Alert – Tech Zombies Are on the Loose!


Learn About the Flip Side to Play Time!

There are plenty more tricks and treats afoot as we continue through the festive season. Way back when I was but a young Digital Dragon, I worked with Seth and Laurie to launch Digital Dragon as a place where the focus of the learning was through having fun. If you’re reading this, you may be in the same camp and we know that it does indeed work. Since then I have had a lot of time to reflect on various approaches and, of course, have done a lot more playing. Hooray, what a treat!  

However, there are flip sides to every coin. When faced with the reality that play can and does lead to more engagement, a host of companies who constantly vie for our attention have extracted game-like mechanics to keep you in their dark clutches! It’s important that knowing and naming these practices can help us recognize what we’re succumbing to, but we need to bear in mind that these practices are more or less hardwired into our brains. Let’s look behind the mask of some common tactics.


A very popular trick to keep us coming back using a streak. You can find these all over experiences and across apps. No one wants to break a streak, right? If you’re using apps that use streaks and you miss one, take that moment to reflect on how you feel and what motivates you to start again. 


Another trick is the old dastardly notification method. While often we know and feel as though this is more spammy, we always have the urge to want to clear the notifications. These systems are getting trickier with the help of artificial intelligence, however. Systems that can predict when you might have some free time to gaze over their ads or content have been in the wild for some time, but training data and advances in models have accelerated. It also doesn’t help that we’re often very near a device.


There’s also the concept of Fear Of Missing Out, commonly known as FOMO. “So and so said this…” or “something is excitingly trending.” When it comes to this tactic, it’s easier to deflect because there’s usually something else that can take the place of whatever engagement the content provider is trying to present.   


There is some respite! These companies are pitted against one another and that there’s always going to be the next thing that topples them over. Furthermore, the game-like mechanics are paper thin and because the actual reward is often meaningless, we easily move on once we’ve identified the snare.  

TLDR;  There are plenty of tricks when it comes to apps and boosting engagement. Unfortunately, they can use game-like mechanics to mimic genuine fun. Therefore, it’s imperative to understand how our brains work so that we’re not technology zombies, mindlessly consuming content from app to app. Just like picking through your candy bucket, it’s important to choose the treat that brings you joy beyond the game. 

About the Author:

John Balash was instrumental in Digital Dragon’s launch in 2013 as its first Curriculum Director and is now back in the fold as a consultant on all the latest and greatest in tech education.This is John’s latest contribution to a monthly blog series we’ve launched, Tech News from the Frontier. John is the Director of Educational Engagement at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. John has worked on educationally-focused initiatives with clients ranging from D.A.R.P.A. to Disney. Working from both sides of the desk, you can find John in classrooms and conferences around the world exploring new uses for technologies in learning environments.