Actively Hooked: Exergame Design Techniques To Boost Long-Term Engagement

The focus on increasing engagement in physical activity is an important factor behind the recent growth of exergames and the growing attention that the topic of exergame effectiveness has demanded from researchers. Research has validated the benefits that the use of exergames can offer and the initial popularity of active games such as Pokémon GO incited curiosity among public health researchers regarding the use of such games to overcome the physical inactivity pandemic.

Exergames are characterised by their use of gamification techniques to urge the user to undertake physical activity. Exergames may also be classified as “serious games” as these games have an additional primary purpose other than pure entertainment.

Although gamifcation is defined as the application of the elements of game design in non-game environments, game design principles are rooted in entertainment, while the intention behind gamification is to boost engagement. However, it is agreed that gamification is heavily dependent on game design theory.

Immersion is identified as a crucial element of game design theory that contributes to the enjoyment aspect of a game. Various studies have identified the critical relationship between immersion and the success of a game. Immersion is recognised as a key element in generating engagement, an important requirement for exergame success.

Goal setting and goal achievement serve as factors of intrinsic motivation, possibly encouraging long-term engagement. An online survey of 2190 participants pointed out the importance of giving users a feeling of progression through goal setting. Some users felt a sense of enjoyment while making a commitment to themselves through setting goals. However, an important limitation of this technique is that unrealistic or vague goals may discourage players from playing the game itself. Broad goal-setting is identified to be a less useful gamification technique and customized goal setting based on the players’ individual requirements is recommended.

Comprehensive feedback is met with positive reactions and in some cases is linked to increased activity. The importance of providing sufficient feedback of health data and an appropriate rewards system is linked to long-term engagement. Additionally, help menus and feedback mechanisms are identified as critical elements to accomplish a good flow experience.

Extrinsic rewards such as badges and points are found to serve a motivational purpose. A study based on the self-determination theory recognised the potential of glorification rewards such as badges in satisfying the need for competence and giving users a feeling of success. Badges and other rewards of glory are also linked to higher levels of enjoyment due to the resulting psychological need satisfaction. However, the type of reward that the user prefers differs by player, pointing to the need for customization.

The lack of a significant story line in exergames may be a critical setback in the appeal of the game. Reasons for quitting cited by former players of Pokemon GO included the lack of content and the repetitive nature of the game. A qualitative study of the Zombies, Run! exergame pointed to the importance of narrative in encouraging player engagement and repeated play sessions.

Long-term engagement and behaviour change can be achieved through providing the user with constant emotional engagement. Social interaction serves as intrinsic motivation for users to continue use of exergames. Additionally, social interaction in the context of serious games helps create an ambience of encouragement and optimism and proves useful in satisfying the psychological need for social relatedness. However, few researchers have concluded that a strong flow experience overcomes the need for social elements. Social interaction and social sharing isn’t devoid of problems. Privacy concerns, the hesitation to share and the lack of support for shared content are some key issues to overcome while implementing social interaction within exergames.

It is important to consider the user’s individual preferences to promote long-term engagement. Exergames need to take into account the everyday limitations of the user’s lifestyles and provide the player with customized options that would suit their preferences. Some users preferred exergames that allowed them to play at their own pace such as Pokémon GO, as compared to those exergames that required continuous movement such as Zombies, Run!. Others preferred an approach that would allow social competition as compared to customized goal setting.

User interaction with gamification techniques vary between different people and for different reasons, resulting in the variation of the results achieved by gamification design techniques. However, allowing customization of these techniques to suit user personalities and preferences may promote long-term usage.

I’m a user researcher & product designer with a multidisciplinary visual arts background and 5 years working in e-commerce & SaaS.