Nerd Fitness harkens back to a favorite project of mine from 1998 – the radical idea that social role playing could be a useful tool for personal transformation. Back in those heady days at the beginning of the social media explosion, I and a group of intrepid Star Wars fans thought that we could leverage the frenzy over the prequels to get people to try to emulate the lifestyles of their favorite Jedi (or Sith … equally fit but in slenderizing black). People would find encouragement in casting themselves as heros in their very own hero’s journey as they developed prosocial habits such as meditating, healthy eating, participating in aerobic and strength training, and maybe even join a martial arts school. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, the idea of taking on the identity of a Jedi as a fun path to personal development was surprisingly polarizing, resulting in people establishing new religions or retreating to pure fan fiction. I had thought that only one organization remained as the heir to a dream …. until I bumped into Steve Kamb‘s blog and nearly shouted for joy! Kamb and his rebels took all that was right with the transformation through role playing idea and made it work.
Nerd Fitness is old school — really old school. It is a discussion forum based social site (run by Staci) with occasional articles and some short, focused booklets (for sale) riffing off the super hero theme but backed by serious study of what works on the way to fitness and health. In the discussion forums, participants are encouraged to re-create themselves as a videogame character. You can pick any race you like from fantasy – fiction, movies, or games – and combine that with one of a limited selection of classes. If anyone has played Dungeons and Dragons or similar spinoffs, you’ll understand, but Steve and Staci have excellent guides for the uninitiated to get them up to speed. After that, you allocate a limited number of points among attributes (again, if you haven’t played role playing games, bear with me … or better yet, borrow a friend’s kid to be your teacher), set fitness goals for yourself, and away you go!! Time is measured in 6-week challenges although nothing stops the interested newbie from starting whenever is convenient.
It is entirely up to the player to decide what goals to set, how to allocate (a limited number of) points, and how to measure progress (and awarding a limited number of success points). The site has no internal mechanism for scoring. No leaderboards. You can create an avatar for yourself if you want. You can create a storyline for your character if you want. It is all pretty chill as regards gamification elements, and everyone is on the honor system. There are few sources of external recognition – Staci recognizes some one at the end of each challenge as particularly exemplary, but people are generally competing against themselves rather than each other.
The LACK of competition between players is very a very important part of the success of Nerd Fitness. You can have a complete fitness beginner working alongside a CrossFit aficionado without the least problem. In fact, in true affinity space form, experienced fitness buffs can advise newcomers on many aspects of diet and exercise and provide essential encouragement. It’s like Weight Watchers or SparkPeople with a nerdy spin and few frills. People have fun, put up goals and plans for accountability, and those who put in the work to change their habits find rewards.
I’m now on my third challenge and loving it. The people on the site are supportive. The idea is quirky enough to work. And people understand nerdy references that usually fly over everyone’s head at cocktail parties. In fact, I’ve been enjoying this site so much that I signed up for the beta of their extension of the concept, Rising Heroes and can hardly wait to play it. Forget Mists of Pandaria! I want to run through Arcadea and have it matter!!