What is Applied Entertainment?

By Jacob Ellenberg and Michael Carychao

What if playing Angry Birds helped you keep your New Year’s resolutions? What if your World of Warcraft campaign got you to burn off a few extra pounds? What if you leveled up your Star Wars Jedi character by improving your focus with real life breathing exercises guided by Yoda in VR?

What if, when you got better at something in real life, your games were aware and your digital avatars improved as well? Would this feedback loop between you and your games drive personal growth and self-improvement?

The emerging field of Applied Entertainment says: Yes.

We know from behavioral science that rewards drive repeated action. Neuroscience tells us that repeated actions physically changes our brains to form habits. Wearable technology makes it easier than ever to track our repeated actions which puts us in a position to know with increasing fidelity just what we’re getting better at. But activity-tracked stats alone haven’t been enough to keep users strongly engaged. It will take the seduction of games and the emotional payoff of stories for this raw data to bloom into a visceral experience that will keep us engaged in consciously changing our habits so that we can close the gap between us and our heroes.

Applied Entertainment is all about putting our entertainment and our technology to work for us. Instead of having shows and games distract us from our dreams and humanity’s greatest challenges, let’s harness their addictive qualities to help us achieve our personal and collective goals. Instead of letting technology capture our attention, let it pay attention to us, giving us timely feedback when we stray and rewarding us the moment we engage.

Applied Entertainment arises from a synthesis of several mature disciplines, combining the latest advances in behavioral science, performance training, activity tracking, game mechanics, and immersive storytelling to help people and society thrive.

Let’s take a look at what each of these five fields brings to the craft:

1. Technology

Wearable technology enables the validation of activities and states such as running, walking, breathing, brain activity, heart rate, focus, distraction, and getting a good night of sleep. Sensors, interpretive algorithms, and APIs allow for a growing range of every-day inputs to be piped to entertainment experiences.

2. Stories

Story compels us at an emotional level to see what happens next, helping us to stick with training long enough to initiate real behavior change. Stories inspire visions of what we can become, as individuals and as a society. Impressed by heroes, we are motivated to make more of our potential.

3. Games

Game dynamics create action-feedback loops that are fun and addictive, providing both the engines of engagement and means for enduring change (desirable or not). Applied Entertainment embraces all kinds of games, from the casual phone games played a minute-at-a-time to immersive RPGs that can ask for multi-day commitments, from mind games to arcade games, from the heroic to the hilarious.

4. Training

Training is the systematic mastery of skills, behaviors, and performance. In many cases, all that stands between us and world class competence is the right training. So often when we play a game we end up getting good at something we didn’t ultimately care about — like working a joystick. But when real world training is embedded in game mechanics the byproduct of playing can be the mastery we crave.

5. Behavior

Behavioral science shows us how to harness the quirks of human motivation, attention, and desire to help us stay involved in our training. Voluntary behavior change supported by rewards, guidance, and peers can boost training to the highest levels — or at least keep us engaged through the hard stretches.

Why is Applied Entertainment emerging now?

Why now? After all, people have been playing video games using a variety of inventive inputs for a quite some time. You need only look at Power Gloves, Dance Pads, and Balance Boards to see a few recent attempts at harnessing gamer activity as inputs into games. Such devices had their moment, but their adoption remained game specific, if not culturally fringe. The keyboard, the mouse, and the game controller are the ubiquitous gaming tools — though perhaps not for long.

With the cost of sensors falling, the proliferation of the Internet of Things, and wearables that can read movement, breath, heart rate, brain states, blood sugar levels, physiological excitement, relaxation, and ennui, we are barreling into a new age of possible game devices and potential behavior change. Whatever can be measured, recorded, and transmitted can now be an input into an entertainment or gaming experience.

This is not to say that traditional video gaming is going anywhere; it’s fun and we’ll keep doing it. But we are being unleashed, freed from having to be in front of a screen clutching a controller.

Let that sink in. You can leave your screen and still be playing. This is not new to games, but so new to video games, that most designers don’t considered it an option… yet.

We enjoy relaxing and conserving energy, but we we also like to feel alive, flush with vitality. Humanity has a long history of walking and running, and a very short history of dancing on pads or mashing buttons in front of screens. And now our heart rate, breath rate, or brain state can be positively reinforced and changed, not just our couch-sitting twitch skills. This new wave of inputs encourages a lifestyle that is a better fit for the human form — without giving up the fun of our screens. Indeed, screen time will likely feel more enhanced and meaningful the more connected it is to our physical lives.

With this powerful new ability to shape our behavior, why not use it to achieve our personal ideals? The unfoldment of human potential has long been the domain of teachers, mentors, gurus, role models, and coaches, but, through the lens of Applied Entertainment, it’s clear that entertainers, storytellers, and game designers also have a crucial role to play.

The range of Applied Entertainment experiences is only bounded by vision and initiative. We hope the coming years will bring a cornucopia of Applied Entertainment experiences. Here are just a few possibilities to stoke the imagination:

High-Tech Sports Teams

If players wore activity-tracking devices, the coach could know with a high degree of accuracy if the team members were practicing or not, as well as how frequently, for how long, and at what intensity. A coach could quite literally have a team dashboard of biometric data: heart rate, breath, sleep cycles, steps taken, and so on. For some, that would be an invasion of privacy of the highest caliber, for others it could be a welcome check against behaviors they want to adjust. Imagine playing as yourself in a sports video game — using validated stats from your last scrimmage.

Be the Grind

Rather than “grinding” for points in a MMORPG —doing those mind-numbingly repetitive tasks that give your character experience but only give you carpal tunnel — instead you might have the option to run, do breathing exercises, or practice mindfulness to level up your character. The “grind” then shifts from being a mindless waste of time, to being a genuinely beneficial exercise. The game motivates you to take action that fosters greater wellness and higher performance. Now when you run, breathe, or meditate, your in-game stats increase: you’re stronger, have more stamina, and can cast a wicked level twenty-seven fireball of awesomeness.

Emergency Preparedness

Police, EMTs, and regular people could all simulate traumatic scenarios and learn how to regulate breath and heart rate in order to react better under high-pressure situations. When disasters actually happen they’ll be that much more prepared. The data captured could inform, say, the next episode of VR ER, or a post-apocalyptic game that can’t be beaten unless you stay exceedingly chill under fire.

Smart Education

Students could be alerted when their breath rates or brain waves strayed out of the optimal learning states. This could trigger a reminder to take an exercise break. Students could be taught to regulate the breath and nervous system before beginning again. The role-model doing the guiding wouldn’t have to be a faceless app either, it could be a beloved figure from our favorite story worlds. Who doesn’t want Yoda as a meditation coach?

It’s Happening

The early days of Applied Entertainment are already here. Games like Zombies, Run!, Pokemon Go, and Walkr have demonstrated a hunger among audiences for new game mechanics and for motivation grounded in fun.

We need only look to the examples and research in the fields of exergaming, edutainment, transreality gaming, alternate reality gaming, serious gaming, and Games for Change to see the potential uses of Applied Entertainment: primary and adult education, health and wellness, civic engagement, empathy-building, fundraising, training, and learning skills.

Imagine a future infused with Applied Entertainment. Now, imagine what stands in its way: a host of technical, ethical, psychological, and design questions.

If you’ve read this far, you may be among the leaders, practitioners, and early adopters that could help shape this field. Please join us and jump in the conversation with your thoughts.

  • What games do you know about that could be considered Applied Entertainment?
  • What technical hurdles will be most difficult to overcome?
  • What ethical challenges await?

Applied Entertainment publishes articles about the intersection of Story, Game, Technology, Training, and Behavior Change. Do you have an idea for an article? Let us know.

*Full disclosure: we are game creators making these kinds of games. You can check out what we’re working on at Greater.is.