Productivity apps with game elements like Forest and Hold offer alternative tools for people who want to “enjoy” a digital break. These apps give users pleasure and challenge the normative understanding of digital disconnection. However, the gamified and technological ways of doing digital detox can be problematic, complicating the paradox of “beating technology with technology” and raising ethical and practical concerns.
Have you ever tried to play a digital game to limit your screen time? In a digital age, not only our media use but also their non-use is increasingly being influenced by digital technologies. Digital detox as ones’ voluntary and intentional refraining from social or online media, or limiting one’s digital media involvement in general (1), has become a popular practice to help people reduce digital distractions, boost productivity, pay attention to the physical world, protect privacy, and regain self-control (2). Besides these, people may have different motivations for limiting their interaction with particular apps, platforms, contents, media, or people (2, 3).
There are various forms of digital detox and the intensity varies depending on people’s needs. Digital detox activities and events such as detox camping, unplug day and meditation are often associated with offline spaces and digital disengagement, and leave the online and mediated forms of disconnection behind. What will happen if people use digital media to do digital detox? It sounds contradictory that people would use a smartphone to limit their smartphone use. It seems even more paradoxical that detox apps for reducing the screen time employ attractive and even “addictive” game mechanisms that require users’ attention. How are the apps strategically designed to facilitate people’s digital detox, and what role can the game elements play in their design?
Gamification means the use of game design elements in non-game contexts (4). It has been commonly used in education and learning, health and wellness, social networking, marketing, business, and management. In app design, it is often used to engage people and solve problems (5). In most cases, gamification in apps works as a strategy to invite screen interactions and active engagement with the digital platforms or devices, for instance, the swiping function in Tinder. In some cases, physical exercises such as walking and running are also gamified, as exemplified by Pokémon Go and Nike Run Club. What if gamification is used to promote less smartphone use and even non-use? What kinds of practices are suggested, and what are the consequences? How do people feel about “limiting their smartphone use by playing a game”?
In this essay, I introduce two apps, Forest and Hold, as two productivity apps that play gamification to the extreme, to illustrate the phenomena. On the one hand, the gamified detox apps suggest nuanced ways of (not) coping with the digital world and challenge the norms of understanding and doing digital disconnection by linking digital detox with gameplay. On the other hand, they still conform to some disconnection ideals such as non-screen-interaction and prioritizing physical presence, and raise new concerns about digital capitalism, privacy and human-technology relations.
Getting rewards by blocking your smartphone
Forest and Hold are productivity apps based on gamified timers. Forest has been ranked top paid productivity app on App Store and Google Play in several countries, while Hold has a stronger base in Norway and the UK as its rewards are only available in these countries. Both are mostly welcomed by students. They adopt similarly attractive game elements to help users put down their phones and stay focused on the important things in life. Their interfaces (Figure 1 and 2) are intuitive, and the basic rules are fun.
Whenever and wherever you want to stay focused, set the time and plant a seed in Forest and put down your phone. The seed will gradually grow while you focus on your work. However, if you leave the app, the plant will wither. This motivates users to not get distracted by other apps or notifications on their phones while they are focusing on their study or work. If users plant trees constantly, they will not only earn virtual rewards such as new plant species and achievement badges, but also contribute to real life: virtual coins can be collected to get a real tree planted (Figure 3). By partnering with a real-tree-planting non-profit organization Tree for the Future, over 1.4 billion trees have been planted in Africa, thanks to over 2 million Forest users throughout the world.
Built on a similar gamified timer, Hold has a slightly different rewarding system: users only collect points (rather than coins and avatars in Forest) and they can use them to redeem drinks, snacks, coupons or vouchers for online services or physical products in real life (Figure 4), for example, having a free or discounted coffee.
Once you start the game, the main goal is to “win”. On the one hand, the virtual and physical rewards motivate users to try their best to win and accumulate resources like virtual coins and real coupons. This not only satisfies their needs for concentration but also generates pleasure by getting things done and being rewarded. On the other hand, the failure, represented by dead trees or lost points, gives users a sense of guilt or shame, as they “kill” the plants and do not complete the goals set by themselves. “It is the perfect combination of motivating and making you feel disappointed in yourself if you slip up”, a Forest user reviewed.
Focusing may not be a war of one’s own. Game features such as the leaderboard (e.g. ranking users based on the length of their focused time) and co-focus mode (e.g. co-planting a tree with friends) involve more people in the game and amplify users’ positive and negative feelings. You can compare your statistics with friends, family or strangers, and try to beat them by accumulating more focused time. According to the app rule, after turning on the co-planting mode, everyone in the same study room should follow the same time schedule, and if anyone breaks the rule the whole group fails. Consequently, both the rewards and punishment are raised to the collective level. Concentration becomes as a semi-social activity under peer pressure and/or with mutual support.
Regarding the implications of the gamified detox apps, they “contaminate” disconnection norms with gamification techniques, though they still draw on some disconnection ideals such as not touching your screen, only doing one thing at a time and prioritizing tasks and interactions in the physical world. The apps reveal that there are various ways to reduce your screen time or limit your smartphone use. Rather than drawing a clear boundary between gaming and detoxing or between online and offline activities, the apps help create aesthetic experiences based on different forms of “everyday friction of resistance”(6) and open up discussions about possible coping tactics and survival strategies in a hyperconnected world.
Gamified digital detox apps imply possibilities for practicing digital dis-connection differently, but at the same time, raise new challenges for the society and leave questions to people in their everyday life.
Consuming a commercialized technology to disconnect
Why do you need to pay for doing detox? Why would you use a smartphone to limit smartphone use? Will it really work? These are the questions asked by a few people when they first hear about detox apps. Obviously, the commercialization of disconnection technology and its consequences are debatable.
The gamified detox apps like Forest and Hold are not completely free to use, in terms of price and data use. While Hold is free to download on both App Store and Google Play, Forest is free on Google Play for Android users to download, but if you want to avoid in-app advertisements and try features and functions other than the basic timer (e.g. statistics, co-focus mode), you have to pay € 4,99 for the premium version. iOS users are not offered such a choice, as Forest is only available for one-time-purchase on App Store. There is also in-app purchase for topping up currencies in the app so you can get different seeds and ambient sound, delete the failure records, etc. This monetization model makes the gamified detox app look more like a digital game than a public good.
There is no free lunch in the app market and this data exchange doesn’t only happen within these two apps. Due to the datafication and the movement of self-quantification, users of self-tracking apps have to broadcast and even “sell” their personal data as the price of participation (7). The app with game elements makes this process invisible or less invasive. Motivated by the desires of exploration, curiosity, and self-mastery, people are willing to monitor themselves constantly to get personal or social perks (7). In this case, gamification enables a form of self-governance operating through desire and consumption. The controversy of “using real world rewards to hook young teenagers” concern some parents in particular, as they worry that their kids “do not know what and who they are actually treating”. Yet, some users are fine with the data collection as long as they are not identified personally, do not receive irrelevant or annoying ads or calls, and the data are used to “serve us better”.
On the macro level, this consumer-driven disengagement can be problematic, as it may be less threatening to the always-on culture and the structure of the attention economy (8) and minimize the potential of disconnection for mobilizing political and social change (9). For example, the non-threatening and even appealing time management or focus tools to technology giants, such as iOS Screen Time and Focus, Google Digital Wellbeing, and Facebook Your Time, have been integrated into the product design. Framing these tools as prevention or suspension of connection makes disconnection a “socioeconomic lubricant” (10) that translates the sanctioned resistance into economic value for the tech giants themselves. The tools are even used as a response to the “tech lash” (the strong criticism towards big technology companies). Moreover, these acts may reinforce the public’s belief in the magic of technology. If we trust “every problem has a solution based on technology”, we may ignore the deep roots of the problems as well as solutions beyond technology, and fall in the trap of what Evgeny Morozov called the “technological solutionism” (11).
In a datafied and algorithmic age, both actions of use and non-use can contribute to generating data that can be exploited in the unknown future (12). “Disconnective practices may help people find balance in the trap, but it cannot set them free” (13), said media scholars Nancy K. Baym and her colleagues. There is no doubt that we need to reflect on the disconnection occurring with technology or the technologically driven practices. But who should be “set free”, from what, and to what extent?
The ambivalence of game-based detoxing
In the everyday-life context, app users have more practical concerns about their experiences of detoxing/gaming. In many cases, users have to negotiate their relationships with the app. It they want to make their detoxing experience more enjoyable, they need to explore different functions and features in the app, from the basic timer to different rewards, achievements, statistics, reminders, sounds, and other settings. Even though the intuitive interface and simple function are advertised by the apps on app stores and press, it requires users’ effort to become familiar with the apps.
Sometimes winning the game is not equal to staying focused. There are different “backdoors” legitimized by the developers or “loopholes” found by users. For example, users can make use of the “emergency buttons” like closing the “Deep Focus Mode” or creating an app whitelist in the app, so they can still use their smartphone and collect rewards. Some even search or invent other tactics to cheat, similar to playing video games. This can be one reason why some users feel ambivalent and struggle with their smartphone use more than before. They find themselves spending more time or allocating more attention on playing this game rather than maintaining discipline. Despite the decreased screen time, the app can cause another type of distraction.
Some people find it is a burden to concentrate and at the same time perform the productive self in the app. “You always have to remember to press the start button and plant a seed before you study. It can be annoying. If I forget to use the app while studying, I will feel bad for losing the record and the coins”, a Forest user said. Since the apps are semi-social, members in a focus group or live study room are expected to be responsible for themselves and the others to get the collective reward, due to peer pressure and impression management. It gives pressure to users who have good reasons, such as waiting for an important call, to leave the room and make them more guilty. This may contribute to their app quitting or being kicked out from the study group. “That’s why I don’t study with others. There’s too much to negotiate and I don’t want to waste my time. I would rather become a lone wolf”, a user who only focuses alone demonstrated.
“Who is taking more control, me or the technology?” is another question that haunts some people. While some can get a sense of control over their life by using the app and don’t question how it is achieved, others regard self-optimization through smartphones as a sign of weakness or inability. They still place more value and hope on the human side rather than the digital technology and hope to do detox without technological intervention. A few users worry about the weakened human willpower due to their increasing dependence on the app intervention. “I am using the app right now, but I want to get rid of it eventually”, a user insisted.
Detox apps with game features like Forest and Hold make digital disconnection a more entertaining experience, suggesting flexible ways of dis/engaging with smartphones while raising ethical and practical concerns. The detoxing and/or gaming practice reveals new possibilities as well as tensions in a digital and data-driven age. People may face more challenges and be required to think more carefully about how to develop a balanced relationship with different forms of digital media technology, with others, and with oneself.
1) Syvertsen, T., and Enli, G., “Digital detox: Media resistance and the promise of authenticity”, Convergence, 2019
2) Syvertsen, T., “Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting”, 2020
3) Moe, H., and Madsen, O. J., “Understanding digital disconnection beyond media studies”, Convergence, 2021
4) Deterding, S., “From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification’”, 2011
5) Zichermann, G., and Cunningham, G., “Gamification by design: implementing game mechanics in web and mobile apps”, 2011
6) Chia, A., and Beattie, A., “Ethics and Experimentation in The Light Phone and Google Digital Wellbeing”, 2021
7) Whitson, J. R., “Foucault’s Fitbit: Governance and Gamification”. 2014
8) Beattie, A., “The Manufacture of Disconnection”, 2020
9) Natale, S., and Treré, E., “Vinyl won’t save us: reframing disconnection as engagement”, Media, Culture & Society, 2020
10) Light. B., and Cassidy, E., “Strategies for the suspension and prevention of connection: Rendering disconnection as socioeconomic lubricant with Facebook”, New Media & Society, 2014
11) Morozov, E., “To Save Everything, Click Here”, 2013
12) Bucher, T., “Nothing to disconnect from? Being singular plural in an age of machine learning”, Media, Culture & Society, 2020
13) Baym, N. K., Wagman, K. B, and Persaud, C. J., “Mindfully Scrolling: Rethinking Facebook After Time Deactivated”, Social Media + Society, 2020
One thought on “Limiting screen time by playing a digital game? The digitalization and gamification of digital detox”
Extremely interesting! Users may become “resistant” to these apps and start to use them as addictive games and they may need to detox from the detox apps. These don’t seem to solve the original problem of addiction to smartphone and lack of focus while studying or working many people experience.