Quit playing games with my heart (rate): On fitness and gamification

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A former team-sport athlete found new ways to get active by challenging herself to run longer and get in better shape. Sounds simple enough — but the real secret lies in making a game of it, all thanks to a fitness app. Illustration by FIEL ESTRELLA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “May pinaghahandaan ka ba?” a friend asked me after seeing one of my workout videos on Snapchat.

In the past I would usually go through a workout binge to prepare myself for an upcoming shoot, beach trip, or date. I would spend days dieting and working out, only to go back to my old unhealthy self after the shoot/trip/date had passed. But potential physical exposure aside, I’ve always been a fairly active person.

From an early age, my father taught me to love all kinds of sports, getting me into golf and badminton. I was on my high school basketball team, eventually becoming captain, and spent my university days playing for the touch rugby team. I would train three times a week for two hours a day, and spend my weekends playing in various games and competitions. However, I can honestly say — rather, an app can tell — that I’ve never been in better shape than I am now.

I didn’t pay attention to the results at first, but as time went by, I saw the numbers improving. The more I worked out, the higher my scores got. It was almost as if my actual body were some avatar I was controlling in a video game, and every lift or squat I did would result in a power-up at the end of the day.

 

During my days of playing team sports, I never really felt healthy — actually, it was more of a case where there was no way for me to measure my health. It didn’t really matter what my body mass index was, as long as I could outrun nine other girls and jump high enough to block shots. All of this changed when I moved to another country and suddenly lost all connection to any kind of organized sport. I was on my own, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was becoming a bit “doughy.” I guess a steady diet of doughnuts and alcohol will do that to you. I decided that I would start running, and figured that the best (and most 21st-century) way to get started was by downloading an app.

I decided to go with the Nike+ Running app because it was the one with the prettiest interface. As soon as I logged in, it asked me if I wanted to get into “challenges” with my friends who were also using the app. The basic premise of the “challenge” was that I basically had to outrun one of them on a weekly basis. I could keep track of when they were running, how fast they were running, and the route they took. I chose to run against a friend who also happened to be my weekly drinking buddy, as I figured that buying him enough beers would secure my wins.

I quickly learned, however, that there was more thrill in beating my personal records. I became so addicted to outrunning myself that I would constantly brave the zero-degree weather in running shorts, just so I could continue my streak. There was even a night when, after completing an 8-kilometer run, I realized that I had lost my apartment keys somewhere along the way — which meant that I had to retrace all my steps. I ended up never finding my keys, which meant that I was locked out of my apartment in the middle of winter, but I found solace in the fact that I got a badge for beating another record.

Think about how quickly you disown your body when you see a photo of yourself from your awkward teenage days. Or how offended you would feel if your significant other told you that that he only loved you for your body. It is this disconnect that makes us susceptible to gamification.

I gave up running when I moved back to the Philippines and joined a gym instead. The gym I belong to has an InBody machine that calculates my body mass index, percentage of body fat, and muscle weight in different segments of my body. I didn’t pay attention to the results at first, but as time went by, I saw the numbers improving. The more I worked out, the higher my scores got. It was almost as if my actual body were some avatar I was controlling in a video game, and every lift or squat I did would result in a power-up at the end of the day. This almost-disconnect from my body allowed me to go through back-to-back zumba classes while suffering a hangover and still do a round of circuit training and weights after, because I somehow tricked myself into thinking that I wasn’t really in that body.

On the surface, our bodies guarantee our personal identities because they act as shells that house our “selves.” Despite this, our bodies are also the easiest parts of ourselves to disassociate from. Think about how quickly you disown your body when you see a photo of yourself from your awkward teenage days. Or how offended you would feel if your significant other told you that that he only loved you for your body. It is this disconnect that makes us susceptible to gamification. It is predominant in health apps and wearables that have become an integral part of working out. Basically, gamification works around the premise of using game design elements in non-game situations. This was why I got addicted to running and going to the gym.

All things considered, I know that the badges and points don’t really mean anything. I’m pretty sure that constantly talking about the change in my basal metabolic rate has put me in douchebag territory with some of my friends, but I still do it anyway. Because unlike with playing a team sport, where losing meant losing as a team, I know that this time, the only person I can blame is myself.