Exercise Without Failure: Building Fitness Apps As Narrative Games

Technologies have politics and games have aesthetics, but neither of these factors are immutable; there might still be time to rewrite the purpose of the iPhone’s accelerometer and motion co-processor.

by Deanna Day on April 29th, 2015

Content notice: Discusses dieting, food, exercise and restricted eating.

When Tim Cook formally introduced the Apple Watch to the world on March 9, he called it a “comprehensive health and fitness companion.” But in the ways that the Watch, and connected iPhone, observes its user, collects data, runs analysis, and provides instructions, it is far less of a health and fitness companion than it is a health and fitness coach. “Stand up NOW,” Apple Watch will tap. “Go walk around,” it judges.

Despite claims that it will help users make more generally healthful choices, Apple Watch — like precursor fitness apps and activity trackers FitBit, Nike Fuelband, etc. — treats all physical activity as if it is a sport, which is to say, as if it is a competition. And in this competition, the Watch is the watcher, the one who keeps tabs, tells you what to do next, and motivates you to make it to the finish line. In many apps, this is where the concept of “gamification” becomes explicit; the idea is that you will be motivated by the presence of badges, or by a social network leaderboard, or by completing concentric circles of predetermined activities. Your coach sets a goal, and then yells at you until you reach it.

It’s not surprising that so many fitness technologies take this approach, given that they are produced by an industry that prizes a particular mode of rational living, one that treats even a realm as serious as medicine and as complicated as personal health as just one more frontier to straightforwardly conquer.

Series of fitness apps displayed on phones.

Photo CC-BY N i c o l a, filtered.

Paolo Pedercini, a video game artist and theorist, gave a talk at Indiecade East 2014 called “Video Games and the Spirit of Capitalism”:

“From the eyes of a computing machine, everything is mathematically defined and susceptible to rational calculation. Since games are typically goal-oriented, all the elements and relationships within them tend to be reduced to means and ends…The verbs characterizing players’ action, when not related to direct violence, belong to the arsenal of rationalization: solving, clearing, managing, upgrading, collecting, estimating and so on.”

Fitness apps operate in just this way. They keep score by logging footsteps, time spent standing, or “active minutes,” giving players credit for beating their friends on the leaderboard. More complicated games also give players the opportunity to actively manage themselves, tweaking their training patterns or diets to test the effects on their performance. And if you would rather not compete against your coworkers and distant cousins, then the app’s next tactic is more insidious: you pick a fight with yourself.

The goal of these games is generally not to achieve a particular threshold of fitness, or even to reach a goal and maintain it — many apps incentivize perpetual “improvement,” punishing users for not constantly increasing their activity levels over those they reached in the past. An ideal of healthfulness, one that is based on how a person feels and whether they can complete the activities of their life, is entirely replaced by an obsession with specific calculations and instigates a perpetual demand to ask more of one’s body, to push it harder, faster, farther. As Pedercini put it, “Computer games are the aesthetic form of rationalization.”

Against Competition

Watches with various health-related symbols featured on the screen:  sleep, fitness, mood.

Photo CC-BY tomemrich, filtered.

The most common type of fitness apps, then, like most computer games, put a veneer of leisure — of sportsmanship — on top of what is actually a training exercise. The exercise ostensibly stimulates a lifestyle of healthfulness, but in truth it is a reinforcement of a more general impulse to perpetual dissatisfaction. The goals of many fitness apps, either by default or design, are unattainable, either because the goals start at an unrealistic level, or because they increase beyond a person’s reasonable ability to keep up. If you use the Nike+ app, for example, it measures your physical activity in NikeFuel, which (like the calorie) is an invented unit. Today’s activity is represented by a pulsating circle that changes color from red to green as you get closer to your daily goal, a goal it automatically sets to exceed last week’s daily average. (The app also tells you the exact percentage difference between this week and last week’s activity, lending the glossy imprimatur of objectivity to its proprietary NikeFuel point system.) Nike+ gives you the option to share your data with your friends or others in your city, but the real mechanism of the app is to get you to compete with yourself. The problem with software developers’ obsession with gamification, though, is clear: even if some players are able to win, many others are destined to lose.

Naomi Alderman recently wrote an essay for Matter, “There’s No Morality in Exercise: I’m a Fat Person and Made a Successful Fitness App,” in which she describes a childhood of gym classes and sports whose only purpose was competition, an approach to exercise that was both physically damaging and created within her a deep resentment of physical activity:

“…for the vast majority of people, competition in exercise is not fun. It’s no fun to compete if you know you can never win. It’s no fun to be on a team if you know you’re bound to let everyone else down with your performance. The rhetoric of ‘more, better, harder, feel the burn’ doesn’t work for who those of us just want to use our bodies and enjoy being in them.”

As Alderman puts it, wanting to live in her body, and to be excited about what it can do, is a kind of healthfulness that many of our approaches to exercise simply can’t accommodate. “The more I think about it,” she writes, “the more ridiculous and dangerous and just incredibly sad to me it seems that we construct exercise, moving the body, as something we do primarily as a competition, whether with ourselves or others. It’d be like falling in love competitively. Like appreciating a sunset competitively.”

Yet for many of us, it still feels difficult to accept the idea that, even when the competition is no fun, there is no moral component to winning. Like Protestants wanting to prove we are the elect, we approach exercise like good works; if we succeed at it, it means we were virtuous all along.  And like neoliberal subjects who want to get credit for our goodness, we keep really thorough records.

The Weight of Record Keeping

Open diary with a pen in it.

Photo CC-BY Kévin Couette, filtered.

Despite (and maybe a little bit because of) the painfulness of this approach to exercise, the competitive, quantitative model of “self improvement” is seductive — I know, because I have been seduced by it for most of my life. The first time I ever took to numbers, I was an overweight elementary schooler who took it to heart when Oprah told us not to eat more than 20 grams of fat each day.

I repurposed a blank journal into a food diary, and started writing down everything I ate, along with a tally of how many grams of fat could be found in each. I became an obsessive tracker, adding and re-adding my column of fat. To my diet logs I added exercise logs, keeping track of crunches, bicep curls, and miles run down the country roads near my house. When in my teenage and adult years I graduated to tracking Weight Watchers points — and eventually calories and macronutrients — I also upgraded my tools. Excel spreadsheets and smartphone apps changed the experience of self-tracking in scale if not in kind, but the software still provided a different kind of framing to what I was doing. I was able to suddenly do the kind of analysis on myself that Big Data proponents get excited about, but I wasn’t actually logging anything new.

About her own compulsion to record, Joan Didion wrote,

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself…Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

An app like My Fitness Pal is the private notebook of a certain kind of mind, one that believes that shedding weight is a moral act, one that hopes desperately that shifting tomorrow’s combination of cardio and strength training will relieve them of the burden of carrying themselves around.

But app-based fitness tracking takes the implicit hopes of the compulsive journaler and transforms them into its explicit goal. Qualitative criticism (from my own childhood notebook: “I am so gross today!!”) becomes quantitative competition (“my activity level is down 39% from last week”), which — for me at least — fed into a compulsive cycle of endlessly trying to optimize my “performance” by eating less, moving more, and spiraling into a deeply unhealthy routine of 500 calorie daily meal plans and 3-hour exercise plans. The progressive motivational style of a self-tracking game can be deeply damaging if you take the app’s word for it that you have never quite made it, if you keep anxiously rearranging your life in order to keep improving quarter after quarter.

The Walk: Alternative Possibilities in Narrative Gaming

So if the only way to win is not to play, is there any hope to be found in the future for activity tracking technology? One possibility is to reject the dominant tenants of gamification entirely, and to instead look to cooperative and narrative formats for future app developments.

Naomi Alderman, in addition to writing prose, collaborated with app developers Six to Start on a genre-redefining fitness app called The Walk. (Alderman and Six to Start are also the team behind the incredibly popular game “Zombies, Run!”) Unlike most apps in its genre, the focus of The Walk is not so much on the user as it is on the story, which takes place across the UK. As you begin playing, you are an unwitting passenger at the Inverness train station when a bomb goes off, and you are given a package that has the potential to avert global catastrophe. But the only way to save the day is to walk with the package across the country. The game translates steps you take in the physical world into progress in the world of the game.

Screenshots from the Walk app, on the left a display of minutes of activity over the past seven days; on the right the opening screen to Episode 5, reading 'All Tremble at War - When the whole system's corrupt, going AWOL is the only way to stay safe.'

Screenshots via The Walk press kit. 

What the game doesn’t care about is the aesthetics of rationalization. The Walk is noncompetitive, which means there are no leaderboards to compare your performance to your friends or, for the most part, to yourself. The focus is on continuing the narrative, which can be accomplished at any pace, and with few exceptions there is little reward for pushing yourself harder or faster than your body wants to go. The Walk is both motivational and joyful for a story nerd like me. And while I do occasionally find myself checking its meager statistics page, I am easily bored by its relative lack of information, and drawn back into the story and the pleasure of walking around to hear it.

The Walk isn’t perfect: the app has an unfortunate tendency to freeze when trying to explore longer routes, and it’s difficult to figure out how to play audio segments consecutively without pulling your phone in and out of your pocket every few minutes to select the next one. And, of course, despite its narrative focus, as a product it doesn’t fall entirely outside of the bounds of  rationalizing impulses. It was designed for the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, with a goal of bettering citizens’ health to — of course — “save the NHS millions of pounds through lowered hospital and GP visits.” In its own way, in at least its origins, The Walk is still a tool of medical compliance, with a good patient outcome being at least as important a goal as its cost-saving potential.

But there is still hope to be found in their approach, even if only as a distraction for the technology, diverting its attention and processing power away from quantified lists and towards, of all things, a story. Technologies have politics and games have aesthetics, but neither of these factors are immutable; there might still be time to rewrite the purpose of the iPhone’s accelerometer and motion co-processor. If our phones are our notebooks and if, as Didion put it, they harbor our past selves, it would be better that they help us place ourselves — like the best stories do — in a collaborative context with others, rather than in punishing competition with them or with ourselves.