Using The Addictive Power Of Gaming To Make You Exercise More

via Ariel Schwartz @arielhs,

Can’t get enough FarmVille? All that time at the computer probably isn’t great for your health. But what if you couldn’t proceed unless you had burned some calories? That’s the premise of a new gadget called Striiv.

 This is an amazing time to be a health-data nerd. Thanks to the proliferation of low-cost sensors, devices like the FitBit, Nike+FuelBand, and Basis (a heartbeat sensor in a watch) allow users to track, graph, and analyze their every move. But the problem with these devices is that they are used mainly by those health-data nerds; other fitness-starved people may not be motivated by data as an end in itself. It’s a problem that TechCrunch recently addressed in a post entitled “The ‘So What’ of the Quantified Self.”The “so what” for many people isn’t related to the idea of quantified self at all–instead, perhaps, it’s winning a game or donating to charity (just think about how many people can motivate themselves to get up and move in the name of donating to a cause). Striiv, a newer entrant in the growing market of exercise-tracking gadgets, caters to the crowd that would rather play FarmVille or walk for charity than pore over numbers.

Striiv recently gave me a device–slightly smaller than a Tic-Tac container–to test out. As someone who can easily get sucked into games that consist mainly of growing crops and building things, I quickly became addicted. The game, called MyLand, is your garden variety FarmVille imitation: grow crops, plant trees, build things. The only difference is that the energy points required to expand your empire are gained by running, walking, or taking the stairs.

“Gaming mechanics are a proven way to change behavior. Pretend there was no game [in FarmVille] and there was just a spreadsheet that changed as you clicked buttons. It would be no fun and no one would ever do it. But you just put this game layer on top, and all of a sudden people can’t stop,” explains Dave Wang, CEO of Striiv.

It’s true: I couldn’t stop–at least when I remembered to tote the device around. Striiv comes with a clip and works if you stick it in a bag, pocket, or on a keychain, but carrying the device is still an extra step compared to gadgets like the Nike+FuelBand that can be worn as a bracelet.

For users who aren’t motivated by games, Striiv also offers a “walk for charity” option. Every step counts towards a donation to your choice of causes via GlobalGiving: clean water in South America, rainforest conservation in Tanzania, or polio immunizations for children around the world. Click the rainforest challenge button, for example, and begin a quest to walk 10,000 steps (the amount that will conserve a parking-spot sized area of Tanzania’s rain forest for one year). Then just plug the device into your computer to complete the donation when you’re finished.

Striiv’s newest feature will allow users to compete with other Striiv-using friends for who can go up the most stairs in a day or walk the farthest. Users can also set personal challenges–i.e. burn 400 calories in 40 minutes.

Why not just do this all on the iPhone, where most guilty pleasure games and pedometer apps live? That was originally the plan, says Wang, but up until recently the phone couldn’t run sensors in the background. Now it can, but running sensors all the time quickly drains battery life. And the GPS on smartphones isn’t accurate enough to detect stair climbing, which is a big part of Striiv. So for now, Striiv remains a separate $99 gadget (though that could one day change).

The addictive power of gaming is working for Striiv’s tens of thousands of users, who check their devices 29 times a day on average. It’s also creating a promising future for the company. “We’re not announcing anything yet, but if you look at the nation’s four largest health providers, we’re linking with two of them already,” says Wang.

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