Can harnessing the psychological power of video games make you healthier?

Can harnessing the psychological power of video games make you healthier?
Ali Blackwood Illustration

Growing up, Luke Parker played sports. To be clear, not so much actual live sweat-and-sneaker sports — though he did occasionally shoot hoops in the backyard. We're talking about video game sports. Nintendo Ice Hockey and Nintendo Little League Baseball: Championship Series.

"I'm sort of an indoor kid," Parker says. "I'm more of a band, and music and theater type of guy."

Sure, he knows that exercising is important, but it's not like he particularly enjoyed it.

"I was never a regular exercise person," Parker says. "I never feel like I can get the catharsis out of it that I think a lot of people do. The 'Yeah, I feel really good now that I've exercised [feeling].'"

And so Parker, like most every 26-year-old, is faced with a daily dilemma: Does he exercise, which is difficult? Or does he play video games?

But today, Parker chooses C — all of the above, all at the same time.

He already has his Nintendo Switch turned on in the living room of his small Spokane apartment. He just has to strap one of his Switch controllers onto his leg, and stick the other in a big circular peripheral called the "Ring-Con."

Initially, Ring Fit Adventure looks like a generic knock-off of a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Your character runs around a brightly colored world, battling fantasy monsters. But here's the difference: The only way Parker can make his character run in the game is to run in real life. He runs in place in his apartment, and the motion sensors in the Switch controller on his leg detect the running motion, and his character runs too — his hair lighting up to show just how much on fire his exercising is.

When he wants to shoot fireballs all he has to do is to squeeze the Ring-Con, a hybrid video game controller and resistance-training device. And when he faces off against the boss Dragaux, a dragon with the physique and style of a steroid pumping gym rat, Parker selects a move, and then twists his body back and forth — and voila, a ghostly manifestation of a glowing six-pack abbed torso pops up to slap Dragaux, gradually whittling down the monster's health bar.

"It does give you a pretty good workout," Parker says. "I knew that having it around would encourage me to be more active."

By now, video games have mastered the art of behavioral psychology, the secret of getting you to play longer, play more and have more fun by doing it. And so, in our sedentary screen-addicted nation, game and app developers have been asking: What if we put a little bit of exercise in our video games, and a little bit of video game in our exercise?

click to enlarge Can harnessing the psychological power of video games make you healthier?
Exercise at home - and have fun doing it - with Nintendo Switch’s Ring Fit Aventure.

Work Hard, Play Hard

Exercise video games didn't start with Ring Fit Adventure, of course. In 2008, Wii Fit allowed players to use a balance board controller to exercise on the Wii console. Millennials will remember the days of Dance Dance Revolution, where introverted middle and high schoolers flocked to arcades and worked up a sweat, players' feets scurrying to keep up with a stream of musical prompts.

The "exergame" traditions go back even further, says Ben Sawyer, a consultant to exercise-based video game and app developers, who spent around a decade immersed in this topic with the Games for Health Project.

In 1984, Atari even nearly released a game system called the "Puffer," that allowed you to play as a character on an exercise bike — but was thwarted by the video game crash. As educational games like Reader Rabbit and SimCity showed that games could be used to teach people as well as entertain them, Sawyer says, researchers started to experiment with using games as therapy — measuring how they could impact, not just a person's brain, but their galvanic skin response and other biomarkers. Games could treat things like ADHD or fear of spiders, researchers realized, and maybe encourage us to work out more.

"If you heard tomorrow that a pharma company was making an investment in a game company, I think 20 years ago people would say, 'What are you talking about?'" Sawyer says. But today, he says, that makes a logical kind of sense.

As some exercise games became mainstream hits, Sawyer says, researchers found that the games didn't just get kids exercising in video games — it whetted their appetites for more traditional forms of fitness.

"The kids that got hooked on playing Dance Dance Revolution for gym class, they were starting to participate in other forms of exercising," Sawyer says. "They were riding their bikes more."

Not only that, but he says that researchers learned that games could push people further and have them work harder.

"When we put people into an exercise game, for the most part, we know they'll exercise longer," Sawyer says. "We ask them, 'How much did they exert themselves,' and they go, 'Seven.''' Well, actually it was a nine."

But for now, Sawyer says, video games still have too many barriers standing between exercise and play: If you want to play Ring Fit Adventure, you have to not only put on your workout clothes but also strap on the controller onto your leg and sometimes wait for your Switch to update.

And just as you get bored of a game — or just like you find that you've abandoned your New Year's resolution exercise routine by mid-March — it's easy to abandon even a fun exercise game after a while.

"It's a month later, and the Wii Fit board is sitting under the couch," Sawyer says.

Already, some reviewers of Ring Fit Adventure have found that, after a few weeks, the game no longer had enough allure to keep them doing crunches and jogging in place.

"I'd not reckoned with how a gaming adventure driven by exercise would be prone to the accidental abandonment that can befall any workout routine," writes Stephen Totilo, a gaming critic at Kotaku.

The Gamification of Everything

Spokane resident Mark Meredith already knows how to exercise. He's in the Naval reserves. He's a mailman, so his job consists of walking 11 miles a day. But losing weight was a little trickier.

While stationed with the Navy in Bahrain, he says, he'd ballooned up on a bit too much Persian Gulf fast food. At his heaviest, he was at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. But today, he says, he's at 185. He recently uploaded a before/after picture to social media to a chorus of compliments.

"On Facebook everybody was like, you look amazing. What are you doing for your skin-care routine?" Meredith says. "It's just weight loss. I feel a lot better."

The secret, it turned out, was an app on his phone called Lose It!

"It tells you how many calories you can have per day," Meredith says. "When you exercise, you can punch in what your exercise had been."

At its core, it was little more than calorie tracking and recording what he ate, a basic premise of dieting.

It wasn't really a video game. But it just added just enough video game-style elements, like badges and progress bars, to apply some simple motivational hacks to his brain and get him to stick with it. Perhaps most powerfully, Meredith says, it tracks your "streaks" — rewarding you each time you log into the app in a row. At his best, Meredith managed to get his streak up to 200 days.

"It's that addictive element you get when you're playing a game," he says. Your natural loss aversion means you don't want to lose your streak, so you keep playing.

Lose It! is not a game. But it is gamification.

"Gamification" dresses up our more difficult arduous tasks in life in flashy accessories of video games — community leaderboards, badges, achievements, points and levels — and grafts them onto other tasks.

"Gaming's dark secret," writes former gaming critic Kieron Gillen about traditional games, is that "sometimes watching a bunch of numbers get bigger is enough."

The same motivational power that convinced adult professionals to set their alarms to wake up in the middle of the night to harvest blueberries in the FarmVille Facebook game, could be used for tougher tasks, like exercise, dieting or learning a new language.

"Games are very, very good at showing your progress," says Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit. "You're always aware of your score, what level you're on."

Back in 2011, Zichermann was predicting in the Globe and Mail how that concept could be harnessed to keep people going to the gym regularly: The rewarding results of exercise and dieting can take weeks, or even months to show up. Instead, apps can dole out rewards, even tiny symbolic ones, more often for things like consistent gym attendance. In a way, it's no different than a second-grade teacher awarding stickers to kids for good behavior.

In games, the human desire to complete sets can make people try to find every feather in Assassin's Creed or to catch 'em all in Pokémon, but Zichermann says the same instinct is at work driving people to take enough steps every day to complete the activity rings on their Apple Watch.

"The core neurobiological evolutionary part of the human condition has nothing to do with the ring," Zichermann says. "It has to do with once you've decided that set was worth completing, you have the powerful drive to want to complete that set."

The Next Level

Sawyer says we're only at the start of what games can accomplish for exercise and health.

"Ultimately, over time, what you'll see is more and more of the melding of video games and exercising," Sawyer says.

Sawyer imagines a world where you walk into your house, start doing jumping jacks at a whim, and "immediately the screen in front of you says, "I'm guessing you want to play So-and-So Fit Adventure."

You'd step on the treadmill at the gym and be asked if you want to watch CNN or play a game. Or, you'd be on a run and your Apple Air Pods would offer an audio adventure game you could play while you ran.

"There's a dragon behind you! Run a little faster!" Sawyer says. "Now you have a sword."

In theory, the more we can chip away at the barrier between what's healthy and what's fun, the more we can turn our bad habits into good ones. And if not? At least we've had some fun and worked up some sweat by doing it.

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