Distraction Free Reading

Fit for Halloween

All Hallow’s Eve, better known as Halloween, is a perfect time to reflect on one’s survival skills.

While scholars contest the origins of Halloween–-Celtic? Pagan? Roman?–-one thing is for certain: it’s a good time to be quick on your feet. Just one of the common dangers on All Hallows, at least in my neighbourhood, is hungry, animated corpses with a taste for human flesh, more commonly known as zombies. To be clear, my neighbourhood has a lot of rage zombies. It is of paramount importance to be quick on your feet if you are being pursued by rage zombies. Faster and more aggressive than their predecessors, who shambled along hoping to bump into clueless, hapless and/or immobile tasty humans, rage zombies come after you with gusto.

Two stories about getting fitter
Before continuing, I want to share a couple of stories, based on journal entries, with you:

Story #1
It’s been a long time since I ran. I was forced to “take a rest” because of an injured foot. I was never a long distance runner, my longest run was 10 miles. I know this because I was goaded into the run by an unfathomably fit friend. We both considered it a grand achievement when I completed the set course. My usual distance was about 4 miles, a distance I tried to accomplish about 3 times a week. After the injury, however, taking a rest turned into an active avoidance of running–-save perhaps when I was tardy and about to miss a bus, train or plane. Afraid of re-injury, afraid of the stark disappointment of my lost fitness, I opted for the couch. After two years of this indolent behaviour, a series of events suggested the stars were aligned for a re-engagement with running. I decided to try some recently released cell phone apps that offer structured interval training delivered as voice instructions. Using GPS, these apps chart where, how far and at what pace you have run. Most have a good way of interleaving your personal music with carefully timed instructions that offer a well-designed, basic interval training to develop running fitness. Walk for 5 minutes. Run for 30 seconds. Walk for a minute. Run for 30 seconds. Heel lifts….over an 8-week period you can be thus trained to run a “5K”, that is 3.1 miles. I confess, these earnest well-meaning applications bore me to tears. I tend to give up around week 3.

Story #2
This second half of this year, 2013, has been a trying one. We’re post the oft-predicted zombie apocalypse and a few of us are surviving quite well. I’m training to be a runner for Abel Township, the location I was helicoptered into a short while back. Runners leave the safety of the closed town perimeter of Abel to find supplies like food and medicine that are on the outside. Dr Myers has been training me. She’s pushes me, yet is patient and, happily, seems impressed. That’s encouraging. I know I am progressing. I can feel that my pace is getting better. I am getting better at tackling those hills. I’ve also been checking my charts; they show clear progress. The maps are really interesting too–-it’s fun to see the terrain I have covered. I will soon be allowed out without supervision. Even in training though, I’ve managed to achieve a few things I am proud of. I am getting less afraid of the zoms–-managed to hold steady in front one that was, admittedly, chained up. Making its best attempt to get me though. Believe me, even if it’s really unnerving–-they did use to be human, like us, after all–-it’s good to confront your fear, to see where the real danger is, to study them and see what they react to. And, a few weeks ago, I managed to save another runner’s life. That has to be the highlight so far. I can’t tell you how good that feels. There are a lot of fascinating people here too. Sam’s great. He is the lead communications officer for the township. He coordinates the runners. He has good perspective, but clearly has had some sadness in his life. Jody is hilarious–-sounds like she could be from the midlands somewhere. Rajit’s odd. I read his novel but I wouldn’t recommend it. I haven’t quite worked out what the deal is with the New Canton–Abel rivalry. Seems to me like all of us who are left should join forces, not be at odds. Well, I am sure I will find out in due course. In any case, I’ll be off on another training mission tomorrow. Lots to learn.

Mobile, wireless, GPS, data, health, application, manage, motivate, chart…
Switching gears, I am sure it has not escaped your notice that we live in a world where fitness and health devices, applications and services are the topic du jour. Three technological innovations have spurred the technology world’s obsession with health-beneficial monitoring, the design of motivation-based physical training regimens, and a general desire to be interfering micromanagers of every moment of our lives:

1.    Computers have become mobile and wearable.
2.    Wireless networks are readily available enabling always-on, ubiquitous access for push and pull data gathering coupled with notifications between people and services.
3.    Sensors have become smaller, more sensitive, cheaper and more flexible and are thus are more easily embedded in everything, enabling all forms of heretofore unavailable and unimagined measures of human activity within and across spaces and times.

I could also add that data visualization has also improved, so happily or unhappily, we can graph all our activities any which way we want.

Just to name a few examples of devices and applications that are taking advantage of these developments, there’s the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Amiigo, Bodymedia, Omron, Misfit Shine, Jawbone Up, RunKeeper, and Strava. And more…. applications and monitoring services like Sportaneous (“your personal fitness concierge”), Endomondo (which, we are told, is fun social and motivating) and Fooducate (which is focused on input rather than output of energy and will help you eat better–-this application is “like having a dietician on speed dial”). As I am sure you can imagine, I am only scratching the surface here. There are hundreds if not thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of options available. Group activities and friendly competition are important for a number of applications. Like Sportaneous, OptumizeMe is an app that allows people to participate in fitness-related contests with their friends. MeYou Health supports a rewards program for people who complete one health-related task per day. The interesting, but even more dubiously named, Fitocracy is a Facebook-like social network where people can track their exercise activities and challenge their friends to exercise contests and earn recognition for meeting fitness goals.

Most, if not all of these use some combination of the words above in their advertising–-being at the technological forefront is an attractive way to sell your wares. Cynicism aside, it is clear that people are putting a great deal of energy into designing devices and applications that will help us get fitter and healthier–-at least those of us who have the will and the means to be able to do so. And, for some people one or another of these applications really are resulting in beneficial life changes. For the record, two of my personal favorite efforts in this space are Charity Miles, where running, walking and biking result in donations for charities and SuperBetter Labs, a San Francisco-based company focused on designing games for various aspects of personal and social well-being. What interests me about SuperBetter Labs in particular is that the team has a lot of experience in creating social games for fun, using technologies and platforms in innovative ways, without being dazzled by, driven by or held hostage to the technologies themselves. Even more significantly, while many applications explicitly or tacitly harbour a particular vision of betterment–-thinner, lighter, faster, further-–SuperBetter Labs address a broader and perhaps more personally focused perspective on improvement and wellness experience, including the ups and downs of emotional and physical well-being that result form chronic and acute illness, injury and conditions like depression.

What are the design principles of behavior modification applications?
Many of these applications operate on the basis of personal activity monitoring to drive macro and micro behavior modification. Most utilize some kind of levels with reward & punishment mechanisms–-points and badges levels and so on. Some include social dimensions–-competition, social approval, obligation…. All are focused on creating and providing a scaffold for establishing and maintaining healthier everyday practices.

This approach to behavior modification has various names: “persuasive technology” and “gamification” (a term that is distinguished as much by its lack of phonetic elegance as its lack of agreed-upon meaning) are two most commonly used in my world. Long before either of these gained traction in the popular media and in the boardrooms of corporations and technology startups, behavior modification through mechanisms such as reward and punishment was the purview of psychologists and the focus of hot debate and much experimentation, usually involving participation of agents who were not able reflect on their experiences nor game the experiments with meta reasoning. I doubt, for example, that Pavlov’s dogs thought out of the box or beyond the bell, and I am sure had they been able to, they would not have signed up to be conditioned into salivating to the ring of the aforementioned bell. For most of us, though, as people being ‘gamified’ today, we are able to examine the reward structures and decide whether to take it or leave them. And herein lies the trouble with most gamification models–-they have a reductive engineering bias that translates potentially complex behaviors into turn-key models that are easily implementable. Behaviorist principles of operant and/or classical conditioning implemented in transparent ways with a layer of aesthetic appeal just don’t work on most people. If they do at all, it’s not for long.

When it comes to gamifying something like exercise, three things really matter, for me at least:

(1) Fun. Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken and one of the people behind Superbetter Labs, has nicely called out that what makes a game a game is FUN, and that people like to have fun. If you say you are gamifying something, you had better make it fun.
(2) An engaging story. Ian Bogost from the Georgia Institute of Technology reminds us that the “rhetoric framework” matters; it is part of making something fun and not a chore.
(3) The redundancy of multiple rhetoric frameworks that can all be applied at any moment to the same ongoing activity. Knowing that different motivators work better in different circumstances, sometimes you need to have backup motivational schema when the primary one isn’t delivering. When it comes to exercise, meta-reasoning and self-reflection can break concentration, immersion and ‘flow’, but if you have a back up story, one that is equally plausible, it is possible to keep up the activity.

So what about the zombies?
It turns out that I need motivational structure in about four parallel worlds in order to gamify myself into a fitness routine. Hopefully when you read the two stories at the beginning of the post, it was clear which one was more fun for me, which rhetoric framework was more compelling. I am motivated by a good storyline, a cast of compelling characters and the possibility that I may save a few people from zombies. I am motivated by the idea that I may be getting fitter. I am motivated to investigate the technological possibilities and the rhetorical oddities of the emerging world of the ‘quantified self.’ And I like getting out of the house and into the world.

So, the only exercise application that has kept me engaged is an application called Zombies, Run!  An immersive running game designed for cell phones, there are two applications in the portfolio–a 5K training applications and a game of various missions. Although I have been doing the 5K training, the Wikipedia entry on the game does a nice job of giving the background to the game and setting the scene:

“Zombies, Run! is an immersive running game. Players act as the character Runner 5 through a series of missions, during which they run and listen to various audio narrations to uncover the story. While running, the player collects supplies such as ammunition, medicine and batteries which they can use to build and expand their base. The app can record the distance, time, pace, and calories burned on each mission through the use of the phone’s GPS or accelerometer. When using the GPS feature, the user can also opt to participate in a zombie chase which requires the player to run faster for a short period of time or be caught by zombies and losing their supplies, or even failing the mission.”

The development of the game was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which raised $72,627 from 3464 backers in October 2011. Developed with author Naomi Alderman, the game is published by Six to Start and was originally released worldwide for iOS on February 27, 2012. The game is also available for Android. Close to half a million people have signed up to play Zombies, Run! since its release.

As noted above, the game features contemporary “rage zombies” popularized by the movies 28 Days Later and The Infected. Unlike the shuffling, shambling, and clumsy zombies of George Romero‘s classic Night of the Living Dead, these zombies can move fast. Fast zombies feature in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, Francis Lawrence’s 2007 remake of I Am Legend, Steve Miner’s 2008 remake of Day of the Dead, the 2008 movie Quarantine (2008) and finally, my favourite, the 2009 film directed by Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland. They have also been fixtures in numerous bestselling video games and graphic novels in recent years, perhaps most prominently in Left4Dead.

Why does Zombies, Run!  work for me? In large part because it lets me interleave a number of motivational palettes and trajectories. As noted, I simultaneously have a presence in multiple worlds:

•    my embodied corporeal life world as I run through the streets, most often around San Francisco’s hipster-laden Mission district
•    the world of the story, where my motivation is to train myself to be good enough to help save the last few of us left alive and protect us from zombies
•    the world of future me who will benefit from this exercise
•    the world of quantified self, where I am charting my progress continually – noting of course that I am quantifying all of my above selves when I review my charts online.

Each of these is a ‘rhetoric framework’. We know that storytelling is a socially embedded way of ordering our lives. I weave between stories and frameworks as I run. They all have a limited trickster facility, keeping me running for a little while but all have the potential to be not quite encompassing enough. I am not yet fit enough or relaxed enough to be in that elusive ‘flow’ state when all mind activity recedes and I am, Terminator-like, focused in the moment. I need a little more mental jiggery pokery. When my foot hurts I think about zombies. When the zombies feel not present and in fact ridiculous, I think about reviewing the maps of my runs and the wonderful places I have run (San Francisco, Monterey, Barcelona, London…). When those two don’t work, I contemplate how fit I am getting. And when all else fails, I contemplate my data, the amazing technological advances we are enjoying, and the seductive yet fundamentally erroneous idea of a “quantified self”, a topic which has been much discussed on The CASTAC Blog.

One thing is clear. There is a really important difference between engaging in an activity for your health, and playfully engaging yourself in some activity that just happens to be good for your health. The first feels like something that has to be done for deferred gratification (Being thinner? Not dying young? Hoping there will be a endorphin rush?). The second feels like enjoying the moment and getting an added benefit (Fitting into my jeans–Ye Gads, perhaps even looking good. Being on the planet longer so more fun can be had. Feeling strangely euphoric without artificial and/or illegal aids.) The other applications I have tried simply don’t give me enough options when it comes to rhetoric frameworks. They are not fun. They are neither gripping nor compelling.

I ran a little further today. (Blah).

I saved a life today. (Now THAT’S a BIG deal).

Funnily enough in recent days, as we approach Halloween, more zombies are showing up in my neighbourhood. Last Saturday, I saw three. The physical and fantastic are coming together. My imaginaries and realities are blurring. And surprise, when when I went running yesterday, I ran faster than all my other training sessions.

So, in closing, I have two reflections to leave you with:

(1) If you try a training app make sure you pick a story that suits your imagination, no matter how fanciful. If want to gamify your health, pick a good storyline that compels you. Getting fitter wasn’t enough for me, I needed an apocalypse and a purpose.

(2) Whatever you are doing on Halloween, be sure you are wearing shoes you can run in. Rage zombies are on the rise!

Dr. Elizabeth Churchill is a an applied social scientist working in the area of social media, interaction design and mobile/ubiquitous computing. She is currently Director of Human Computer Interaction at eBay Research Labs (ERL) in San Jose, California. For more on Elizabeth take a look at her web presence.

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