Let’s go back to the halcyon days of July 2016, when “Pokémon Go” was thrust into the world and throngs of people went outside just to catch ’em all. Am I dating myself? Because while I have no idea what goes down over at the PokéStop near my house, it’s been three years since it appeared, and it’s still as buzzy as ever. While it would be easy to assume the people playing are all young gamers, that would be largely off base. After all, “gamer” is actually a broad demographic.
Gamification expert Yu-kai Chou explains in his Ted Talk that “the average gamer is actually 35 years old.” According to Chou, almost 70 percent of gamers are over age 18, and almost half are women. If you consider app games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds, the demographic gets even bigger. So chances are you, too, are a gamer. In fact, many companies in the fitness industry are banking on the fact that everyone is a gamer to lure us into long-term exercise (and memberships).
Gamification of fitness is nothing new — except now there are more ways to play
Gamification is the practice of introducing gaming elements, such as story plots, point systems, and sharing stats, into a task that already exists in a non-game form. From a historical standpoint, the gamification of fitness started with the foot races of the 776 BC Olympics. So maybe we’re a little late on the uptake here… but since we’re living in an app world, there’s a way to make exercise fun for literally anyone.
Take a look at “Zombies, Run!,” which has over four million downloads. The app narrates a story in which users are among the few to have survived a zombie apocalypse and are trying to navigate to humanity’s last remaining outposts. They gather supplies along the way and are sometimes chased by zombies (which, understandably, encourages users to run faster). Users can track their runs and share their progress with others.
I may not run to catch a legendary Pokémon, but would I run to survive, even in a fictional world? At least once.
For those who think zombies are overrated, the same team who made “Zombies, Run!” partnered with the National Health Service and the UK’s Department of Health to create a spy thriller game called “The Walk.” This game appeals to us in the same way that binge-watching TV does. The idea is that instead of thinking “Just one more episode,” users will think “Maybe just one more quick walk” so they can participate in more of the story.
In these examples, physical fitness is a pleasant side effect but not the main attraction of the app (at least not as the user perceives it).
Bootcamps have gotten on the gamification train, too
It’s also human nature to be motivated by real-life competition, which is why gamified classes like Orangetheory Fitness and NYC’s SWERVE Fitness have also become popular.
Orangetheory displays each participant’s name on a digital screen, along with calories burned and the percentage of their maximum heart rate at which they’re working. During my first class there, I did find it a bit embarrassing to have my name displayed for all to see.
Garner Pilat, an ACSM exercise physiologist and Orangetheory coach, explains how she sees it motivating people: “[The screen] holds you that much more accountable while you are working out. It’s almost like instant gratification when you earn a splat point (what we call it when you spend 1 minute in the orange or red zone).”
At the end of the class, everyone’s stats are displayed, but the results are alphabetical and not ranked by performance. Regardless of any minor embarrassment I may have felt in that first class, I returned for round two, motivated to “beat” my earlier score.
“Being able to see your progress within the hour and over time is definitely one of my favorite features [of Orangetheory],” says Pilat.
SWERVE cycling classes are for those who enjoy working in teams and don’t want to share their personal stats with a roomful of strangers. Each class is divided into three teams. While you can see your personal metrics displayed on your bike, the teams’ overall scores are shown on screens in the room. One team wins at the end of class.
These classes work for two reasons: They’re upbeat, energetic, and fun, and people can track their results and see immediate and long-term improvements.
How does gamification work?
Chou explains that for gamification to be successful, it has to “motivate our core drives.” He defines the eight core drives as:
- social influence
For the fitness world, Chou found “development and accomplishment” to be especially motivating. This means that humans are driven to work harder by the feeling that they’re improving in the short term.
He uses the example of the Nike+ Nike Fuel Band (this theory also extends to Orangetheory and Swerve). What the Nike+ (and other similar apps) do well is celebrate the small milestones, such as the fact that you’ve run a mile farther this week than last week or burned more calories today than yesterday.
“We all know that health and exercise is very important,” Chou says, “but health is a long-term thing and our brains are terrible at processing long-term benefits. We like short-term gratifications.”
Tangible gratifications, like the rush of a new purchase or the first bite of a cupcake, keep people hooked.
Ultimately, games have rewards — so what are the rewards of gamified fitness?
Jemir Martinez of Fit by July in Greenwich, Connecticut, explains that when his program added actual prizes to its gamification model, clients saw even greater results.
“For the last two months we have held a competition to see who can get the most [points] in one month. The prizes have included free swag, like leggings or hoodies, or free personal training sessions. Prior to these competitions, users would get around 700 to 800 [points] a month. Now, users are getting at least 1,000.”
Pilat echoed this sentiment when explaining that Orangetheory points spike when the studios hold contests, including one that gives members the chance to win $500.
“There are different prizes from studio to studio,” she says, “but it’s amazing how much more motivated members are when there is a small prize to earn on top of their bragging rights!”
To put it simply: If the points you accumulate have no real value, users are likely to eventually think they are, well, pointless.
Gamification, if not done properly, can fail spectacularly
In 2008, Disney tried to gamify productivity among employees who did laundry. The company introduced an electronic tracking system that logged daily progress and then displayed the results on a giant leaderboard. If you were on target with management’s goals, your name was displayed in green. Your name was displayed in yellow if you’d started to slow and in red if you were behind management’s goals.
Unsurprisingly, many employees didn’t enjoy this system and began to refer to it as the “electronic whip.”
The same can be said of fitness gamification: If the sole purpose of an app or a class is to get results, without being engaging or fun, it will likely fail.
But the gamification of fitness isn’t going anywhere
A 2017 report found that there were 318,000 health and fitness apps available for download. How many of them are game-based is unknown, and the jury is still out on how effective these apps will ultimately be, but one thing remains clear in this report: In 10 years, they’ll be mainstream vehicles for “delivering human health.”
Since the prices of gyms, especially in densely populated cities, can be prohibitive, it’s no wonder fitness apps are so popular. But with the rise of e-trainers and gamification apps, in-person instructors have also found it hard to maintain work.
Madison Chappell created an app, FitNFlow, to address the concerns of instructors who were losing work to live virtual classes or fitness technology like the Peloton bike.
“[When live classes and] video streaming services surfaced, freelancing instructors were already dealing with constant last-minute cancellations and price negotiations. Now that these services have surfaced and cost a very low amount, clients have become even more hyper-focused on price,” Chappell says.
“I myself have been told, ‘Ican just watch a free YouTube video yoga class, so why should I give you $40 to do the same thing?’ This worries me because yoga instructors and personal trainers are highly trained in their practice to be able to adjust the class to each individual body. Doing it alone can cause serious injuries and isn’t nearly as effective as having an instructor there to motivate, guide you, and push you to improve.”
Chappell calls FitNFlow the “Uber of yoga,” where yoga instructors can create a profile and customers can book a yoga instructor at the time and place they want. It works off the core drive Chou would call “social influence.” Users split the cost of a class among however many participants there are (so if you invite six friends to a $30 class, each friend pays only $5).
As for leaderboard scoring? Chappell doesn’t focus on that.
“At FitNFlow, we don’t want to focus too much on individual performance. Social experience helps immensely with motivation, so we want to encourage that as well as [highlight] the hours of classes taken so they can see how far they’ve come.”
So even FitNFlow, which was built to address some of the shortcomings of gamification apps, uses its own spin on gamification to keep users coming back. Looks like gamification is here to stay, folks.