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My Winning Experience With Weight Loss Gamification

My name is David, and I have a weight problem. My eating habits are terrible. I ate fast food for just about every meal during the ten years I was single, and I still eat too much junk and fast food, and I have no self-control when it comes to desserts. Fortunately my metabolism is such that I have remained fairly health, although I’ve acquired a 35-pound “spare tire” since hitting middle-age.

I’ve been in denial about my weight until last week, when my wife finally convinced me to join Weight Watchers with her. The program is based on losing weight by creating a calorie deficit. Participants must monitor and control the portions of the foods they eat at each meal. No food is completely off limits, but while chicken, fish, eggs, fruits and vegetables can be eaten in any amounts, foods containing beef, saturated fats and refined sugar are assigned point values, and participants are given a daily point limit plus a weekly set of extra points to use on days when you go over your daily limit.

With my height, weight goal, and exercise habits (I try to go on an hour-long walk every other day), I have a daily limit of 28 points and a weekly surplus of 43 points. How do those points related to the foods I eat. Well, a single egg (or a dozen, for that matter) is 0 points, but the ham and cheese omelette I made for breakfast this morning was 4 points (due to the small amount of milk, cheese, and ham I used to make it), while a serving of Eggs Benedict would be 20 points (due to the muffin and Hollandaise sauce). A McDonald’s Big Breakfast with Hotcakes is a whopping 46 points, and if I were to eat one, I would not only use up all of my 28 daily points, but eat into 15 of my weekly surplus points. Now, that would actually be okay, so long as I don’t exceed my weekly surplus with the rest of my week’s meals.

My wife signed me up with the Weight Watcher app that is used for keeping track of the foods I eat at each meal, the daily and weekly points I am consuming, and how they affect my weight. She knows that I like technology and thought I would enjoy losing weight this way, but that first night I had a nightmare about keeping track of numbers and not being able to eat all the foods I enjoy. However, when I woke up, I found myself totally and unreservedly committed to this diet. Apparently, the nightmare was my brains method of reorienting myself to a new way of eating.

I discovered my wife was right — I do enjoy it. But it’s not just the technology of using the app; it’s how Weight Watchers has gamified the process of losing weight. If you’ve read my previous articles about gamification, you’ll know that it is the process of applying game-like techniques to non-game activities such as training, education, and developing new habits.

Here is a breakdown of the gamification techniques used by the Weight Watchers app, using the Octalysis framework developed by gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou.

  • Development & Accomplishment: the internal drive of making progress, developing skills, and eventually overcoming challenges. Here, the challenge for me is to find ways to eat tasty food while not going over my assigned point limits, and my progress is measured by my weight measurements. I give myself quests of creating zero- or very-low-point meals to eat on days when I plan to go to a restaurant or party with very-high-point foods in the evening.
  • Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback: the creative process of repeatedly figuring things out and trying different combinations.  This is put into practice in Weight Watchers by coming up with new recipes and meals involving low-point ingredients.
  • Ownership & Possession: the drive where users are motivated because they feel like they own something.  In using the app, I feel ownership over the data I collect about the food I eat, as well as by organizing that food into recipes, meals, and other collection sets.
  • Social Influence & Relatedness: all the social elements that drive people, including: mentorship, acceptance, social responses, companionship, as well as competition and envy. The Weight Watchers app fulfills this drive by allowing users to share recipes they’ve created and add the point values of grocery store items into the shared database.  The app also contains a social network where users can engage in discussions with each other to ask questions, share knowledge and receive encouragement.
  • Scarcity & Impatience: the desire to have something that’s in short supply.  Of course, the amount of points you have to spend on the food you consume each day is in short supply, and that makes making good eating choices seem all that more important and exciting.  Another app function based on this drive is essentially making an appointment with yourself to enter your food consumption and weight each day.
  • Unpredictability & Surprises: the excitement of surprises and desire to find out what will happen next.  The app fulfills the designer for novelty by including a bar code scanner to reveal the point value of grocery story items (which has me to go on scavenger hunts to find different varieties of foods with the lowest point value), as well as new recipes to discover.
  • Loss & Avoidance: the avoidance of something negative happening, which in this case would be regaining weight.
  • Epic Meaning & Calling: where players believe they are doing something greater than themselves or were “chosen” to do something.  In this case, my wife chose me to join this program with her, but more importantly, my becoming healthier is something that will benefit my entire family.  Additionally, because there are so many foods that are zero or low points, I can easily find tasty things to eat, making the program easy to get started with and me feel like a Weight Loss Hero from the beginning.

And so far, I do feel like a Weight Loss Hero because I managed to lose 7 pounds in my first week.  But will I be able to keep at it? I think so. The real game for me is finding the most satisfying foods with the lowest point values, and so far I feel that each day is a fun mission to find new meal combinations that are within my point limits.

While seeing my weight go down is a good extrinsic reward (because so far, for me it is just number — I don’t look or feel any different), the more powerful intrinsic reward so far has been in the desserts or other tasty high-point items I reward myself with at the end of the week with whatever weekly surplus points I have remaining.  What I like about this weight loss program is that I can eat anything so long as I plan for it– I just can’t eat everything whenever I want, and that’s okay with me.  It’s all part of the rules of the game.

Hacking The Classroom

Hacking the ClassroomLast Saturday I attended an event called Hack The Classroom at Loyola Marymount University. Aimed at K-12 teachers working at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the six-hour program consisted of talks on the future of technology in education and hands-on workshops on how to hack your classroom with the top iPad Apps, Google Docs, and other technology. My wife, a Catholic high school teacher, had invited me to go with her, and since I was about to head up development of a educational software project myself, I was interested to attend.

Not having been inside a school in over thirty years — aside from visiting my wife’s classroom, attending my children’s open houses and delivering an occasional talk to students about game development — I really didn’t know much about changes in teaching approaches that had taken place since I was a kid. I was immediately blown away by the keynote presentation about technology as core curriculum, which related the evolution of educational thinking, from traditional (Web 1.0) to current (Web 3.0).

Hacking the Classroom


Whereas education in my youth was closed and industrial, the current view is that education should be open and ubiquitous.

Most surprising to me was the concept of “flipping the classroom”: the idea that teachers should present their lectures at the student’s home (via online presentation software), and that “homework” should be done in the classroom so that students having problems can be assisted by teachers or more advanced students acting as tutors. This is a form of blended learning which encompasses any use of technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.

As excited as I was about these new approaches, I was somewhat dismayed that there was a need for workshops to show teachers how to use such simple resources as Google Drive, Twitter and even Wikipedia. However, I’ll give the teachers credit for recognizing that there was a need for them to step up and learn about the technology that their own students use everyday.

There are plans for future Hack The Classroom events organized for other educator groups. You can learn more here.