The Day My Life Became a Video Game


I never knew I wanted a Sneakers badge. Or a Redwood Forest badge. Until today.

Some of you—perhaps quite a few, actually—know exactly what I’m talking about. Others, perhaps not so much. Let me explain. It all has to do with my life becoming a video game. Well, sort of.

Like a lot of Americans, my health metrics aren’t where they should be. My weight’s too high. My HDL’s too low. I’ll spare you any more details, but you get the point.

And like a lot of Americans, I periodically take a stab at trying again. At doing better. At really trying, this time, to make enough changes to my lifestyle to make a measurable difference in those concerning numbers.

Several weeks ago I got a Fitbit. (What follows may sound like a commercial, but bear with me). It took me almost a month just to open the thing because I knew I’d have to charge it, download the app, figure out how it all works. A couple of weeks ago, I finally did it and strapped my purdy gunmetal blue Fitbit Charge onto my wrist.

I’ve used pedometers before, and they’ve always done a great job motivating me to get more active, to look for opportunities to take more steps than I normally would have. I’ve noticed that they create what I’d call a bias toward movement.

But the batteries always go dead. Or they go through the wash after hiding in a pants pocket. Etc.

So I finally ponied up for a wearable Fitbit, thinking it would mostly be just like a pedometer (one of several functions it has) on my wrist.

It is that. But it’s more than that. In fact, it’s more like turning my life into something like a video game.

Video games (these days at least) engage us in part because they give us an opportunity to reach a goal. Finishing a level or killing off some indestructible boss gives a sense of satisfaction, of completion, of accomplishment. In fact, that’s exactly why some video game experts say they’ve become so addictive: They make a tangible (albeit digital and virtual) accomplishment feel so concrete. It feels good to power up, to unlock a new weapon, to figure out a puzzle on a hard level. And when we do it, the reward centers in our brains light up like the Fourth of July.

I was thinking about that the other day after I got done walking for about 45 minutes on my lunch break. When I got back to my desk and synched up my Fitbit to the phone app, I was rewarded with a whole bunch of “badges”: The Redwood Forest badge for having climbed 25 flights of stairs today (some of which I did on my walk). The Sneakers badge for knocking out 10,000 steps in a day.

Is it silly? Yeah, kinda. I mean who cares if I got a Redwood Forest badge, right?

Well, no, not right. It felt good not only to accomplish something healthy, but to be “rewarded” for it, even if the so-called recognition is really pretty intangible—just like a video game. Only this time instead of playing as Mario or Sonic or some custom digital avatar, I was playing the “game” as … myself. And that, combined with the dopamine and endorphin rush from walking for 45 minutes, felt really satisfying.

We often write at Plugged In about the dangers and dark sides of technology. And there are certainly pitfalls and problems to be avoided when it comes to the explosion of tech promising to make every aspect of our lives better somehow.

Much of the time, I find that technology doesn’t actually deliver on that promise. It just makes things more complex or craters my already fragmented attention span even further.

Every now and then, though, something like this delivers on its promise, and it actually turns something that can feel like drudgery (10,000 steps a day? Seriously?) into a game where I have a chance to win in a way that really matters.

Now, time to go for a walk …

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Jim Augustine More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Adam. I have been wondering about purchasing a FitBit for myself as I, too am trying to get back into shape. I may have to look into it now as a possibility. Thanks again!