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How I Used Video Gaming Research to Get Healthy

Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty

AA few months ago I was at a health and wellness fair, mostly looking for free swag for my kids. I sat down at a cholesterol and blood pressure screening booth and the nurse told me that my blood pressure and cholesterol were both high for my age.

Hearing the words of the nurse and realizing that I was in my forties and my oldest child was 17, I knew that I needed to make some changes. Would I be there to see my eldest daughter’s wedding? Would I still be around to help my youngest son make the transition to college?

I knew that if I were going to make real and lasting progress in health and fitness, it had to be for reasons other than shame.

I had developed more than a few unhealthy habits. My work as a computational scientist and software developer meant that I spent a great deal of time sitting at a desk reading or typing. When I was stuck on a difficult problem or feeling stressed, I would usually reach for some kind of sugary snack. Over the years, the effects of these habits compounded, and I knew I needed a reset.

Finding my motivation: the 6–11 framework

While preparing to teach a course in video game design a couple of years ago, I learned about the 6–11 framework, a popular methodology for evaluating how emotionally engaging a game will be. Its name comes from the six emotions and 11 instincts that psychologists say are deeply ingrained in all people.

The six emotions — fear, anger, joy, pride, sadness, and excitement — are the primal motivations behind our actions.

The 11 instincts — survival, color appreciation, self-identification, collecting, greed, protection/nurturing, aggressiveness, revenge, competition, communication, and exploration — work with the emotions to help drive us toward engagement and commitment.

For example, many casual and hyper-casual games such as Perfect Slices and Hoop Stars hook you by triggering your color appreciation and competitive instincts. If you beat a level with only one or two out of three stars, your collection instinct drives you to repeat levels in order to collect all three stars. This feeds your emotions of pride and excitement as you progress through the game, further driving your desire to conquer additional levels.

TThere are no shortage of “gamification” apps for health and fitness, but being a scientist, I wondered if I could use the principles of the 6–11 framework to take things further — and I started looking for ways to do so.

After the sobering results I had received at the health and wellness fair, I was afraid I would not live long enough to be a part of the important milestones in my children’s futures. So in the language of the 6–11 framework, fear became my primary motivation, triggered by my instincts for survival and nurturing.

Other people may have different motivations for healthy living, like sadness if they feel unable to participate in a favorite activity — or it might be joy if they happen to really enjoy fitness and exercise.

I should also take a moment to point out that shame is not part of the 6–11 framework, and it’s not a motivator for me right now. Shame was the motivation behind most of my early failed attempts to improve my fitness. Not only will guilt and shame fail to keep you engaged in exercise, but studies in multiple fields have repeatedly shown that shame nearly always leads to self-destructive patterns of behavior.

Changing my eating habits

The American Psychological Association says that if a person wants to make lasting lifestyle changes, they should begin with small, incremental steps. So the first thing I decided to tackle was what I was eating.

I would generally eat pretty healthy foods at mealtimes. But I would eat a lot of unhealthy snacks between meals, and I would eat too much. My first goal was to make some adjustments to my diet (and yes, lose some weight). Since I knew I wouldn’t stick to anything overly complicated or restrictive, I adhered to some basics. I began keeping track of what I ate using the Lose It app. The interface and goal-tracking screens of this app helped trigger my gaming instincts of color appreciation, self-identification, and competition.

There’s also plenty of data that suggests that by writing things down, it’s possible to induce changes to health behaviors. “Keeping a food diary doesn’t have to be a formal thing,” say researchers of a 2008 study on the effectiveness of tracking. “Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-it note, sending yourself emails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior.”

I found that when I recorded the food choices I was making in the moment rather than waiting until the end of the day, I became more aware of how I ate and could make a healthier choice. My healthier eating habits caused an increase in pride about how I felt about myself, which further fueled my motivation.

Shortening the exercise feedback loop

Now that I was feeling better about what I was eating, I decided to take the emotional motivation generated by that success and use it to help me overcome my general dislike for cardio exercise.

I’m a pretty big Pokémon fan, so I decided to use the Pokémon Go app to turn every boring walk into a competition-fueled quest to “catch them all.”

Three days each week, usually in the early morning before work, I forced myself to spend around 20 to 30 minutes walking. I planned my routes to take me near gyms and Pokéstops so that I could maximize the benefit of each session. If a local gym had been taken over by a rival team, my instincts for revenge and competition were triggered, and I would sometimes find myself going out of my way to visit gyms that needed to be reclaimed. This sometimes resulted in extending my routes by a few minutes each way.

As my fitness improved, I was gradually able to add increasing amounts of running into these routines. When I ran, I always listened to audiobooks with Audible, because the stories kept me distracted.

But I knew that even these technological features wouldn’t be enough to keep me engaged in walking and running, neither of which I inherently enjoy. That’s because when you’re first starting out, the feedback loop in fitness can be pretty slow, which hampers long-term engagement. It was taking a long time for me to feel like I was enjoying my exercise routine.

So I made my own reward/feedback system. Every Monday morning, if I had achieved my goal of eating healthy for every day of the previous week and went on at least three walks, regardless of what happened to my weight, I bought myself a $4 Pokémon card booster pack.

These weekly rewards were a major key to my success. Not only because they shortened the effort-reward feedback loop, but because they triggered my collection instinct along with the emotional joy that playing Pokémon with my kids brings me.

An essential component of these rewards is that they were tied to my personal effort, which I had complete control over, and not to the overall results of that effort.

Taking advantage of the fitness snowball

Radio host and businessman Dave Ramsey popularized the idea of the “debt snowball”, where you pay off smaller debts first, then use the freed up money to pay off larger debts. What I call the “fitness snowball” works in a similar way.

As I started eating healthier, changes to my body made it easier for me to exercise. As I exercised, I increased my metabolism, which helped me maintain these changes. Research has shown that consistent exercise helps promote circadian clock entrainment — meaning my internal biological clock was more synchronized with my new sleep patterns (like waking up early) — which further enhanced the amount of energy I had to work out.

The results

About six weeks after testing out my new lifestyle, I no longer needed to track my food to eat healthier. I still hate running, but I can now comfortably run over a mile without stopping. I feel great, and am using my increased motivation to work on new goals, such as the 100 pushup challenge.

I have found the 6–11 framework to be helpful not just in fitness, but in personal finance, relationships, career goals, education, and more.

Ultimately, it’s not about reaching a fitness goal. It’s about the power that comes from finding your own healthy emotional motivations, and then identifying the instinctive behaviors you can use to help drive you toward engagement and commitment. And maybe it will lead to better health, too.

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