In October of 2003, PlayStation introduced the first generation of what was then called the EyeToy. It was a camera that could see you in your living room and track the motion of your limbs and body. This is a familiar technology now, but it was a mind-boggling technical achievement at the time. It signaled the beginning of a still-ongoing industry-wide exploration of fitness games, starting with a PlayStation 2 game called Kinetic (not to be confused with Xbox’s own motion-tracking camera released in 2010, called Kinect).
Kinetic offered a variety of minigames, each intended to provide a different kind of exercise: cardiovascular conditioning, toning exercises, stretching. It would automatically string together a few of these minigames to provide a half-hour total-body workout.
There was exactly one game mode I loved, and it was called Wildfire. You saw yourself on the screen, as if in a mirror. Orbs would appear around your reflection, and it was your job to punch and kick to destroy them as fast as you could, until the timer ran down.
This was fun. Beyond fun. It felt like Jedi training. Just one problem: you could only play it for a couple of minutes at a time. If I could’ve just played that one minigame for half an hour every day, I would have. But the fun parts only came bundled with a variety of other activities I had to endure, rather than enjoy. Ultimately, the novelty of exercising with my PlayStation came to an end, and since I couldn’t just do the fun bits, I didn’t do any of it at all. The whole cycle lasted no more than eight weeks.
This story is far from unique. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception. That’s because fitness games fundamentally don’t work.
2016: Year of Fitness?
Right around now, many of you are full of fresh resolve that 2016 will be the year you get fit once and for all. Hope springs eternal! And many of you are looking to technology and to gamification to help get you there. Got a new Fitbit for the holidays? An Apple Watch? Misfit Shine? If so, you’re far from alone. Fitness wearables are predicted to become a $14.9 billion industry by 2021.
I’ve had a few wearables in my day, from regular no-name pedometers to the Nike Fuelband to the Misfit Shine. They all create a fairly predictable psychological cycle. At first, pumped with excitement, you find new ways and reasons to sneak in just a little more activity. You do more robust chores. You take the stairs instead of the elevator. You take up exercise, if you weren’t previously in the habit.
Then you discover yourself without the device. Maybe you forgot it, or took it off in the shower, or it’s charging. You begin to resent all the movement that you do without your wearable. In the numbers-driven reality of your fitness tracker, that activity didn’t count. Why, it’s like you didn’t even do it at all! You may even begin to actively avoid exercising if you can’t have your wearable with you.
Even when you have it, though, after the initial burst of enthusiasm wears away your activity levels will inevitably slump. Maybe you get sick or injured. Maybe you get busy. Your numbers fall to where they were before you got the device. And then, slowly, the wearable starts to make you feel bad about yourself.
A study of wearable users in 2014 found that half of the people who had ever bought a fitness tracker had completely stopped using theirs. A third of them stopped within six months.
I tried the Wii Fit, too. Like Kinetic, it was fun only while it was novel. And it was filled with horrible underlying assumptions, most notably that losing weight is always positive, and gaining always bad. I’ll never forget the passive-aggressive encouragement the board tried to give my preschooler when she’d gained a pound and a half, as children do. She could do better next time, it soothed.
Many fitness games eventually fail because of another underlying assumption: that human achievement can and will always go up and up. If you’ve done 10,000 steps today, then surely tomorrow you can do 11,000—and 12,000 the day after.
But it’s not humanly possible. Fitness is finite. There is a maximum limit to how far and fast you can run, how much weight you can lift, how many steps you can take. And it may be far from healthy for you to come anywhere close to that hypothetical maximum.
I once spent a long, sunny day walking briskly around Rome and got a number on my Nike Fuelband easily three times what I could fit in on an average day. But for Nike, this became my personal best, and nothing I did afterward could ever possibly measure up. It’s demoralizing.
Gamification focuses on the things you can measure because that’s really the only thing technology can do to help you. There’s no way for your Fitbit to tell you how you enjoyed the fresh air on your morning walks. There’s no way for your Apple Watch to record how lovely the sunset was, or how you shed enough stress to keep cool during a difficult conversation three hours later.
At its very worst, gamification puts the trappings of a game around an activity—points, achievements, badges—with the hope of somehow creating an aura of fun. That’s fine if it’s an activity you already enjoy for its own sake. But if you fundamentally hate running—if you wheeze and get side stitches and feel bad about yourself—no amount of gamification is ever going to be fun.
Enjoy, Not Endure
Compare my experience with Kinetic to that of Dance Dance Revolution. Yes, the goofy dancing game with the arrows. I was first introduced to the arcade version in late 2001. By 2002, I bought a home version. I played it, and I played it, and I kept playing. I bought a hard plastic pad for better responsiveness. When that wore out, I invested in a sturdy metal pad. And another one, years later.
Dance Dance Revolution didn’t count my calories or my steps. It didn’t tell me how many pounds I’d lost playing. It was just fun to play. It did give me a high score per song, sure, as games do. But that never felt like something I had to live up to in every play. Once you have the high score, you have the high score, and there’s nothing better than perfect. No infinite and inescapable achievement spiral.
Sure, I stopped playing eventually, but it was because the songs got old and console generations shifted so my equipment didn’t work anymore. I’d play it again right now if I could. If we’re ever at a con together, challenge me to a dance-off at the local arcade and watch me light it up.
There are other games that have jangled that same bell for me, too. There was a swoopy flying arcade game called PropCycle that you played by cycling on a stationary bike to power the glider on your screen through hoops and canyons, collecting balloons. DDR’s spiritual descendant is the Just Dance series, which teaches you dance routines to hit songs.
And any number of walkers and runners swear by the smartphone app Zombies, Run! and its little sibling, The Walk (full disclosure: I’ve contributed to both games), wherein the point of the game is in the story you unlock as you exercise rather than in burning calories.
Exercise Is Fun
The only thing unifying these games is not that they’re fitness games. It’s that they’re fun games first and foremost . . . that happen to have a game mechanic that involves motion. DDR would be a game worth playing even without the guilty mandate to exercise—in fact we do play it, and it’s called Rock Band. The best fitness games, then, are good because you just happen to be doing some sort of exercise while you play. The problem is that measuring activity is easy; figuring out how to make it fun is very, very hard.
What’s lost in all of this is the fact that moving your body around can be a pleasurable act. Indeed, the primary way that small children enjoy themselves is by moving. No rules, no points, no personal bests.
Try it on your own, if you’re able. In private, if you’re shy. Forget everything a gym teacher or personal trainer ever told you. Wriggle your body. Stretch your toes. Stick your butt out and waddle around. Dance a little, or skip a little. Maybe jump, or maybe just stretch as high as you can.
We’re trying so hard to be efficient that we try to get the most bang for our buck—burn the most calories within the least amount of time—that we lose sight of the long game. Exercise doesn’t have to be a utilitarian enterprise, and approaching it as such is the least successful possible method.
A lot of you have resolved that 2016 will be the year you get fit. For some of you, that resolution is already crumbling. But you might do better if you forget about setting records. Put the tracker in a drawer. Close the app. Focus on experiencing, not measuring. You won’t get any achievements, but you’ll probably have a lot more fun. And if you have more fun, you’re much more likely to actually do the thing.