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BLOG: Your health isn't a game, but it should be

Mike Elgan | June 11, 2011
A new generation of games lets you play with your food and turn exercise into a social video game.

Everybody knows video games are unhealthy, right? Instead of exercising and eating right, gamers sit motionless in a dark room eating junk food. The most hard-core gamers get really good at shooting bad guys and playing fake guitars, but the more they win at games, it seems, the more they fail at life.

But what happens when eating right and exercising is the game?

A new category of online service, mobile app and desktop application combines fitness tracking and goals with gaming. The idea is to apply the principles and practices of video games to the goals and behavior of diet and exercise.

The idea is brilliant and, for anyone who struggles to stay healthy, definitely worth a try.

Why games work

I'll confess that I have first-hand knowledge about why video games are so compelling. I don't have time to play a lot of games, so I play only one -- Call of Duty: Black Ops for Microsoft Xbox 360 -- and I play it pretty much every day.

The game is fun and addicting. But playing the game is a massive waste of time. After two hours of play, you've accomplished nothing and learned nothing (except how to play the game better). So, why do we play?

The reason I and millions of others play Call of Duty is that the game's maker, Treyarch, has achieved something monumental: It has unlocked the key to human motivation. And this key could be applied to improving the health of millions of people.

Call of Duty's graphics are spectacular, and the functionality of the game is incredibly good. And, of course, it's packed with senseless violence. But the biggest reason Call of Duty is so addictive is that it's challenging in exactly the right way.

There's some element of chance to the game, but skill, which can be developed, is the main determinant of success or failure. Because the rewards (points, victory, new weapons, the satisfaction of success) feel good, and the punishments (you die) feel bad, you're motivated to play, and to deliberately improve your skills. The better you get, the harder the game gets, because you are pitted against an ever more skillful class of players. So you never get so good that it's boring. Oh, and it's social. You know those are real people whom you're playing against and who are witnessing your successes and failures.

All human motivation -- why we do things -- can be categorized as either intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external). The reward is either inside ourselves or comes from other people. Social or multiplayer videos games are powerful, in part, because they provide both kinds of rewards.


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