As modern humans have become more aware of their health and wellness through increased education, scientific breakthroughs, and new cultural norms, a variety of wellness trends have arisen in an attempt to meet these changes in perception. In Jeff Wilson’s book Mindful America he details some of the ways that mindfulness and meditation have been inserted into a Western context, arguing that the ‘mindfulness movement’ has become a wellness fad. While mindfulness stems from Buddhism, many American practitioners apply and share secularized and simplified versions of mindfulness so that individuals can schedule the technique into their busy lives. As a result, a plethora of meditation programs, CDs, retreats, books, websites, apps, and other digital technologies have become widely available to the American consumer seeking meditation and mindfulness instruction (Wilson).
When searching for meditation applications more specifically, just typing the word meditation into iTunes’ app store brings up hundreds of results. Some of the most popular applications, like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Time, offer users the opportunity to access guided meditations at the push of a button (iTunes). In the ocean that is the app store, meditation apps must outduel many other fish to survive, and the food is the attention of users. Each app must retain attention over similar apps, apps from different categories, and random stimuli from the world that could distract users. Therefore, meditation application creators must utilize different media techniques in order to garner popularity for their product.
To showcase how meditation applications incorporate these techniques to gain a positive response from users, this post will examine two fundamental methods that developers use: ritualization and gamification. Likewise, we will look closely at Headspace, to see how a popular app uses these strategies.
Ritualization: a Popular Strategy That Meditation Apps Use
In order to keep user attention for their product, meditation app developers carefully curate their user interface in order to create a specific user experience. A user interface is “the junction between a person and digital devices and includes the screen elements, such as menus and commands, that lead users through an application.” User experience describes how a person thinks and feels about an application. Developers carefully curate their interface in order to create an experience of ritualization. Ritualization is when users perform “certain activities that differentiates them from more conventional ones and ties this difference into a group’s ultimate reality.” While meditation through a phone application encourages greater independence, individuals can use the ‘ritual’ of meditation in order to reach the ultimate reality of deeper clarity, contentment, enlightenment, etc. By creating a space that is separate from busy daily activities, people can connect with this space that the greater meditation community seeks. While different meditation practices have unique ultimate realities, most meditation applications create a user experience of mindfulness, calm, and peace (Gross). To clarify, mindfulness is an active state of open, nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences (Sutcliffe).
Meditation apps have the digital affordances of images and sound in order to create a mindful space; however, each app employs distinct procedural operations in order to impart an intentional experience. A procedure describes a step-by-step sequence emerging from rules so that a particular operation can occur. Digital technologies like phones require physical and mental actions like scrolling through applications spatially, pressing buttons to enter new pages, or deciding which meditation to choose. These requirements are incredibly different from in-person meditation instruction. Users do not need to seek the physical presence of an instructor, and with phones individuals can meditate anytime and anywhere. Media technologies are developing at rates that give them increasing capacities to “build upon, extend, and modify people’s bodies, senses, and consciousness.” With such incredible power at their fingertips, developers of smartphone apps are likely to create online meditation experiences that will separate meditators from their conventional reality. With this availability to use ritualization on several levels, app creators have the opportunity to induce a greater desire to meditate, as users can use an external technology to find their desired reality. One such method that app creators often feature to intensify ritualization and propel the desire for their product is gamification (Gross).
Gamification is the way in which people apply game-like practices in nongame fields. One great example of how individuals are exploring the potential of gamification is Dr. Jane McGonigal’s work, highlighted by her 2012 TED Talk. In her talk, McGonigal discusses a traumatic experience in which she suffered from severe post-concussion syndrome and depression. At one point, suicidal ideations became so serious that she became legitimately fearful for her life. As a PhD recipient in performance studies, a former professor of game design and game theory at UC Berkeley, and a world-renowned game developer, McGonigal’s familiarity with games allowed her to use her knowledge for her own benefit (McGonigal). She decided to turn her experience with healing into a game – essentially gamifying her recovery.
According to McGonigal: “I knew from researching the psychology of games for more than a decade that when we play a game — and this is in the scientific literature — we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we’re more likely to reach out to others for help. I wanted to bring these gamer traits to my real-life challenge, so I created a role-playing recovery game called Jane the Concussion Slayer.” Taking on her secret identity, Jane assembled allies (friends that could support her), identified enemies (triggers that could slow down her healing process), and activated power-ups (things that could make her feel better). Thanks to this simple gamification, McGonigal began to notice her depression evaporate. Although her concussive symptoms remained, she was much more equipped to manage her healing with a healthier and happier outlook. Further, by sharing her game and experiences through blogs, a TED Talk, and a book, thousands of people began to apply game-like practices in order to recover from a variety of illnesses (www.ted…).
While Dr. McGonigal’s personal usage of gamification differs from online applications, her example highlights many of the ways that application developers utilize the strategy. Likewise, her use of gamification in healing spaces mirrors how creators can program gamification methods into their meditation applications in order to induce therapeutic effects on users’ moods. In McGonigal’s experience, she was able to create an imagined ultimate reality where she had greater control over her recovery (www.ted…). Similarly, meditation apps strengthen an ultimate reality of mindfulness, calm, and peace through the inclusion of game-like features. While aspects like meditation scoreboards may not directly make users feel relaxed, users could be more likely to continue their meditation ‘game,’ prompting states of peace later on. Likewise, some gamification techniques that involve connecting with friends can help with one’s healing process. Likewise, online interconnectivity furthers ritualization, as these methods “create micro social places demarcated from the ordinary hubbub of the everyday created by a temporary porous shield that differentiates the user from ordinary life.” With a greater separation from typical existence, gamification allows users to feel a greater connection to their online experience. By looking more closely at the meditation application Headspace, we can observe more examples of ritualization and gamification (Gross).
Headspace’s Use of Ritualization and Gamification
While maneuvering through a purchased subscription of Headspace, it is clear that the app’s developers intend to produce a space outside of daily life where users can have a multitude of unique meditation experiences. The creators construct a peaceful, playful, and wholesome ultimate reality. Three main sections help create a separate environment both spatially and procedurally: there is the home section, the discover section, and the personal ‘Jacob’ section. Each of these screens also have subsections, as the discover section has a variety of options for meditation content, animations from which to learn about meditation, and children’s meditations. Because users must operate through a step-by-step progression of pressing buttons (procedural) and moving through seemingly 3D sections (spatial), individuals operate in spaces outside of conventional reality. In order to create a peaceful certain user experience, Headspace’s creators include a variety of calming pastel colors like light orange (the main color), whites and off-whites, light blues, yellows, and more. By utilizing animations to teach beginning users about meditation, the creators introduce a sense of playfulness and fun. When adding these elements together with the endearing teachings and the meditation instructor Andy’s heartwarming voice, the app creates a wholesome ultimate reality.
To reinforce ritualization, Headspace’s developers utilize several gamification tactics. One way that Headspace keeps its meditators engaged is by creating a plethora of meditation packs under certain themes. Most packs are ten or thirty day meditation experiences, where a unique recording is available after one completes the previous meditation. In a sense, meditators ‘level-up’ each time they complete their meditation, and only by completing the current meditation can users access the next one. This game-like tendency creates a drive to finish one’s meditation for the reward of a fresh one, the need to continue one’s path in order to finish the entire pack, and a greater desire to return to the application for more themed packs/levels to beat. Packs offer a unique and separate space to further one’s meditation journey.
In the personal section, Headspace features each individual’s meditation statistics. This showcases the app’s encyclopedic affordance, as the app has the ability to store information for a large number of users. Individuals can keep track of statistics through a meditation scoreboard, as the scoreboard tallies one’s current meditation streak, total time meditated, total sessions completed, total meditation packs completed, and total sessions completed. There is even the capacity to connect with friends who use Headspace so that each person can compare stats with others. By using game-like features like a scoreboard and the capability to compete with other gamers/meditators, Headspace uses gamification to place meditation in a different context. This separate space where individuals can compete with themselves and friends shifts the experience from one that traditionally stresses quality to one that becomes more focused on metrics. This shift further induces ritualization and the need to return to Headspace for one’s daily meditation practice.
While this paper showcases how meditation applications apply methods like ritualization and gamification in order to create a more desirable experience for users, individuals interested in the ways in which these strategies affect the transmission of the practices should analyze the topic further. Since different representations and different contexts shift the way that consumers of content attribute meaning to what creators share, meditation applications must change the way that teachers share and users learn meditation compared to in-person transmission. Again, it would be valuable to examine these intricacies in greater depth in order to respect religious traditions and to maximize the positive impact of meditation.
Gross, Rachel B. “Ch. 10: Meditation on the Go: Buddhist Smartphone Apps as Video Game Play.” Religion and Popular Culture in America, by Bruce David Forbes, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 2017.
Photo from the website above^
Photos from Headspace application on my phone
Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 2014.