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Eat, Play, Sleep

How playing games can change bad habits

We are a nation chronically overdosed on caffeine ̶ and when we can’t sleep, we overdose on sleep meds. Because of stress, too much caffeine, and not enough exercise, Americans are simply not getting the recommended amount of sleep.

One of the biggest problems with changing unhealthy behaviors is, that we tend to ignore what feels uncomfortable. We are exceptionally creative when it comes to finding excuses and convincing ourselves that it is ok to engage in those unhealthy behaviors because that caffeine kick just feels so good. Right now.

Here are some caffeine facts: The average 8 oz. cup of coffee has 85 mg of caffeine, a 16 oz. can of Red Bull has about 150 mg, and a 5-hour energy shot has 200 mg, the same as 1 pill of NoDoz Maximum Strength. The recommended daily amount of caffeine is no more than 400 mg. This means that two energy shots puts you at the daily limit.

We also underestimate the potential health impacts of caffeine. Caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bedtime leads to lower sleep quality and quantity. What’s worse is that as caffeine consumption has increased over the last years, the use of sleeping aids is also on the rise. You get the picture – it’s a vicious and dangerous cycle. We are stressed out, we don’t sleep, we are sluggish the next day. As a countermeasure to feeling tired, we overdose on caffeine, we don’t sleep the next night – rinse and repeat day after day, night after restless night. High caffeine consumption has become a public health epidemic – especially in the form of energy drinks and the even more concentrated energy shots – leading to overly stimulated bodies that can’t fall asleep at night.

One of the most alarming developments has been the drop in the age of ER patients due to caffeine intoxication. The lack of awareness among young people about the dangers of overdosing on caffeine, and of the amount and cumulative effects of high concentrations of caffeine (especially when mixed with alcohol) have led to several cases of death from caffeine overdosing.

So the question is: How can we reach this young and otherwise healthy demographic about the serious long term risks of abusing caffeine?

When the cons of changing outweigh the pros, we engage in mental processes that keep us stuck. This is not a new idea. In fact, for over 30 years psychologists have been studying behavior change. One framework for understanding behavior change is provided by the evidence-based Transtheoretical Model of Change. This model explains change as a 5-step process starting out with the “Precontemplation” phase (when people are not yet ready to change and often deny or are unaware that they have a problem). Typically something drastic has to happen for you to move out of this stage to begin contemplating, and then into planning and implementing healthier alternatives. You start exercising, stop drinking, or begin a new job. The final stage is maintaining the new habit. This model may sound familiar, because personal transformation lies also at the core of a good storyline, i.e. the Hero’s story).

Young people who engage in unhealthy behaviors – like drinking alcohol and energy drinks – can be resistant to simple advice from society, doctors, or parents. Smart Information Flow Technologies (SIFT), a small research business has developed a mobile game to address the root of this problem.

SIFT has merged important principles from the Transtheoretical Model of behavioral change with a complex Sci-fi storyline that follows the Hero’s journey: The result is a mobile game entitled M.O.R.A. Mora is the AI on the spaceship that functions as a mentor to the player, after an accident in the research facility onboard the spaceship, leaving sleep-deprived crew members. This acts as a simulation of the effects of various sleep hygiene stressors. By playing through the storyline (which provides narrative motivation) the user experiences the effects of various sleep-disrupting or -promoting phenomena and learns what these are and how they affect the performance of the simulated team. M.O.R.A. also integrates real-world sensor data from smart phones (sleep data, step counts) into the game experience to motivate good sleep hygiene.

Being playful is a natural state of being for us. We do most of our learning through play when we are young. With a game, we may be able to reach segments of society who are not motivated to change, but who would need it most because they go to bed with too much caffeine in their bodies. While it is easy to get the message out to those who are already hyper-interested in their health, optimizing their fitness and performance – like many in the quantified self movement, innovative approaches are needed to reach those who are not yet ready to adopt healthy sleep habits. M.O.R.A. is intended for individuals who may not want to scan the caffeine content of the next 5-hour-energy shot, but who would benefit most from understanding what it does to their sleep. Using games and data to increase awareness is a first step towards immersive learning moving away from passive knowledge acquisition. Simply knowing the 10 commandments of good sleep hygiene is not the same as being motivated to adopt them. And if you are thinking, “Sure but that is not me”, you might just be stuck in that first stage of the Transtheoretical Model. 

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