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Anyone who follows serious games, games for social improvement, or gamification should recognize inspirational speaker, visionary author, and game developer Jane McGonigal.  She’s like the Tony Stark of the social impact gaming world (but a much better role model than Iron Man!).  She champions the idea that games can not only be used for good, but can change the world for the better.  If you don’t know Jane’s work, pop over to her blog and start getting inspired!!  She’s that good.

One of the things I respect most about McGonigal is that she has put in the effort to not only write and speak about the potential of games for change, but she’s managed to create several successful titles.  Most recently, I checked out her most recent release:  SuperBetter.

What It Is

SuperBetter casts each of us as the hero in our own lives … in fact, a SUPERhero … who must overcome a variety of challenges and complete quests in order to overcome the bad guys in our lives – illnesses and injuries, bad habits, temptations, and even addictions.  Players determine their own goals and motivations, define the steps to get there, and are rewarded with increasing levels of resilience in four major life areas: mental, emotional, social, and physical.  Players are also invited to identify the barriers (framed as bad guys) that they need to deal along the way to a healthy, ideal life.

Along the way, the player-hero also can identify other players who will become allies.  Think Avengers of Health and Vitality.  Each player can encourage others, cheer efforts and successes, and suggest new challenges as quests.  Hopefully no one will Hulk-out on you.

The Good

One of the best things about this game is its open structure.  Each player defines his or her own goals, the steps to take along the way, and the challenges unique to the the individual situation.  You might battle an injury (such as McGonigal’s concussion) or be trying to lose weight.  Any health or lifestyle issue can fit into this game smoothly.

If the player has a desire but no idea what steps might be appropriate, advice is available in the form of Power Packs – which are sets of quests and informative science cards designed by SuperBetter and partner organizations.  Pick one up and get a quick boost toward achieving your goals – they can all be customized to meet a player’s needs.

Additionally, SuperBetter is designed to include social support through Allies – fellow players that you can invite to your team to give encouragement or to challenge you to cowboy up to meet your own goals.  The interface lets each player switch between roles – working on your own hero’s journey or being someone’s ally – so that you can avoid getting overwhelmed if you have a lot of people on your self-improvement team.  It’s a nice feature that you have to pick your team-mates for this game.  Depending upon your health and improvement goals, you might not want everyone knowing what the monkey on your back is … or how often you fall prey to the ice cream monster in the freezer.

SuperBetter really is a great health and wellness game, played by approximately 120,000 people in the first few months of its release.  With an easy to use interface, customizable goals, and easy to follow advice, it really shines as one of the best titles available — on the web or on the smartphone.

Like Mindbloom, however, it seemed too easy, although its difficulty level may be appropriate for the target player.  When you’re really struggling with a real life health issue, no one needs to add to that load with game mechanics.  The game gives a playful way to record a player’s challenges and successes …. and give some much needed encouragement and channels for support.

Just got my reminder to drink some water from ...

Just got my reminder to drink some water from Bloom app. And I did… 8 oz, yo! cc: @mindbloom (Photo credit: jennyonthespot)

Since I took a MOOC on Gamification through Coursera, I’ve been on a real gamification kick, focusing primarily on online tools for self-improvement rather than business or marketing uses of the techniques.  My latest exploration has been in a nicely done personal development site called Mindbloom.

What It Is

There are loads of games (I use that term loosely here), apps, and sites springing up with the aim of assisting users to improve aspects of their daily lives in order to improve their health and well-being.  Many of these products and services focus on narrow slices of life – such as encouraging exercise (cf Fitocracy, Zombies, Run!, Nike+, and Map My Run), or a combination of exercise and healthy eating (like Nerd Fitness and Spark People).  Mindbloom goes well beyond the norm by encouraging users to establish a life balance in seven areas:  relationships, lifestyle, career, health, spirituality, creativity, and finances.  And it does it with some nice features and a different slant on the gamification genre.

The Good

There really is a lot to like about Mindbloom.  It takes the points, badges, and leaderboards features of many similar sites and turns them around.  There are points (called seeds) and levels which afford the user with options to either buy new themes or to open up further customization through uploading visual and audio media for use on the site.  But the standard, competitive leaderboard is replaced by a forest of friends – who are chosen by the user – that one is encouraged to support through sharing of resources.  Since users can see (and potentially compare) the health of each others’ trees, competition remains a potential focus for those who choose that lens.  But the display also can be used for cooperation and support if users prefer to interpret the display in that manner.  Likewise, there are badges to be earned and displayed in a user’s profile, but they are prominently displayed.

Additionally, the interface for Mindbloom is a lovely, artistic layout designed to be a relaxing setting for one’s tree, which is the representation of the user’s healthy life balance (or lack thereof).  Sounds of nature and thematic music complete the basic interface.  Most of the icons and action buttons reside in the bottom of the window, and can be pulled out as needed to perform the various tasks, such as setting to-dos, completing tasks, or calling up a customized slide show of inspiring images, quotes, and music.

Finally, Mindbloom takes self-determination to the max with this self-improvement site.  The user picks what life areas to work on, creates the tasks, can upload images, quotes, and music, and picks what themes to display.  The user is given daily suggestions of tasks that they might want to add to the list, but the choice is entirely up to the user.  Whatever you need to work on in your life, you can use this application to remind yourself of how you will do it, and as you complete tasks, you’ll gain sunshine and rain to make your tree …. or that of a friend ….. healthy.

Room for Improvement

On the down side, as a gamer, I found Mindbloom (like SuperBetter) simply too easy.  You can neglect your life and your tree for weeks and still level up, gaining fewer seeds, but still gaining a substantial handful.  There is also no mechanism for differentiating between really easy tasks and those that are real challenge goals for a particular user.  Hence, I tended to create easy tasks and then just mark them right off, which only exasperated the ease of the system.  It’s a small point, but part of playing a game … or even participating in a gamified process …. is mastering challenges.  And there really are none here.  If you are looking for a stress-less lovely to-do list, this fits the bill, but don’t look for a challenge anywhere.

The other thing that makes Mindbloom an interesting trial that I won’t actually use seriously is the challenge of finding friends to include in my forest.  The ability to engage in this self-determined winnowing of whose progress I view is nice on one hand, but it can also derail the social aspect of the game if you don’t have friends with  similar interests.  In my case, friends and family are already happy with their to-do systems, took a brief look at this one and moved on, leaving me with a very sparse forest.

In the end, I think it is a lovely (really beautiful) online program with some gamification elements to encourage self-improvement.  And it is a very good example of how gamification can take advantage of cooperation as well as competition through use of a clever framework of growing lives together.

I’m seriously wondering whom you’re supposed to contact to nominate something for best game EVER because I want to nominate Zombies, Run! for the honor.  It works at multiple levels as a prime example of effective gamification while also crossing over to being an immersive single-player mobile game and a gripping post-modern (and post-apocolypic!) story that unravels over the course of 23 (as of version 1.4) episodes.  It had me alternatively laughing and crying while out running the local trails and has gotten several of my non-running friends up off the couch and into the world of the zombie apocalypse where you have no choice but to run …. or turn into the living dead yourself!!

Players jump into the middle of the story as Runner 5 – a brave combination of scout, scavenger of supplies, and decoy who daily leaves the relative safety of Able Township to help protect its inhabitants by running a variety of missions.  During runs, the story of the disaster unfolds gradually as you are guided by a variety of NPCs (non-playing characters) to find supplies, information, or other people … or to lead the threatening hordes of undead away from the borders.  The story is masterfully done, displaying the talents of published fiction writers and wonderful voice actors.  It literally had me in tears on numerous occasions and checking the bushes for potential zombies nearly every time I went out – that’s how immersive this app is!

On the gamification side of things, it also makes a stellar showing, probably because of the immersive quality of the app.  I used it for my recovery runs with the intent of doing some fast walking with sprinting intervals (due to zombie chases).  This app not only got me out more frequently and for longer runs than intended, it helped me pick up my pace considerably during the last two months.  I so wanted to hear the next episode of the story or find some much needed supplies to help out the township …. and then zombies would be after me …. and I’d end up running before I knew it.  Definitely much more effective than the other running programs I have been using for the past few years.

I particularly appreciate the need/ability to collect items with which to build the base up.  Without that little carrot, this might be more like any other running app in that every day is just another run.  Even points on Fitocracy don’t really motivate me, but building up a base does.  Might be something to do with gender preferences in gaming, but for me that endpoint of each run has been crucial.

At this point, I have finished the story line.  I can keep doing radio mode or supply runs until the second season comes out (which feels a lot like waiting for the next season of Lost did).  Don’t ask me how it ends … you have to get the app yourself and get out there amongst the living dead to find out …. you can thank me later.

Game Review: Nerd Fitness

Nerd Fitness T-Shirt on Display

Nerd Fitness T-Shirt on Display (Photo credit: Crowbeak.Sasquatch)

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!!

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As part of the book review world, I occasionally write reviews of fiction over at On Starships and Dragonwings.  It works – because crafting virtual worlds and compelling computer games involves at least some story-telling ability.  Heck, I’ll run if it involves a good story (watch my my review of Zombies, Run!).

Today, it is Top Ten Tuesday in the book blog world – and here are MY top ten TBR books for the fall.  Not necessarily in order ….

1. Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews.  Some reviewers have fussed that it is set in the world of Kate Daniels but does not feature the central characters of the Magic Bites etc. world.  Me – I’m thrilled to see Andrew’s richly crafted supporting characters get a chance in the spotlight.  I’m currently reading this one and loving it!

2.  & 3. Bayou Moon & Fate’s Edge by Ilona Andrews.  I’m kinda fan-girling this author right now.  With the Edge series, she has created a different urban fantasy world that is just as believable but totally different.

4. Destiny Binds by Tammy Blackwell.  A gift from my daughter the book blogger – who recommends it highly.   More fantasy set in an alternate modern world.  Yum.

5. Mercy Thompson Homecoming by Patricia Briggs.  I love Mercy Thompson and am looking forward to the graphic novel of her introduction to our favorite werewolves.

6.  Masques by Patricia Briggs.  A different series that I picked up in the local library.  Not sure about this one, but I’ll give it a try.

7. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross.  More urban fantasy recommended by friends.  This sounds like a cross between Dresden Files and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

8. The Pillars of the World by Anne Bishop.  A more traditional fantasy set in a totally different world.

9. Backup by Jim Butcher.  Speaking of Harry Dresden. This is a novella from his vampire brother’s point of view.  Should be wild.

10. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan.  I love Riordan’s work and don’t care that they are young adult fantasy.  Good plots, good characters, and set in an alternate world where the Greco-Roman gods run around like in the myths.