The universal ingredient of action-adventure video games, like the much-anticipated Batman Arkham Knight or Star Wars Battlefront, is movement.
But as the video gamers propel the protagonist of their epic story forward—diving, ducking, and dashing from immediate doom, on their console or PC, with an energy drink and can of Pringles in reach—there’s another common factor.
The gamers themselves barely move a muscle. The occasional forearm-wrist-jerk-reaction to dodge a Storm Trooper isn’t exercise. And this isn’t helping the obesity epidemic in America, which has left two-thirds of U.S. women and three-quarters of U.S. men overweight or obese, with obese people outnumbering the merely overweight.
So, it’s clear Americans need to move more. But they’re not about to give up their video games, so what to do? Some game and app companies are using Americans’ love of games, smartphone apps and a pair of headphones to transform the real world into a game of its own, but with a purpose more than just scoring the high score: to get people off their ample butts and exercise.
The dawn of fitness games is upon us.
Recent fitness games like The Walk or Ingress (for those who enjoy a good promenade) or BattleSuit Runner Fitness or Zombies, Run! for the joggers and runners of the world, make you the star of your own game. Every step or move you take or increase in pace helps to unlock parts of the story or save you from a cadre of villains.
For example, in the app Zombies, Run!, released in 2012 by a U.K. company called Six to Start, you are a runner heading to one of Earth’s remaining outposts and must collect supplies to rebuild your township (remember, the Brits made this app). With zombies lurking everywhere, the story line syncs over your music playlist and prompts you to speed up, slow down, or keep going steady, as your team of remaining virtual humans help save you from the apocalypse. At times, you need to put on a burst of speed when zombies close in on you.
“There are tons of fitness apps trying to be the equivalent of a personal trainer. And I’ve tried them all. They have one thing in common: they are designed for fitness people,” Nick DeAngelis, 36, a manager for a health food store in Eugene, Ore., told the Daily Beast. “I am a huge sci-fi geek, enjoy video games and podcasts, so I had to give these apps a try. There was nothing else like them.”
Does charging your Apple Watch or Fitbit each night or doing pre-bedtime push-ups bring this much excitement about exercise to your life?
“Every video-gaming and comic-reading nerd in the world can now live out their fantasy. What they experience through their fingertips or read in a comic comes to life with this virtual and physical fitness interaction technology on their smart phone. Thirty years ago, the only option was to read this stuff in comic books,” said DeAngelis.
Smartphone fitness apps and fitness tracking devices certainly play a role in helping to keep tabs on our physical activity throughout the day—such as incidental forms like walking, bouts of planned exercise on a row machine and how much we toss and turn in a night—but they all share one fundamental flaw: They can only report the health data. They can’t motivate people, because most of us don’t really care if we hit 10,000 steps taken or not.
Proponents of personal tracking devices argue that activity monitors allow you to be creative about how to achieve your 10,000 steps for the day. But anyone who knows anything about human nature already knows the flaw in this argument. In general, people aren’t that creative and no one is going to sprint their trash five times up and down the steps to hit their numbers.
And most of us don’t really want boring health data. What we need is motivation, so why not apply what we love—good story-telling, suspense, and a bit of escapism from everyday life—to getting you to walk, jog, or run in a quest to transform your city into a virtual scavenger hunt or escape a horde of brain-eating walking corpses.
“You’re running and running and get a notification that zombies are approaching,” DeAngelis said, referring to Zombies, Run! “If you’re taxed, and zombies start chasing, you have to make sure you have enough gas in the tank to turn on your sprinting; otherwise you’ll get attacked.”
With fitness games, there’s no time to check your heart-rate or calories burnt; no moment to fidget with your Apple Watch band due to wrist-sweat disrupting the green light’s ability to track your pulse.
Hostages need to be saved. Miles need to be walked so aliens don’t attack. Zombies are chasing you. And everything hinges on your ability to move your entire body instead of your gamer-twitchy fingertips. Before you know it, you’ve hit 15,000 steps instead of 10,000 and had more fun doing it.
So the next time you decide you need a little escapism, why not try virtually escaping a ravening horde while burning off some extra calories. Run! The princess awaits you in another castle!