Dec. 18, 2013 at 2:50 PM ET
You might not think a video game could be the best motivator for exercise, but one developer is trying to change that with "The Walk," a mobile game that transforms the most mundane of daily activities into a dramatic quest to save a science fiction universe.
Having helped many smartphone owners start jogging with its hit game "Zombies, Run!," British studio Six to Start is now turning its focus toward something more basic. "The Walk," which was sponsored in part by the U.K. Department of Health (and available in the U.S. for iOS and Android devices), challenges its players to take at least 10,000 steps a day.
The incentive? Each step brings people closer to unlocking the next chapter of a sci-fi story in which the player must — you guessed it — walk around a fictionalized representation of the British Isles in order to deliver a package that could save the world.
As you progress in the game, you acquire audio clips and in-game items like newspaper clippings that move the story forward. It's as if you were trying to read an engrossing novel like "Game of Thrones," except instead of just being able to turn the page you had to get up and walk for 30 minutes to be able to read the next chapter. For the many "Game of Thrones" addicts out there, this would be a small price to pay to find out what happens to Daenerys.
Adrian Hon, co-founder and CEO of Six to Start, told NBC News that he wanted to "broaden the audience" for the new game beyond runners so that more people could benefit from his work.
"It's an interesting challenge, and quite a different game than 'Zombies, Run!" Hon said. "Walking is an all-day thing, it flows in a different way. So while 'Zombies' was more like 'do a mission now, it'll be done, and you don't have to think about it afterwards,' this game encourages people to just walk a few minutes more each day."
"We just want to nudge people into it," he added. "Not push them."
Walk this way
Whether or not "The Walk" works as intended, there's something disquieting about the fact that we now need video games just to convince us get up off the chair. Or, as Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology put it, it's "a bit ridiculous to have the Department of Health sponsor a video game that motivates people to walk."
"Think of it this way: if the difference between whether or not folks opt to be minimally active is decided by whether they have to walk as themselves to improve their health or as characters in an existentially charged game who get around because doing so is the only way to save a simulation of the world, there's truly a significant motivational problem plaguing society," Selinger told NBC News. "What's next, eat enough vegetables, or the princess gets eaten by a dragon? Take a shower, or the evil super villain will flood the city?"
Hon has heard all of the criticisms about how making something like "The Walk" could be more of an indication of an overarching public health concern than its ultimate solution. But as the game developer, he wanted to use his work to effect positive change rather than create yet another couch-based time vortex like "Grand Theft Auto V."
"It would be better if people just magically decided to start running, walking, et cetera," Hon said. "But if it does take an app, then that's what it takes!"
I haven't finished "The Walk" yet, but after trying out the game, I can see his point. Games give you something, however artificial, to strive for, which is a lot more entertaining than a simple list of steps taken or calories burnt possibly could. The gadgets that provide this kind of biometric data, like the Nike FuelBand or Fitbit, might appeal to people who already find that kind of obsessive physiological data interesting. But turning it into a game can make it more engaging for those of us who don't. There's a reason why you see a lot more people playing "Candy Crush" than punching in their latest meal on MyFitnessPal, after all.
Ultimately, Hon said, he'd like to see a world where games like "The Walk" aren't needed to motivate exercise. But until then, he wants to use games to do what they do best: get their players hooked.
"Hopefully you do get healthy and start to think: 'maybe I don't need the game,'" he said. "You see it as a gateway drug, but for exercise!"
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.