Fitness Behavior Modification

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reviews how gamification can ideally assist in people's fitness goals.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Gamification.]


In January, people are likely to sign up for fitness clubs as part of a New Year's resolution to get fit or stay fit.  But of those with fitness resolutions, 73% fail to stick to the plan, according to a Harris Interactive online study conducted in November 2012.  As a person said to me, "January is not the time for resolutions.  It's the time for behavior modification."  Time to shed bad habits and adopt better ones.  So how do we help people do this feat?

A while ago, I participated in a class on designing learning environments.  I found a group interested in gamification but we only had a matter of days to put together a group project.  After tossing around numerous subjects that could be gamified, we settled upon fitness.

I think fitness ended up being a great choice for our group's gamification project because it's been noted that social pressure can help people stay on track with fitness goals.  It's why people join mall walker clubs or have a workout buddy.  In addition, there is a history of fitness games, spanning from Dance Dance Revolution to Yourself!Fitness to Wii Fit.

So why do people give up on fitness goals?  Here's what the study indicated:

  • No time (36%)
  • Too difficult to maintain (42%)
  • Too easy to not bother with it (38%)

Furthermore, fitness experts say to succeed with fitness resolutions, people should set realistic goals and switch up routines to avoid boredom.

Gamification, through online interaction with friends or others interested in similar fitness goals, can provide the competition and social impetus to keep up with the fitness program.  In addition, the program can define what would be an individual's realistic goal (just answer some questions and plug in the parameters) and give helpful suggestions as to which activities would satisfy that realistic goal.  Although it's not a personal trainer, the program gives the ability to personalize and specify routines for an individual.

To add to the fun, we tied real-world activities and check-ins to correspond with virtual ones.  The virtual routine, such as a run through a park, would serve as a guide for the real-world run.  If a person was attempting something for the first time, the virtual routine would allow that person to be more familiar with the right techniques.  I know that when I read magazine articles that suggest physical exercises, I sometimes wish there were pictures to illustrate what exactly I need to do.

I'm hoping that we can go further with this project and really nail down the specifics.  I see the word gamification used in regards to a lot of things.  Here's one case where I think it could really work to improve people's lives.

So happy January, everyone, and good luck with any of your behavior modification goals! 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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