Gamifying exercise: motivating AND appalling

There’s a good Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian on gamification, or what Jane McGonigal calls living gamefully: using “the same psychological principles, featuring mini-challenges, systems for winning points, completing quests and moving upwards through levels,” to motivate people to do ordinary real-world stuff like exercise or go to work. Burkeman suggests that gamification “reliably divides people into those energized by it and those utterly appalled,” so I wanted to call myself out as an exception, because I’m both.

First of all, I’m totally in the target audience for this sort of thing. I remember seeing this comic in 2006, back when I was still working a regular job, and finding it spoke deeply to me.

xkcd comic Exercise by Randall Munroe

I bought both Zombies, Run! and Superhero Workout by Six to Start, two games that gamify exercise. I found myself strongly motivated to get out and run, even in winter cold, by the story in Zombies, Run!

More recently, I’ve observed myself strangely motivated by Google Fit. Even though my goal is self-set, and the reward for achieving it is merely a splash of orange lines and a “bling” sound, I have been known to nip out in the late evening to walk another six minutes just to get my walking time for the day up to my 90-minute goal.

I would pay serious money for a more clever version of Google Fit—one that could count not only time and distance walking, running, and bicycling, but also keep track of my crawling, hanging, climbing, jumping, balancing, throwing & catching, lifting & carrying, swimming & diving, and grappling & striking.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is fundamentally an error—the same error I talked about just a few days ago, when I explained that, although it’s in my nature to want to figure out what I need and make a plan to get it, I recognize that it’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because the “figuring it out” step is both impossible (intractably complex) and unnecessary (get ample natural movement and you’ll be fine).

And yet . . . . And yet, it is a fact that my life does not have enough natural movement in it. Given that I’m not going to become a hunter-gatherer (and would probably starve to death in a few months, if I didn’t die sooner from exposure or an accident), perhaps “living gamefully” is useful as a way to motivate myself and to keep track of the exercise I need to replace the movement I’m not getting.

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