Zombies, aliens, and smart phones: the role of immersion in gamified fitness apps

You’re out jogging when you hear the sickly groan of an undead creature. Your heart races and you quicken your pace. Your neighborhood is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with danger around every corner. Going out for a run is no longer simply a matter of exercise, it’s a supply mission in a world crawling with zombies. And if you don’t run – you’ll join their undead horde.

Enter the world of immersive apps, where developers aim to change not only the way you run, but also the way you think about exercise. For those who struggle with finding the motivation to get out and active, it might be as simple as adding a few zombies, or searching for the next Pokémon.

Apps that seek to gamify your workout aren’t new phenomena. In fact, the use of game design elements like time limits, goals, and feedback are so integral to fitness apps that it can be tough to spot an app that isn’t gamified in some way. And this goes beyond fitness, to the way we shop, the way we work, and even the way our children are taught in school.

But just because the word ‘game’ is involved doesn’t mean the app will be playable in the way that a game would. Often, gamified fitness apps work more like stat trackers and don’t seem like games at all. They play upon the desire for self-improvement instead of simply being fun.

That’s why these apps seek to do more.

It’s all about immersion

The most immersive examples of fitness gamification are the ones that closely toe the line between game and exercise, bringing in enhanced narrative elements and situating the user as a character in a game world. These immersive experiences transform ordinary exercise into an entertaining narrative experience where the user is able to progress and affect change in the environment.

Zombies, Run!

In this exciting app from Six to Start, you play as a character embedded in an audio narrative as an incentive for jogging or running. While on the move, you embark on missions to collect supplies that can be used to expand your home base – all while escaping from hordes of undead zombies. The game even manages to sneak in a bit of interval training using your smart phone’s GPS (run faster for the next short distance, or you will be caught by zombies), though you’d never know it.

The story is emphasized to place an atmospheric context for physical activity and enhance your emotional engagement. All you need is a smart phone, a pair of headphones, and running shoes fit for the apocalypse.

The Walk

In Six to Start’s The Walk, every step counts. Created with the UK Department of Health and the NHS, The Walk tracks your steps for the entire day and makes use of an adaptive fitness system that works for people of all fitness levels. More than just a pedometer, The Walk places you in the role of a protagonist unwittingly swept up into a city-spanning thriller that includes collectable items and a reward system based on incremental improvements.

The Walk has a broader appeal than Six to Start’s other offerings since it doesn’t require any actual running – rather, it tracks your walking distance over the course of the day, tracing your progress over fully-illustrated maps and encourages you to beat your daily scores. The techno-thriller story will get you up and walking – and checking over your shoulder.

BattleSuit Runner Fitness

This running app is similar to Zombies, Run! but with a sci-fi edge; you play as DeltaSuit, a running soldier tasked with fighting aliens. This app offers a degree of choice in the same vein as a choose-your-own-adventure; you make narrative choices based on the pace at which you run that will affect the outcome of the story.

You are tasked with collecting items throughout your run that are used to upgrade your battle suit between missions. The game employs boss fights that are resolved in part according to these upgrades on your suit; all the more reason to stay running, stay upgrading, and stay immersed in the space-action fantasy.

The future of fitness?

In the very near future, expect developers to continue innovating in this area (for example, Disney is currently working on an immersive fitness app geared towards young children), challenging the ways we play, the ways we are immersed, and the notion of what it means to be a game.

For reluctant runners, these apps turn exercise into something they actually want to do; similar to a Netflix binge-watching session, users power through a workout to find out what happens next. And as for the resulting myriad of health benefits from this regular exercise? Just a byproduct of the adventure.