09/16/2016

Apps That Turn Your Workout Into a Game

16:38 minutes

Man jogging with his smartphone, from Shutterstock
Man jogging with his smartphone, from Shutterstock

Working out isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But would you run a little faster if a pack of zombies were breathing down your neck on your morning jog? (Figuratively.)

An app called “Zombies, Run!” can help. And other app developers and device makers are also making bets on the best way to “gamify” your fitness routine. Fitbit’s bracelet buzzes with encouragement when you reach your step goal. Apps like Runkeeper and Strava let you log your miles, see how you stack up against your friends, and even compete against total strangers.

But do we really need a brush with un-death to get us into our running shoes?

Perhaps not, but the story — and other game elements — can keep things exciting when we do lace up. Margaret Wallace, CEO of the game development company Playmatics, calls “Zombies, Run!” a “milestone” application of narrative to fitness.

“It encourages me and keeps me active and not necessarily focused on how hard my run is,” Wallace says. “It’s attempting to immerse me in a story. A lot of us … are very tuned into what it means to be chased by zombies.”

Meanwhile, Wallace notes other runaway hits in gamified fitness may not have even been designed as such.

“It’s remarkable the extent to which Pokémon Go created such a movement,” Wallace says. “I mean literally a movement of people, and I don’t know if that was an intended feature. That’s what we call in gaming an ‘emergent feature’ — something that we may not have necessarily anticipated when we made a game, but something that came out of it naturally, because it’s how the community likes to use it.”

But someone who’s simply interested in taking a walk around the block to hunt Pokémon, for instance, may not be motivated by an app that pits strangers together in a race against the clock. As the gamified fitness industry booms, Wallace says more apps and devices are finding ways to accommodate different types of players.

“Something that Fitbit has done that I think is really smart, is they’ve rolled out Adventures, which are these solo, non-competitive experiences where you can walk and experience what it might be to be on a trail in Yosemite,” Wallace says. “But they also have Challenges, which can incorporate up to 10 of your friends. And so if I’m more of that competitive type of player, I have that option.”

With companies rushing to create even more tailored, engaging activity trackers, some consumers are concerned about what’s happening to their personal and location data. Wallace cautions that the standards for how data are handled are evolving with the field.

“To really get down into how each company handles the data, you would really have to look at their terms and services, and maybe even follow up with customer service,” Wallace notes. And for users who take the same jog every Friday evening and post their times to Facebook, for example, “there are certainly privacy implications,” she says.

While some people may not feel comfortable sharing details of their workouts across social media, Wallace says other people do — and can gain from doing so.

“For a lot of us, we may not feel comfortable with sharing ‘Hey, today I only did 5,000 of my 10,000 steps. I blew it. I didn’t make my goal,’” Wallace says. “But I think that there are ways, again — the Fitbit challenges allow you to customize. I want these 10 of my friends, or these five of my friends to work with me together on this goal. And I think that has more benefits than negatives in the long run.”

And whether we choose to spice up our workouts with a simulated hike in Yosemite or not, we’re probably already encountering gamification elsewhere in our daily lives. Wallace, whose background is in video game development, sees gamification design elements in everything from new hiring processes at big companies, to how some of our car insurance rates are calculated.

“We’re seeing financial institutions use this,” Wallace says. “We’re seeing HR departments use it for looking for skilled employees in different areas. We are seeing it built into hardware, so certain automobiles will have different game-like elements in their dashboard to show you how fuel friendly … you’re being with your driving. Insurance companies are starting to utilize this with their apps to show whether a driver has been compliant and is eligible for less expensive insurance. It’s really taking over in terms of a design approach in a lot of areas.”

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Margaret Wallace

Margaret Wallace is CEO of Playmatics, a game development company with offices in Brooklyn, New York & San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Let’s face it. Working out isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. Run 5 miles? No, thank you. I’d rather play a set of tennis. But maybe what I’m missing is something that would maybe make that workout a little more fun, a little more like a game.

App developers and device makers have already thought of this, of course. There’s Fitbit, which tracks your steps and gives you little encouraging buzzes on the wrist when you reach a goal. Other apps like Runkeeper and Strava, where you can log the miles you run, see how you stack up against your friends, and even compete against total strangers for speed and time.

And if it’s competition, if the competition is not your thing, how about being chased by zombies? That enough motivation for you? Because, yes, as they say, there is an app for that. But do these things really work to motivate you? And do they have a dark side?

What do you think? Do you use activity trackers or apps? Do you love them, hate them, can’t live without them? Give us a call. 844-724-8255, or tweet us @scifri right here, and we’ll take your calls and your tweets. Joining me now is Margaret Wallace, CEO of Playmatics, a game development company based in Brooklyn and San Francisco. And she joins us from KQED today. Welcome to Science Friday.

MARGARET WALLACE: Thank you, Ira. I just logged 5,000 stops on my Fitbit to get here.

IRA FLATOW: Wow! See? Even Science Friday can motivate people to become fit. I know you’re not just a game developer, but you use this fitness stuff yourself. For those who haven’t used a Fibit– you say you got 5,000 steps on that– are any of those Fitbit apps– are any of them good? Do you like them? How do they work? How do they motivate you?

MARGARET WALLACE: I’ve been a long-time Fitbit user for the past few years. And between Fitbit and the Samsung S Health offering, those two happen to be my favorites. And I use them interchangeably. And over the past few years, I’ve seen, especially Fitbit, really grow and evolve with the community in terms of amplifying different features that use elements that we’ve always traditionally used in video games to potentially help encourage users or players or walkers to just keep going and give them the sense of how they’re progressing.

IRA FLATOW: You know, it must be true, because in the new Apple Watch that’s coming out today, when it was announced, they made sure you knew that it was going to be pointed toward fitness people.

MARGARET WALLACE: Yes. And as I’m sure you and a lot of your listeners already know, a lot of this impetus comes out of what we call the quantified self movement, which is basically just using personal data and data in ways to hopefully help optimize people’s experiences.

In this case, we’re talking about fitness and activity tracking. But it can be used in a whole range of other areas, such as health. My new Fitbit Charge 2, for example, it measures my heart rate passively. It’s a great feature. I love it, because it shows me resting heart rate and also active heart rate.

IRA FLATOW: But the whole thing I mentioned before is that if you’re not into just keeping track of these things, if you find those things really boring, they’re now trying to gamify it, make a game out of being fit to help you motivate. For example, and I know you’re a Walking Dead fan. And you have your own Walking Dead podcast, in fact, right?

MARGARET WALLACE: Yes, I do, Zombie Jamboree!

IRA FLATOW: WEll, tell us about the app–

MARGARET WALLACE: Sorry.

IRA FLATOW: –Zombies, Run! What’s the idea there? Are zombies really chasing you, and you run faster to get away from them?

MARGARET WALLACE: Yeah, Zombies, Run! is one of the great, I would say, milestones in terms of how different people with a game development background in creating apps have applied a narrative to helping encourage fitness. So Zombies, Run! is basically what it sounds like.

I have different stories or scenarios that unfold that entail, oh, I don’t know, hordes of zombies chasing me. And it encourages me and keeps me active and not necessarily focused on how hard my run is, but it’s attempting to immerse me in a story. And a lot of us, and especially a lot of us in Western culture lately with the popularity of things like The Walking Dead, are very tuned into what it means to be chased by zombies.

IRA FLATOW: Have you designed an app about being chased by zombies?

MARGARET WALLACE: [CHUCKLES]

I had the pleasure to work on a Walking Dead-related app a few years ago. Right now, my company, we’re working on taking different device tracker APIs. And we’re working to build that into a game right now that we hope to be in what we call closed beta in the winter, like January.

IRA FLATOW: Can you give us an idea of what kind of game that would be?

MARGARET WALLACE: So basically what we found, or what our thesis is, is that activity trackers provide a wealth of information. And they’ve only just begun to start to tap into the power of story and narrative and the power of using these game-like mechanics, not only to entice you to start working out or at least being aware of how active you are, but to keep you engaged. And so that’s sort of our theory.

And what we’re going to do is we’re looking for creative ways to incorporate fitness data that is provided naturally through these various services. They have what is called APIs. So that allows software developers like myself to plug into certain tools and libraries that they use. And we’re hoping to use that data to create a hopefully immersive experience.

Zombies, Run!, like I said, did a great job of doing that. And we have certain ways that we think we want to focus on different kinds of exercise and see how that works together in a complementary fashion as far as creating engaging gameplay.

IRA FLATOW: When Pokemon Go came out, I don’t recall it being promoted as a fitness game. Yet as people– what, a billion, million or so people– downloaded it and used it, it turned out it was getting people moving who were never getting off the couch.

MARGARET WALLACE: It’s remarkable the extent to which Pokemon Go created such movement– I mean, literally a movement– of people. And I don’t know if that was an intended feature, and that’s what we call in gaming an emergent feature.

That’s something that we may not have necessarily anticipated when we made a game. But it’s something that came out of it naturally, because it’s how the community and the audience likes to use it and discovered they like to use it. So Pokemon Go, I know, it got me to visit places I never saw, both in New York, San Francisco, wherever I go, with Pokemon.

IRA FLATOW: We have folks who want to talk about it. Let’s go to the phones. Our number, 844-724-8255. San Antone– Melanie in San Antonio, welcome to Science Friday.

MELANIE: Thank you. Thank you for having me here. I use running apps pretty regularly, and I have been so for the last four years. I’m a half marathoner. And I’ve found that they’ve actually helped decrease my mile splits by about two minutes.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a lot, isn’t it?

MELANIE: It is a lot, coming from being a non-runner to now running pretty regularly every day.

IRA FLATOW: Do you use any of the new games? Or are you just happy to have the Fitbit or whatever you use to stimulate you?

MELANIE: My husband’s a zombie runner. He likes that one. And he is the biggest anti-runner possible. So anything to get him moving would be just fantastic. For me, I use, like, the Nike+, only because it’s Apple Watch compatible and I– just the whole UI of it on the Apple Watch and being able to look down at it real quick at a glance to see what my past mile was compared to the current mile. And I’m a competitive person by nature, so I always like to compete against myself on that.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, thanks for sharing, Melanie. And good luck to you and your husband.

MELANIE: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Bye-bye. Margaret, just sounds like a success story there.

MARGARET WALLACE: Well, it’s funny. Nike+, as a lot of you all know, has really led the way in terms of adding what I call game-like elements. Some people say gamification. It’s just in a design approach to their apps. And Nike’s stuff has been honestly the slickest and the most resonant.

And honestly, I credit them for really starting an entire movement around the quantification of fitness, whether you’re talking about Under Armour, Fitbit, Strava, Zombies, Run! Somewhere along the lines, every one of us have looked at what Nike’s doing for better and for worse.

I mean, they’ve had some troubles recently with their Nike Run Club feature changes. They took away challenges in the way that people are used to them working. But I think they’ve been working really hard to address that, and they’re great.

IRA FLATOW: As Melanie was saying, she’s a competitive runner. She talks about her splits and times. Isn’t that a bit of a turnoff to some people, that they’re sort of feeling they have to be competitive, these things?

MARGARET WALLACE: Yeah, Nike definitely has a wide range of audiences. But I think they certainly do tap into more of the competitive type of player. And we know that players do not fit all one size. There are different kinds of players. And different kinds of day, you might be a different kind of player.

And something that Fitbit has done to address that that I think is really smart– they’ve rolled out recently Adventures, which are these solo non-competitive experiences where you can walk and experience what it might be to be on a trail at Yosemite.

But they also have challenges, which can incorporate up to 10 of your friends. And so if I’m more of that competitive type of player, I have that option. But it can be de-motivating to some people who don’t want to share their personal data.

IRA FLATOW: There’s sort of a downside to some of these. Wasn’t there a case a few years back where a cyclist died trying to beat a record on Strava?

MARGARET WALLACE: That is what I’ve heard. And it’s not surprising, because in a lot of ways, if any of us have taken yoga classes– I mean, a lot of people say, you’re not competing to be better than the person next to you, or, don’t push yourself too hard. And some of these things can really tap into that overachiever way.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Washington, DC, to Hassan. Welcome to Science Friday.

HASSAN: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm, go ahead.

HASSAN: I just had a question about the GPS information for different users and the retention policy and also the sharing of that information with law enforcement. How does does that work with these fitness trackers?

IRA FLATOW: Good question, yeah. What happens, Margaret, to the data that get collect?

MARGARET WALLACE: Well, that’s a really great question. And I think we could probably spend a lot of time talking about it. Right now, I would suggest that the handling of the data is all over the place. And I would suggest that, to really get down into how each company handles the data, you would really have to look at their terms and services and maybe even follow up with customer service.

It is true that, when you are sharing your whereabouts— with Runkeeper, I can post the runs I do on a regular basis on Facebook, for example. If somebody wanted to track my whereabouts, it wouldn’t be difficult to see that, oh, well, every Friday, Margaret does this run.

So there are certainly privacy implications. That was one of the biggest issues that the Nike Run Club faced recently in terms of whatever backlash occurred with the community as they said. Well, now the challenges are using hashtags. I don’t want to share with the whole world what I’m doing. I don’t want to use your universal hashtag. And so privacy and data and how that data gets used, it’s a huge area that is only now starting to be understood in terms of the implications.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Margaret Wallace, CEO of Playmatics, a game development company. On the other hand, we are learning that the greatest motivators for people are their friends, people they know. Wouldn’t that also be true with sharing your data with friends of yours, getting you to do more or having them encourage you?

MARGARET WALLACE: Yes, I think, again, it really comes down to player type. And I think, for a lot of us, we may not feel comfortable with sharing, hey, today I only did 5,000 of my 10,000 steps. Oh, I blew it. I didn’t make my goal.

We feel comfortable sharing that with some people. Some people feel comfortable sharing that with everyone. They’re not shy. But I think it really depends on where you are in terms of your fitness, how you feel about yourself, and what kind of friends you have.

But I think that there are ways, again, the Fitbit challenges allows you to customize. I want these 10 of my friends or these 5 of my friends to work with me together on this goal. And I think that has more benefits than negatives in the long run.

IRA FLATOW: Is gamification moving outside the fitness realm, maybe into cars or something?

MARGARET WALLACE: Gamification is infiltrating, for lack of a better word, every single sector that I can imagine, since my background is traditionally in the video game industry. But since this has become a thing in terms of design for apps and also real-world experiences, we’re seeing it in simulation and training. We’re seeing financial institutions use this. We’re seeing HR departments used it for looking for skilled employees in different areas.

We are seeing it built into hardware. So certain automobiles will have different game-like elements in their dashboard to show you how fuel friendly or environmentally friendly you’re being with your driving or your style. Insurance companies are starting to utilize this with their apps to show whether a driver has been compliant and is eligible for less expensive insurance. It’s really taking over in terms of a design approach in a lot of areas.

IRA FLATOW: Is there one age group it’s aimed at?

MARGARET WALLACE: I would suggest– since everybody plays games, right? Everyone of all ages plays games of one kind or another, or most of us do, whether we’re talking physical card games or mobile games. It really isn’t age specific. It’s just the approach, I think, would be a little bit different.

IRA FLATOW: And where would the cutting edge be in gamification these days? I know you say you’re working on something new. Well, you won’t tell us what it is. I can respect that. But is there a cutting edge someplace?

MARGARET WALLACE: Well, there is something that we’re working on that I can talk about. And I can talk about other examples too. One is something that we’re working with the Scripps Research Institute and Dr. Benjamin Good with. And what we have done is we are creating a platform to allow scientists and researchers from all over the world who have apps and online activities that are helping them crowdsource scientific research, whether we’re talking about astronomy or life science or biodiversity. And we’re providing these researchers with the tools to build in badges and stuff like that.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Margaret Wallace, good luck to you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Good luck with your game work.

MARGARET WALLACE: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Margaret Wallace is CEO of a Playmatics, a game development company.

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  • Loreful

    There is also the newly released, MarchQuest, for those that like a Role-Playing and Fantasy perspective to the fitness game. Players are calling it the “perfect mix” between Zombies, Run! and the Lord of the Rings. http://www.marchquest.com