The rage today in the business world is gamification. Taking a cue from the incredible decades-long success of video games, companies are looking to mimic them in non-gaming situations, integrating gaming features in non-gaming applications and activities. But has the explosion of gamification techniques in all aspects of our lives led to less peaceful, more stressful lifestyles?

Victim of Gamification

I recently downloaded the mindfulness app Headspace. This app promises a “happier, healthier life” with less stress and more focus on what’s truly important in life. I began by using the free “Basics” pack that helps you meditate for ten days to get started. Quickly I realized, however, that this was only an intro pack; the app began pushing me to buy a subscription that would unlock more advanced packs. Headspace also sent multiple notifications to congratulate me on what I had already completed, and to encourage me to keep going. It dawned on me that, ironically, the constant notifications were another source of stress: What if I don’t continue? What if I don’t buy the upgrade? Will I never achieve peace and tranquility?

I had become a victim of gamification.

What exactly is “gamification?” It’s a process by which an activity is intentionally designed to keep people engaged by rewarding wanted behavior and frowning on unwanted behavior. It uses socialization to promote continued activity, attaching social rewards and social stigmas to certain actions. Gamification can be found in areas as diverse as marketing, education, software applications, and productivity management. Mobile apps, in particular, often incorporate gamification techniques. An app might give points for certain activities, and then rewards (in the form of more access, for example) after achieving a certain number of points. It might include ways to communicate with other users, with built-in promotion of those users who use the app most successfully.

In many ways gamification simply aligns an activity with known human preferences. We all want to be liked, respected, and successful. Gamification designs ways for these desires to be fulfilled in the activity in question. There’s a reason Facebook publicly notes how many “likes” a post has received—it knows our “success” in posting a family photo will make us feel happy, and thereby lead us to do it again in the future.

Dark Side of Gamification

But as I discovered with the Headspace app, gamification has a dark side. It can quickly add stress to our lives, and can even lead to addiction. The desire for “likes” or upvotes or points can begin to take over our thoughts. Gamification takes advantage of the most fundamental characteristic of humanity: we are never fully satisfied with earthly things. As St. Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Our lives are often a quest to fill our hearts with earthly goods. We strive for money, power, popularity, sex—anything to make us content. But none of these things truly satisfy us, so we continue to grasp for more. Gamification understands and exploits this. Did you get 30 likes on your last post? Maybe your next one will give you 40 likes! Did you make the Top 10 best score? Keep playing and you might be Number 1!

The ultimate goal of gamification is planned addiction. Every aspect of an app or activity is geared to make you happy, yet not completely satisfied. So you continue to engage, desperate for the elusive total satisfaction the activity never brings. All the while, things that can bring more lasting satisfaction—such as love, service to others, and peace—are left by the wayside as you become consumed with the gamified activity.

Deep and Lasting Satisfaction

How can we resist the dark side of gamification? First, we must recognize when we are being gamified. If we feel our stress levels rising from the use of an app, realize what’s going on: you are being manipulated. Take control of your app usage by deleting those apps which push and prod you towards addiction. Realize that only a deep and abiding faith in Christ can bring about the peace that St. Augustine wrote about. Anything that works against that faith must be set aside. This means unplugging ourselves, at least partially. Although gamification extends beyond the Internet, modern technology intensifies the experience. So we need to find ways to unplug, in order to resist being a slave to software.

But it’s not just about what we don’t do—we need to replace the gamified, addictive activity with more wholesome, satisfying pursuits. Take time each day to meditate, disconnecting all devices, sitting in silence, and communicating with the only One who truly satisfies the human heart. Spend time with family and friends—not just via texting and social media, but in actual face-to-face time. And take time to serve those in need. It is through service that we encounter the face of Christ in those less fortunate (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). In this service we find more lasting and fulfilling satisfaction than any app can provide.

Although gamified apps like Headspace promise peace and fulfillment, they can also create more problems than they are worth. If you are looking for advice on how to find fulfillment, better to simply pick up a (physical) book such as the Bible or other spiritual reading. It won’t try to upsell you, or urge you to use it more, or otherwise gamify you. But it can lead you to the One who brings lasting fulfillment.