Games I’d Like to Play (But Don’t): Fitocracy and SuperBetter

by berv

I’ve been thinking lately about my conceptualization of “games in real life,” or in other words, game systems that link up with some day-to-day activity, providing encouragement and rewards for performing desired behaviours. In contrast to the almost-ubiquitous cash-driven purchase programs (Air Miles, customer loyalty programs, etc.), my interest lies in those systems that encourage positive, healthy behaviours in an individual. Though our engagement with game systems is not always explicitly acknowledged, there’s something deep in the human psyche that draws us to them. So why not use this instinctual drive for good?

About a month ago, I signed up for and have been participating in two initiatives designed around this notion: Fitocracy and SuperBetter. Both attempt to enhance an aspect of my well-being (physical fitness and overall resilience, respectively) by logging my efforts to improve and providing incremental goals in the form of quests and achievements. I can get behind that, and can see the benefit in having another little bit of encouragement to keep you on the path to self-improvement. However, each is lacking something different that has led me to abandon it, though, curiously, each can be found in the system of the other.

Fitocracy

Fitocracy focuses on physical fitness, encouraging users to log their exercise in order to gain experience points and gradually level up. An array of achievements are provided to motivate participants, and often have multiple tiers to encourage continued development. Additionally, “quests” can be undertaken for bonus XP and often revolve around trying out new activities. I quite like the fact that the standard of fitness provided in these goals is somewhat relative, making use of “x reps at a comfortable weight” or “x percentage of bodyweight” rather than absolute values, providing an accessible approach for a wide variety of users.

However, as with any pre-defined system of goals, the objectives provided may not be relevant to one’s own fitness targets. For example, the site’s set of listed activities is heavily biased in favour of weight training and cardio work. There is little room for bodyweight or flexibility exercises, a major detriment considering my interest in gymnastic exercise. Trying to find some rough equivalent within the site’s activity lists quickly becomes tiring and may leave you with a non-representative point gain. I’ve also been frustrated that the cadence of repetitions is not taken into account when calculating XP values; I’ve been trying an alternative approach relying on sustained muscular load rather than successive sets of multiple reps and have found the point gain abysmal when compared to the latter. As a result, the integrated social elements begin to feel irrelevant, as the facilitated peer comparison and fitness point leaderboards quickly lose meaning. I acknowledge that participation in Fitocracy ought to be a means to the greater end of physical fitness rather than an end in itself centered around point gains, but I can achieve many of the same benefits with far less legwork simply by logging my workouts in a spreadsheet.

What Fitocracy really fails to take into account are personal goals. The site lays out a normative set of activities and rewards users for their completion. There’s no ability to self-define your fitness objectives within the site’s framework. You can log your progress, sure, but unless it’s progress towards one of the goals the site suggests, there are no milestones along the way or rewards at the end. As a result, I feel that the point system is largely a distraction; rather than motivating me to pursue my own fitness goals, it encourages me to change my routine into something more conventional so that I may be rewarded.

SuperBetter

SuperBetter, in contrast, provides much more flexibility around goal setting and incremental reward, but lacks the real world tie-in of Fitocracy. SuperBetter is based around continual maintenance and development of one’s personal resilience along four vectors: physical, mental, emotional, and social. The first thing you do upon registration is define your personal goal. At this point, I was surprised to find that the available scope of goals was restricted to health goals (e.g. quitting smoking, running a marathon) or recovery from illness or injury. I had envisioned personal resilience as something that could benefit any pursuit, but these are the only two domains available at present. After doing so, you can begin to perform short activities (“quests” or “power-ups” that boost your numerically-indicated resilience in one or more of the four categories. These are simple tasks such as stepping outside for a few minutes or writing a thank-you note. Additionally, you can square off against “bad guys,” which are obstacles standing between you and your goal, such as the “I’m too busy trap,” encouraging you to make time for relationships, or “swamps of sadness,” pointing you in the direction of the aforementioned boosting tasks. In each of these cases, you can enable predefined sets of activities and obstacles or elect to write your own. If taking the custom route, users can write up descriptions, choose the resilience category they best apply to, and determine an appropriate amount of reward points to be given out upon the task’s completion. As a result, you can bend the site to suit goals outside of health and recovery, but it’s a little more work.

So why haven’t I stuck with SuperBetter? I found that I had no real-world motivation to check in. The site was not sufficient as an end in itself; where Fitocracy encouraged me to log my daily exercise, SuperBetter relied only on my interest in the site and its provided objectives. I never really felt encouraged to change my behaviour outside of when I was directly using the site and never had my day-to-day routine trigger a need to check in for inspiration. I found my usual going-on would lead me through many of the suggested behaviours; if I wanted mental stimulation, I would read a book; if I wanted socialization, I would call a friend. There was no reason beyond initial curiousity for me to seek new objectives. Perhaps in not having a suitable health or recovery goal, I’m not the target audience and so don’t have the right sort of motivation to participate, but I feel that a system seeking integration with real life ought to provide users with a more tangible link between the two.

Where to from here?

Both sites are well-researched and make good use of game mechanics at once familiar and engaging, but even as an individual invested in the encouraged outcomes, I was frustrated by the point of contact between the online system and my life. Where Fitocracy failed to accurately reflect my personal goals, SuperBetter failed to sufficiently link itself to them. Were I to offer a suggestion to each, I might provide the following:

  • Fitocracy could allow self-definition of quests and activities as well as the rewards that go along with them. This would let me tweak the system to suit my approach, though, admittedly, it would require honest use. Perhaps there could be some system of peer review?
  • SuperBetter could benefit from a stronger daily logging feature. Perhaps, once a day, you could write a short description of how you worked towards your chosen goal, tagging resilience boosts or confrontations with bad guys as they came up. In response, the site could suggest additional boosts for tomorrow or ask how recurring battles with bad guys were going. Incentivized journalling would do a lot to encourage me to check in.

I might conclude that games in real life need not only address a real-world concern and reward participants for their engagement, but must also draw a clear and tangible link between the individual’s personal goals and the system that’s in place. Experience points don’t mean much when they don’t represent the experience I’m having.

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