Game On!

Ready runner one? How the gamification of health will make you fitter


Wearing a fitness band or a smartwatch that features activity tracking technology is no guarantee that you’ll get fit. Maintaining and improving your health takes work and time. Workouts are repetitive. Boring even. While some people love to feel ‘the burn’, many others start a fitness routine and subsequently abandon it.

Gamification gives your health data meaning

Wearable gadgets such as the Jawbone UP and the Fibit Charge are only as good as the software that comes with them. That software needs to give people a reason to (a) keep wearing their devices and (b) translate the steps walked, stairs climbed, calories burned and heart rate measurements into something meaningful.

It’s why most companies weave some basic (but highly effective) game mechanics into their companion apps to keep users engaged and motivated. It’s called ‘gamification’ and typically takes the form of rewards, badges, levels, progress bars personal best ratings and high scores. It works by tapping into our desire to socialise and to compete, both against other people and against ourselves.

fitbit badges
Much like Foursquare, Fitbit uses badges as a reward for hitting various exercise milestones.

According to Leon Festinger’s 1954 research (A Theory of Social Comparison Processes), we’re hardwired to measure our performance and status against others. Festinger hypothesised that “there exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and his abilities” and that “people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparison respectively with opinions and abilities of others.”

We want to be better than our friends

You’ve heard of the saying: ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’? Gamification satisfies a similar urge. We want to be better than our friends or, failing that, we want to be a better version of ourselves. It makes us feel good. By turning health and fitness into a game, with levels, leaderboards and achievements, it provides a more compelling reason to exercise and a satisfying visual indicator of our progress.

There are varying levels of gamification. Fitbit, for example, incentivises its community of users with Foursquare-style badges (‘Daily Steps’, ‘Lifetime Distance’) and challenges like the ‘Weekend Warrior’ (who can get the most steps over the weekend?) and the ‘Workweek Hustle’ (who can get the most steps Monday through Friday?) Weekly progress emails collate and crunch your data, giving a helicopter view of progress.

Fitocracy supports a network of people who track their workouts and convert them into points.

Fitocracy, meanwhile, takes gamification to a higher level. The website is a vast fitness-orientated social network, where you gain points for doing exercises. Get enough points and you can ‘level up’, just like a video game. You can also compare your progress to other people/friends and measure your fitness against other Fitocracy members who are at the same level as you.

Another twist on gamification is the quirky FitRPG app (Android, iOS), which takes fitness data from a Fitbit and transforms it into a character’s strength, hit points (HP), endurance, dexterity, and experience. The more exercise you do, the better these stats become and you can do battle against in-game ‘bosses’ and your friends.

Get fit by running away from zombies

The Zombies, Run! app also turns exercise into a game, in this case using an audio story about a zombie apocalypse. You either keep pounding the pavement or your character gets caught and devoured by legions of the undead. According to the developer, “Zombies, Run! is the only game which is listed in the NHS Health Apps Library.” Quite an achievement.

For anyone who doesn’t enjoy keeping fit, game mechanics like these can prove to be a fun distraction, keeping you incentivised and motivated to continue. Gamification doesn’t work for everyone and it has its limitations. But if technology and software can liven up healthcare so that more people get active (and stay active), points, progress bars and high score tables have the potential to save lives.


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