10 January 2014

All Manner Of Games

A couple of years ago, I read a book by Jane McGonigal called "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World". It was oddly fascinating book, a taxonomy of games, mostly online games, but not all, with a methodical explanation of how games make us smarter and happier, and how we can collaborate - game-ways - to make the world better. At the time, I thought it was hugely ambitious, largely successful, and fairly irrelevant to my life.

Curiously, though, it's a book I think of often. I think about it when I check in someplace on Foursquare, especially places like the local farmer's market, where I move in and out of the mayorship on a regular basis. Foursquare is essentially a game - checking in gets you points, points get you to the top of the list, WIN! And for the farmer's market, I figure that if I remember to check-in, maybe one of my local friends will see it and head down to visit the market - because the market gets better when more people shop there. So it's multi-purpose, my check-in: help the market, coddle my competitive streak.

We recently invested in a Nest thermostat. The Nest is wifi-enabled, so big brother knows when you've goosed the thermostat. And it sends you monthly reports that cheer you on: you did great, you're in the top 20%, you used more energy but it was really cold out. You can even control it from afar with an iPhone app. I kind of wish I'd remembered to do that last weekend: we'd been away, and left the house at 55°F - if I'd been on the ball, I could have told it when we were on the way home, so the house would have been a little less than frigid. [I saw a guy doing just that on the subway the other day.] Anyway, at core, part of the Nest's appeal is its encouragement of better habits through rewards, i.e. game-like behavior.

The present array of fancy pedometers on the market speaks to the gamification of fitness: share how many steps you took, and compete with your friends on who climbed more stairs. As it happens, I spent four weeks wearing two such devices: a FitBit One and a Wii Fit U Fit Meter. Honestly, I don't walk enough - it's what comes of having a desk job - but I like the idea of trying to best myself, trying to get more stairs in, more steps in.

I had the Wii Fit U Fit Meter because - as you know - I'm a Nintendo brand ambassador. I've had the FitBit for a while. While they both count steps, they differ in interesting ways.

The Fitbit One wirelessly syncs to your computer. You can log on to their website and check your results, and you can set it up so you get weekly status reports. It's also possible to create a community of friends - so you're competing on steps, again with the competition. The FitBit counts steps and floors (flights of stairs), and estimates miles and calories. You can use it as a sleep tracker, too, but I don't. (I'm a good sleeper.) And it'll give you badges for milestones. You walked 15000 steps? Badge for you! Oh, and it has a clock.

The Wii Fit U Fit Meter tracks steps and altitude (in feet), and has a clock. Oddly, it also has a thermometer - all well and good if the thing is sitting on your desk, but if you're wearing it, slipped into a pocket, the thermometer is useless because it's reading neither ambient temperature nor body temperature, but some irrelevant admixture. [I just took it out of my pocket - it's reading 87.6°F - way higher than room temperature, and way lower than body temperature.] The Fit Meter needs to be synced to the Wii U console, a slightly fiddly transaction where the Meter has to be pointed at just the right spot on the console. Once you've done that, though, you can check your progress on your walking tour of Italy:

Or your scaling of the Eiffel Tower:

As I said, I was wearing both the FitBit and the Wii U Fit Meter for a while. Because I am a geek, I noticed that the two devices were giving different readings, different by some percentage points not by just a few steps. If I was wearing them each clipped to a belt loop - i.e. up near my waist - the FitBit recorded more steps (6546 to 6088, or 6126 to 5770). One day, though, I dropped them both in the pocket of my jeans - where they were riding lower on my body. That day, the Wii U read higher, 7452 to 6514. Without getting all scientific about it, I haven't any idea which of the devices is more accurate, but clearly they aren't perfect systems.

Anyway, if you're looking to gamify your fitness, a fancy pedometer is fun. Besides, like The New York Times said, "it’s cheaper than joining a gym". And if you're fascinated by gaming's inroads into everyday life, read McGonigal's book". Reality isn't broken, it's just being codified and tracked and socialized in more and more ways.

Disclosure: I was sent the Wii Fit U Fit Meter by Nintendo, but without any expectation of a review, and with no compensation. My opinions are my own.


Pinky said...

I was loving my Fit Meter, until it abruptly stopped working after about a week. After a long phone call with Nintendo support, I should be getting a replacement in the mail any day now. In the meantime, I lament the fact that I'm not getting credit for all my steps...

Julia said...

I seem to be oddly immune to game-like incentives. Couldn't care less about badges or levels.

I read McGonigal's book, and thought it useful and insightful on some things, and not-so on others. Making the shift from external to internal motivation, for example, is a problem that perhaps one doesn't appreciate fully until one has a teen. And setting the world up so that kids (and adults) expect it all to be fun and games is setting oneself up for some serious problems. To be sure, I don't think she was implying that we should do that, but at the same time she has a kind of giddiness about games that ignores what (for some, perhaps many) people is a serious problem.

My oldest is currently doing her job search, and is finding that very few companies exist that do "serious games" of the sort that would make a dent in world problems. Those that do tend to rely on funding that has to be sought for each individual game. I think that until the gamemakers find a way to monetize games that address significant problems, most of the gamification we'll see will hover around first world problems. To me that's sad, since one would hope that a key advantage of technology is that it can level the playing field between poor and rich, under-educated and highly-educated. Instead what I see is that most apps are designed for those that have.

But perhaps this is a discussion worthy of a glass of first-world wine...

alejna said...

Interesting. We should look into the Nest thermostat. We have a lot of trouble controlling the temperature in our house. Sadly, much of that is due to draftiness and poor insulation, which will involve a lot more than a thermostat to fix. But we could potentially be more efficient about lowering the temperatures in the house we are not home if we could control things remotely.

Also, your post reminded me a bit of my husband's interactions with his new car. He just got a Ford C-Max, which is a plug-in hybrid. It gives a lot of feedback on how your driving behavior affects fuel consumption and battery charge, and it has made my husband pay a lot more attention to these things. He is very happy when his efficiency goes up! It does seem a bit like a game, but the result is positive in terms of environmental impact.

edj3 said...

I'm a gamer so yes, I do enjoy all the gaming gadgets. But what would you expect from a woman who played EverQuest for five years, then World of Warcraft for six years and is now playing Rift?

We love our Nest and I love my Fit Bit. I just wish I had a Kit Bit (made up version for my cats) because frankly, they're chubby and need to get in their 10k steps every day. Meoinkers.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I really enjoyed that book a lot. Programming your house from your phone is very cool.