I wrote way back in 2009 that I thought attempts to gamify fitness would fail. The startup world was ablaze with gamifying literally everything and anything.
Nintendo Wii or EA’s active weren’t going to dramatically change the obesity situation we’re are still currently battling. Games like that in my view perhaps even prey on people looking for a quick fix. Something they'd take up for a while and ultimately stop doing.
It really comes down to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Points that you accumulate for completing levels is an external motivator and external motivators are fleeting.
If the gaming industry succeeds with gamification it has to offer the world look a lot more like ‘real-world Zelda.’ It needs to be personal.
OK, so why am I writing another post on games if the first one got such little traction I won’t even link to it?
I do still feel that deliberate gamification of fitness in an attempt to change behavior is a waste of time and money to pursue, but all kinds of companies are making piles of money doing just that.
So what do I know?
Maybe one of them will crack the nut beyond a few months of inspiration.
I’ll believe it when I see it ...
In my decade experience working with people, we all need to go on a journey or through a process of discovery. Like Zelda!
No one really cares how much you lift or how many points you accumulate, but they do care about social recognition; They do care about being better every day and they care about the games they play in their own heads.
Think back to what you used to do as a kid in the face of boredom. I Spy. Punch Buggy. Pediddle. How many games did you make up on a road trip? How many did you modify on the fly to make them more interesting? How often was the game just a competition between you and well…you!??
Turns out there is a name for this. 🤯
~ Experiences that come from interacting with the world around you in a game-like way. Games that seem to have a game-like intent without the rigid structure. The rules for these games are ambiguous, and that ambiguity is part of the experience.
Essentially we, as human beings, are naturally inclined to turn many common place situations into games:
Dating = Game (How long can we wait before we call them.)
Driving = Game (How centered in the lane can you stay?)
Working = Game (How much things can I clear off my desk before 10 AM?)
Walking Down the Street = Game (Don’t step on cracks)
Interactions with Children = Game (How many times can I fool them?)
Fitness = Game
Exercise is so boring, how could you possibly make it fun or engaging? Fitness can be a barely game, you just have to open your mind up to the possibilities.
THiNK About it
If you watch how people generally interact with their environments, they often try to produce some kind of game out of a situation.
They will organize things in a way that makes it feel a little more interesting, or walk down the street a certain way to make it more interesting, dress a certain way to make it more interesting.
The key here is that we’re naturally inclined to look for a deeper level of engagement.
Any parent can attest to this. You can buy your kid any and all kinds of expensive toys, built to enhance their intelligence levels or kinesthetic skills and all numbers of complicated outcomes.
All that will come out of that situation is the frustration associated with watching them engage with the cardboard box the toy came in, far more than the toy itself. After all the money you’ve spent…
The reason is we’re naturally inclined to create games with next to no rules, from next to none equipment — watch a young boy play with toy soldiers, marbles or rocks, they get creative, and often make up rules, if any, as they go along.
How many games have you created in your lifetime? Without even realizing it? Kids are notorious for this!
The moral is that games and rules don’t need to be rigid, complex or hard to create engagement. And engagement can make a mundane task like exercise a hell of a lot more enjoyable. You can sort of even make the rules up as you go.
Less is More
In fact these ‘barely games’ seem to be defined by an almost minimalist game play. Less rules, means less distractions. Less ‘game-ification’ certainly appears to be more entertaining to us in human nature. Odd considering the direction the gaming industry has taken. Admittedly they do this to appeal to serious ‘gamers’ the people who spend the most money on games.
I can see this via my own experiences with games. Something like Mario on NES was incredibly neat for me, Madden Football or NHL 95′ on Genesis, and later strategy games like Sim City, Command and Conquer or roller coaster tycoon engaged me.
There was a turning point in game development though and I could never really get into Halo, After-life or more modern far more complex games. I just don’t play games anymore. In fact, even modern day sports games are too much for me, it’s sensory overload and too big of a learning curve for me to want to undertake.
Odd right for a former athlete? Well when you play a sport you only ever have to focus on your job. You don’t have to be point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center all in one. That was what made NBA Jam so brilliant, it was 2 on 2.
In essence, I, as a consumer, have felt a lot of these added features are just distractions and deterrents from my barely games. Gamification with badges and other non-sense serves as a similar distraction.
Something like Wii Fit is essentially over-gamed, it’s too much and that’s why it doesn’t work long-term. Sure there are those ‘gamers’ who become intensely involved in large, seemingly complicated games, but I would argue these are the small minority of people who have played a game in the last year.
I get that the hope is that people transition from external motivators to internal ones but that’s not what churn rates for these games reveal.
I play words with friends nearly daily with a very good friend of mine in Korea (it keeps us in touch!) and it periodically becomes much more than who can win based on score.
We have barely games about who can spell the most ridiculous words or who can spell the biggest words the most. Most of the time it’s just games we play ourselves, we don’t even realize what the other is up to.
Fitness Barely Game Examples
OK so before I get into this (and maybe tracking it) I do want to highlight the importance of developing a measurement tracking system for what’s actually important.
You can make this into a game. Do better than last measurement! How consistent can you make your measuring over time? Make one thing better about the measurements. The best games are the ones we play with ourselves to satisfy a curiosity.
Here are some of my favourite barely games (both from my own experience and from clients):
- Can I get through the squat without a comment on my knee or depth?
- Can I get through a session without a movement correction from Darren?
- How long can I go without having a nutrition discussion with Darren?
- Can I guess what we’re going to be working on this training session in advance?
- Can I get a through an exercise without a movement correction from Darren?
- How many reps in a row can I make look easy?
- How can I cook chicken breast (or insert whatever you want) better next time?
- How many workouts can I make in a row?
- How many sessions in a row can I keep adding 5 lbs to this lift?
- At what weight will a box target seem impossible on a box squat?
That’s a small smattering of barely games I’ve played or had played on me (without my knowing it). Usually I’m the competition, but most often the competition is internal. As I always tell people:
Don't compare yourself to others, compare yourself to previous versions of yourself.
I usually I don’t announce that I'm even playing such a game to others and only sometimes do I keep track of my actual progress. However, it provides an interesting element to fitness. Just something to keep the mind engaged.
Think about it the next time you go to the gym. How can you turn this into a bit of a game?
You don’t have to tell anyone.