will eventually be some sort of trustworthy system in place to certify that health apps really do what they claim to, but at the moment, in the early, chaotic days of the mobile-app market, we're probably a long way off from that.