Apr 25, 2023 - Technology

Marvel heroes game aims for a healthier way to gamify fitness

Photo illustration of Adrian Hon, the CEO of Six to Start.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joshua Fray

The co-creator of a popular app that turns real-life running into an audio-assisted game has a new one on the way featuring Marvel superheroes. But Six to Start CEO Adrian Hon is also advising caution about the so-called gamification of real-life activities, saying much of it is executed poorly.

Why it matters: The application of points and unlockable badges to leisure and work has become common in recent years, deployed as a motivational tool to keep users engaged.

  • Even with noble intentions, that approach can promote dangerous or counterproductive behaviors and turn users against it, Hon says.

Driving the news: Six to Start, Hon’s 25-person studio, plans to launch Marvel Move this summer. It's a new riff on the company’s decade-old hit Zombies, Run — and an extension, he hopes, of a better model for gamification.

  • Both Zombies and Marvel sync users’ GPS-tracked runs with serialized, lightly interactive audio stories.
  • Both are also designed to avoid some of the tropes popular in gamified apps: no streaks and no ratcheting up of goals to pressure the user to run further the next week.
  • “We really try not to reward or encourage unhealthy behaviors that I think so many other gamified applications do,” Hon tells Axios.

What they’re saying: “I think most gamification is badly designed or sort of manipulative slash coercive,” Hon says.

  • In his 2022 book, “You've Been Played,” Hon critiques gamified systems used by Uber, Amazon and other firms that may have amused users at first but left them feeling pressured to meet intensifying goals.
  • The way these experiences dole out points, badges and praise can impact what they motivate users to do.
  • Nearly paraphrasing Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, he tells Axios that game designers “have quite a lot of power really, and I think a lot of people don't really want to admit that.”

Between the lines: Hon has long been interested in game activities that are woven into everyday life.

  • He came into game design in the early 2000s, during the heyday of ARGs, or alternate reality games, that used fake websites and real-life treasure hunts to stage games into real-life activities. “I think it’s just really interesting when you try to mix the real world with gameplay,” Hon says.
  • Later he tried running with a Garmin movement tracker that let him race against his “ghost,” an experience that became demoralizing when his ghost started to beat him.
  • In 2012, he and author Naomi Alderman launched a Kickstarter for an app that turned running into a zombie-themed audio drama that plays while you run and casts you as a character — a runner — in the fiction. The app can trigger mid-run zombie chases that require users to speed up to escape.
  • The goal, Hon said, was to “make exercise more tolerable,” though some users began emailing to say it had done more than that and provided life-changing breakthroughs.

The Marvel Move version includes runs woven into audio tales featuring the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and even an eight-week 5K training routine featuring Thor and Loki.

  • Users don’t play as established superheroes because Six to Start’s designers felt it would be disorienting to play as a famous character who, by the nature of the app, can’t talk and can’t be seen.
  • “For us, what’s fun is being able to hear and hang out with these heroes,” Hon says.

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