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Background: Recently, TechCrunch featured an article about the playdeck they use at SCVNGR that outlines the mechanics of gameplay. The article cites at TED talk by game designer Jane McGonigal, which I talk about here.

I was a little disappointed with McGonigal's conclusion, because she basically offered up the solution as specially-themed video games to leverage the power of game mechanics, or "gameplay superpowers", to do good in the real world and incite behavior change. She presented a couple of case studies that her group ran and they showed some carry-over to behaviors later on. That's fine. I just think there's potential to go further. I don't think I was alone either. If you read the TED video comments, lots of people reply with "but my son lives in the basement and only comes out to eat" arguments. Not exactly the thriving social fabric McGonigal presents....

I couldn't help think that there are better examples of hybrids between real life behavior and motivation that falls under the game mechanics principles. The example I want to look at today is Crossfit. As a fitness movement, they do an amazing job with this blend. Now, I have to admit I don't have direct experience with Crossfit, so I'm hoping someone who does will fill in even more detail here.

Game Mechanics Defined

When I refer to "game mechanics" in this post, I'm taking about the underlying elements that are repeatedly used across interactive electronic media to elicit emotional, motivating responses from the game players.

From the TechCrunch article:

SCVNGR's playdeck tries to break down the game mechanics into their constituent parts. Some elements are as basic as “achievements,” “status,” and “virtual items.” But there are also more complex ones such as the “appointment dynamic” (a player must return at a specific time and perform an action to get a reward, like in Farmville), “free lunch” (a player gets something because of the efforts of other people,like in Groupon), “fun once, fun always” (a simple action that maintains a minimum level of enjoyment no matter how many times you do it, like Foursquare's check-ins), and “cascading information theory (give out information in the smallest dribblets possible to keep players guessing and moving forward).

We're going to look at how these dynamics are used, intentionally or not (I don't know), in the user experience on Crossfit.com, at Crossfit affiliate gyms, and in the Crossfit Games. It's also important to look at overarching concepts in gameplay, that Jane McGonigal has articulated very clearly in her TED talk.

Game Mechanics in Crossfit

I believe that the following mechanisms make the Crossfit user experience engaging and as a result, extremely popular. If you get confused about where I'm using technical terms, refer back to the TechCrunch article.

  • Companion Gaming -- the cross-platform approach is central to the idea of applying game mechanics from the virtual world to real world behavior. Crossfit does this by posting the "workout of the day" to Crossfit.com, allowing affiliate gyms to operate Crossfit locations, and even hosting an Olympics-style Crossfit Games. You can "play" in all these different ways, and your achievements in one venue is relevant to another. More on that below...
  • Appointment Dynamic -- at the heart of Crossfit.com is the "Workout of the Day". Each day, a challenging workout is posted from Crossfit headquarters that sets the daily goal for everyone who participates. If you read the comments, where people post their workout times, you'll see a mix of dread and delight, which seems to capture the Crossfit spirit. So, all wrapped up in this daily challenge is also:
  • Achievement -- posting your times to comments,
  • Countdown -- workouts are often completed "for time"
  • Pride -- successful completion of the workout or beating your own previous time
  • Envy -- daily workouts are often accompanied by pictures of other Crossfitters working out in various states of undress
  • Privacy -- leveraging public accountability, i.e. posting your achievement, to motivate future compliance

These underlying mechanics add up to create what McGonigal refers to as the "Social Fabric of Games". In other words, competition creates community. McGonigal captures the gamer spirit alive in the social fabric as an "urgent optimism" to toil in "blissful productivity" towards "epic meaning". Again, watch the video to get her full explication.

At this point though, you really need to ask two questions. First of all, you're probably wondering why these mechanics can be apparently more compelling than real life. I'm not sure if they are or whether a virtual world just gives us a clear view into how they work.

The second question is, given how powerful these motivators are, how can I incorporate them into my training business? Take another look at Crossfit. I know I've barely scratched the surface with this analysis. And I'm not saying you should copy their model. But you should think long and hard about how they've grown an online epicenter out into tens of thousands of real life participants.

By the way, I don't think that just because you can identify these mechanisms, it makes their use disingenuous,b ut I will caution you with one more principle from the gamer's playdeck: Beware the Moral Hazard of Game Play. The Moral Hazard is, again from TC, "the risk that by rewarding people manipulatively in a game you remove the actual moral value of the action and replace it with an ersatz game-based reward."

It's in this final warning, though, that I find the truly satisfying answer to McGonigal's problem and why I love the Crossfit example so much. When you really do come up with an elegant blend of real-world and virtual cross-platform companion gaming, you create the best motivation for the healthiest action. That is what I believe all movement educators should strive for.