Quantified Self: The unrelenting co-construction of gamified self


  1. Major parts of the article have been sourced from my academic dissertation submitted to the University of Southampton for my MSc., Digital Marketing course.
  2. I am trying to introduce a new concept here that’s in a nascent stage. So confusions are bound to happen.

One year back, I wrote this article on quantified life. If an article can change things in life, this was the one for me. My professor Mike came to the class and said: “You are on to something”. It stuck to me, became my dissertation thesis (obsessive 3 months).

While reading the previous article or the title of this one, you might question the importance of research on this subject. Even if you are a sceptic, it is inevitable that you have to accept that technology has changed the way we look at data about ourselves. You can’t deny the fact that you check your health app and see the number of steps you have walked in a day.

Quantified Self is a movement that encourages the idea of involving technology to track and acquire data on various aspects of the human body and daily life. The best example that I can give is using the health app on your iPhone to track your steps or your Fitibit or Jawbone. According to the Quantified Self-website, there are 596 commercially available trackers (this was when my dissertation report was written — around August 2015), tools and apps that cater to different aspects of tracking like location, health, sleep, moods, work schedules, social network usage and even sex. Euromonitor has forecasted that the total shipments of wearables will be around 250 million devices by 2018. So there are billions of dollars at stake. If that’s not going to convince you, this technology is pitted to change the way people see their bodies and health while it might change the way researchers see diagnosis. The health kit of Apple and other health apps are changing the way patients information are shared with the doctors.

Not so surprisingly, a large chunk of research on Quantified Self comes from the domains of human-computer interaction and health research. So I embarked on a research to find the consumption practices undertaken by quantified selfers.

My research was focused on the fitness tracking aspect of quantified life — in other words, how people are using apps and devices to track their activities with respect to fitness goals. The research paradigm I chose was qualitative research and I took phenomenological interviews of 15 quantified selfers to collect the data. The reason I used phenomenology was that it allowed the participants to describe their life experiences with their tracking devices and apps. In addition to that, Actor-network theory was used to analyse how the Quantified-Selfers interacted with their trackers and how they created their human-digital assemblages.

I think it’s dangerous to explain Actor-network theory in this blog post. But in short, Actor-network Theory was developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law in the early 80s. Actor-network Theory is a distinctive paradigm that allows examination of the influence of non-human actants. Let’s say, we can keep this discussion of Actor-network Theory for another post.

Based on the data I collected, the following notions about quantified selfers cropped as patterns.

  1. The devices re(define) the definition of ideal self
    Self-trackers and apps — whatever brand they may be — tend to create an ideal image of what a human being should do. For instance, all self-tracking devices persuade their users to make 10,000 steps/day. The notion of 10,000 steps/day originated because of a Japanese marketing campaign during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as one of the companies named their pedometers ‘manpo-kei’ which literally meant 10,000 step meter. The usage patterns of these self-trackers show how the devices influence the notions of ideal activity, weight, sleep and other parts of human self. People are willing to accept the tracking numbers proposed by the devices as ideal even if they think those are not accurate.Self-tracking devices have taken the initiative to position themselves as defining what an ideal physical and mental self would be; this shows how important technology has become to the definition of self. This shows how the definition of ideal self is ‘redefined’ over a period of time using the device. The human-device assemblage of self-tracking provides a new way of defining what an ideal self should be.
  2. The devices alter behaviour
    Behavioural change can be defined as the adaptation to a change as proposed by the environment and accepted by the behaver and the environment. Self-tracking trackers and apps change behaviours that were followed by an individual for many years. Say, for example, people change sleep patterns, take stairs instead of taking the lift, eat a salad instead of a hamburger or just walk a little extra.
  3. The devices create a community
    Every tracker device has its own social network that allows people to create their own, smaller social groups. It also allows people to share their data with those social networks. The sharing enables a qualitative feedback system that is as important as the quantitative feedback system.The impact of a social group is underestimated with respect to self-monitoring and evaluation. The self-trackers find themselves as part of a community and the notion that “self-tracking is all about the self” is questioned. The fundamental definition of self is bound to be restructured due to the influence of the self-tracking device/app and the social group. There is an internal tension between these human and non-human actors as they exert pressure on the self-tracker. The social community is created because of the device and it becomes the crux of the interactions between the users in the group. The device constructs the community around itself and these are not based on brands (Fitbit, Jawbone) but it is based on the self-tracking practice.
  4. The devices induce the gamification of self
    The self-tracking devices to motivate users to use gamification strategies. Based on observation, there are two types of gamification that a tracking device employs. On one side, a game that is played with oneself and on the other, game that is played with the social groups. Gamification can be defined as the use of gaming techniques in a non-gaming scenario. The best example is the reward system that you might employ with your children — “Finish homework, I will allow one hour of TV”. Gamification makes people self-govern and it helps people to sustain the activity of tracking.

After observing all these phenomena and interpreting them, I decided that the activity of quantified self is quite unique. In order to explain it, I proposed a new theory which is in turn an extension of “The theory of extended self” by Belk (2013)

Co-construction of Gamified Self

Post-modern discourses on self often refer to Lacan’s “mirror image”, which refers to the idea that an individual is fascinated by his/her own image or desires and sees others through the eyes of his/her own needs and wants. Many researchers agree that discourses on post-modern self-talk about fragmentation and dislocation of self. Bauman argued that the human search for the ideal self makes them believe that there are always better things and because of that, lose sight of the present. Bauman or Lacan or Giddens’ reflexivity tends to explain only parts of this interesting phenomenon of Quantified-Self. Based on the findings, my research concludes that self-trackers and devices co-construct a gamified self that is reflexive, social and competitive.

Gamified self is:

  • co-constructed by the self-tracker and the device together. The device co-constructs the ideal self, influences behaviour and creates the gamification along with the individual and the social group;
  • reflexive — a self-defining process that is governed by the app and the device;
  • open — the actual self is being visible to the social group and the social network The “Self” shown outside is not a pretended self that is portrayed by postmodern discourses. The actual self and the ideal self that the individual wants to achieve are both exposed;
  • competitive — there are two games played — a game played with oneself (sometimes the self is extended to the device and the device acts as the opponent) and a game played with the social group; and
  • social — the “Self” is constructed along with the social group, but also the self extends to the social group.

The theory of co-construction of gamified self is in the nascent stage and the research I did has its own limitations with respect to the methodology and data collection but I thought the idea should be presented.

The dissertation wouldn’t have been possible if it was for my professor Mike. He gave that spark. Lam and Stef for making work through the topic. They took my tantrums. Madhubanti for editing the dissertation and polishing it. She has been a support since I started the course. Vid — for being the test subject, making this article in human readable form and inspiring me to write this article.

image credit:

1. Charis Tevis — Sourced from Flickr.com through Creative Commons

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