On Gamifying Streaks

Last week I was reading Culture Study’s interview with Adrian Hon about the gamification of “streaks.” I’m writing this on the day of The NewsGuild of New York (representing journalists and other staffers for The New York Times) strike, and am seeing lots of social media posts about folks breaking their Wordle streaks in solidarity with the workers today. I’m also writing it just after completing a quick meditation on a certain app, which was useful to centering myself before moving on to the next task, but was also motivated by my desire to keep my daily streak going in that app.

We talk a bit about streaks on this blog, and I always see folks in my personal life mentioning when they are on a new streak or hit a milestone in a streak they are in. As Adrian Hon says in the Culture Study interview, the gamification of streaks is prevalent across many platforms lots of us use in our daily lives.

Hon talks about how platforms are using gamification to draw users in and keep them active in the platform with the use of streaks. I’ve been thinking more about how streaks come to a halt. Choice versus chance. Today many of us are choosing to break our Wordle streaks. I often choose to break my sleep meditation streak when I’m on vacation. Sometimes I choose to break a fitness streak if completing the workout for the sake of the streak starts to feel a bit obsessive. Other times I break my outdoor walking streak because it is raining and I am not a duck.

On the flip side, I often break ongoing streaks due to chance. By chance I mostly mean that I forgot to do the thing. Maybe it was a subconscious choice. Maybe I fell asleep reading before I started my nightly meditation. The day may have just gotten away from me and the streak activity completely slipped my mind. The gamification wasn’t strong enough to keep the activity front of mind, or the plan to execute didn’t go as intended.

One thing I found most interesting in the Hon article is the discussion of small, or analog, gamification versus bigger gamification that removes human judgement. Hon says:

Your mom’s marble system is a good example of smaller “analog” gamification, which can help structure activities and set goals and measure progress, especially when that progress is hard- won and toward a journey whose end is more abstract. My swimming lessons had similarly low-tech gamification, where we got badges for being able to go 25m without stopping, or for being able to pick a brick up from the bottom of the pool. These kinds of achievement badges and scores can be genuinely useful as training wheels for things we really care about doing. 

A virtue of small-scale gamification is that it’s easily customised and involves human judgment. Your mom could easily change the goals or give you more marbles for extra effort. It’s a human who decides whether a goal has really been achieved, like the swimming instructor who made sure I wasn’t pausing for too long between laps on a test. 

The problem is when gamification — the use of ideas from game design for non-game purposes — expands beyond the bounds we consciously set. It’s one thing to buy Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure to intentionally gamify your home exercise. It’s another to buy an Apple Watch because it’s the only smartwatch that Apple allows to be fully integrated with the iPhone, and you start getting notifications just before midnight badgering you to “close your rings” by going for a run, or to always be offering shiny achievements for increasing your calorie burn month after month. This kind of scaled-up digital gamification quietly substitutes the goals of corporations (maximising engagement and profit) in place of our own goals. Worse, it removes human judgment entirely; there’s no-one at Apple who can decide you deserve a day off your calorie goals. 

What offends me as a game designer, however, is how so much gamification made by corporations simply isn’t fun. Instead, it’s the thinnest, most thoughtless layering of aesthetics and mechanics from game design onto an unappealing activity. I hated cross country running at school, and I’d still have hated it if my teachers made us use Strava to get virtual achievements and compete on a digital leaderboard. But I loved playing five-a-side soccer with my friends every weekend – and we only kept score so that if things got too lopsided, we’d swap players. 

This whole section reminded me that I am actually terrible at pre-determined streaks, and I am much more successful when I control the parameters. I don’t try to “streak” my daily meditation, but instead I ask myself to complete a meditation, yoga session, or some other mindfulness practice (drawing, coloring, knitting, etc). This lets me ask myself what activity will work best for me and supports the “streak” of habits that support me throughout my day(s).

Mostly all this talk of streaks reminds me of my favorite streak from childhood…

A black box with white text that reads "Some of y'all never read 100 books to get a personal pan pizza and it shows"
Text reads: Some of y’all never read 100 books to get a personal pan pizza and it shows

How about you? Do you enjoy streaks or find them frustrating and easy to obsess over? Something in-between?

Amy Smith is a professor of Media & Communication and a communication consultant who lives north of Boston. Her research interests include gender communication and community building. Amy spends her movement time riding the basement bicycle to nowhere, walking her two dogs, and waiting for it to get warm enough for outdoor swimming in New England.

5 thoughts on “On Gamifying Streaks

  1. I am not a big streaker–except on meditation and I often ask myself if I want to pause my streak and so far the answer has been no–something I’ll write about next month possibly, since I’m hitting a “milestone”. Which I also recognize is somewhat meaningless. And yet, I appreciate the “external” motivation to sit down for 10 minutes a day (sometimes longer) and be still.

    1. I’m looking forward to your post, if you decide to write about it. I applaud you for asking yourself… I usually break my meditation streak on vacation, as it is different enough to feel like doing something differently, but easy enough to get back into upon return. Being a “night owl” tho, I sometimes break my “dot” streak on meditations if I miss the midnight cutoff on a given day because I don’t do a sleep meditation until 12:xx or later.

  2. When I read the interview on Culture Study, it shook me up a bit since I had the mindset that streaks were Good. Now that I am paying attention to how many things have been gamified, I am more deliberate about which streaks are helpful to me and which are not. (Sadly, most are not helpful to me.)

    1. I had the same response to the CS interview, and the same reflection about the many things that are “streak”ified these days. I’m usually only competitive with myself, and it is interesting to think about how much of that (for me) is an interest in maintaining/improving in whatever area, versus keeping my streak alive and getting a silly “award” for doing so.

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