Is Game Design the Key to Fitness?

Good design can encourage people to develop healthy habits.

Written by Tom Aulet
Published on Mar. 22, 2023
Is Game Design the Key to Fitness?
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Growing up, I spent Saturday mornings playing Civilization. “Civ” is a strategy-based, empire-building video game that my brother and I used to play on my parent’s PC. Because of this game, I can still tell you the most important leader of the Babylonians (Hammurabi) and the ancient capital of Mongolia (Karakorum).  Through play, I reached a level of engagement and comprehension I never experienced in a history classroom. 

3 Elements of Good Game Design

  1. Self direction: Users find their own path.
  2. Calibration: The game is tailored to the user’s skill and experience.
  3. Competition: The goal to beat others is a motivator.

Digital game design may have started as a form of entertainment, but it’s become clear that it’s a wildly effective tool for skill development and habit formation. In fact, platforms that use game design principles for purposes other than entertainment are now valued at about $12 billion worldwide

You’ve likely seen the core elements of game design at work in apps like Duolingo, which helps users learn new languages, or Noom, which helps people lose weight. Both nudge users toward goals by tracking daily progress and building a sense of long-term purpose.

Fitness is in an even better position to benefit from game design. That’s because, for most people, a workout is most definitely work. Pioneered by companies like Nintendo and Zwift, game design principles are starting to be applied more broadly to the fitness industry to effectively build healthy habits. 

Much like sports, game-based fitness has the capacity to turn working out into something that feels like play, which has the potential to revolutionize the way that people work out. 

Given the effect of a regular fitness routine on physical and mental health, it’s no exaggeration to say that the successful use of game design in fitness can be life-changing.  

Great game design is more than adding streaks and a progress bar. It involves creating an experience that truly feels like play and puts the user in control. Self-direction, calibration and competition are three elements of good game design that are particularly relevant to fitness.

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Self-Direction

Self-direction is about defining your own path forward rather than following along with a teacher. With a sense of control and investment in the process, users own the experience, rather than it simply happening to them. 

Great games are responsive to your inputs, and thus put you in control.You develop a strategy, decide on a direction and work to achieve goals yourself. Rather than receiving instructions from a teacher or passively consuming content, games turn users into active participants. This sense of control, combined with the inherent interactivity of games, leads to much greater engagement over time.

 

Calibration

Calibration to the user is a more technical and less obvious element of game design, but it is critical for making a game-based workout effective. As with many activities, if a game is too easy, you get bored, and if it’s too hard, you get discouraged; in both scenarios, you ultimately just stop playing. In video games, this is typically accomplished by tuning the enemy AI, which adjusts to your skill level to progressively get better. 

Something similar happens in game-based fitness that isn’t quite possible in a class. 

Imagine you’re working out and for one interval you’re supposed to be moving at 90 percent of your total capacity. Rather than being asked to sprint, you would get a target to hit or a competitor to beat who’s perfectly matched with your ability. Over time, workouts and programs can be automatically updated based on each person’s individual progress to keep them challenged, improving and motivated to come back for more.

 

Competition

In most game experiences, you are playing to win. The principle of competition is inherent in most game design, but even more powerful when applied to digital fitness. Personal bests, win/loss stats, and final scoring combine to create a sense of urgency and measurable progress. 

Competition can exist either with others or with yourself; even for single-player games, goal orientation can add some competitive edge. Goals offer clear parameters that are either achieved or not, instilling a sense of continuous progress in the short term, and promoting habit formation and a sense of achievement over time. 

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Fitness Habits: Motivation and Engagement

Have you ever signed up for a half marathon, Tough Mudder, or even just a turkey trot with friends or family? Something similar happens digitally with live competitions on Zwift: friendly competition, the ability to win and lose, and, ultimately, a lasting motivator to build a habit. 

Fitness bolsters mental and physical health. Yet, in the United States, one in 10 premature deaths are associated with physical inactivity, as are higher rates of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The problem isn’t a lack of awareness about fitness’s importance, but rather, a lack of engagement. 

Game design provides a solution and can usher in a new era of working out that feels like play — and of people successfully building healthy habits that stick. It’s early days, but the proof’s already there: In 2017, Stanford researchers found that game-based fitness activities led to a 23 percent average increase in daily physical activity. 

Today, as technology improves and digital fitness companies continue to innovate, game design is already shaping the future of how we work out and putting millions of people on the path to longer, healthier and more satisfying lives.

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