What can video games teach us about training clients? Video games are designed to keep users intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively engaged and working at high limits of their abilities—immersed in the activity to the point where it is almost impossible to stop playing. Game play engages users through motivating experiences that trigger the release of neurochemicals in the brain, making the experience so pleasurable it becomes addictive.

These experiences are created through game mechanics and techniques that stem from positive psychology—the study of human flourishing, or how we achieve different kinds of happiness. This is where fitness professionals and game designers converge: both strive to keep people intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively engaged and working at high limits of their abilities!

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

Positive psychologists distinguish two types of rewards that lead to happiness: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards are materialistic objects obtained to bring wealth, fame and status. People feel good once the reward is acquired, but that feeling is always short-lived. Extrinsic rewards are limited resources.

Intrinsic rewards, by contrast, are positive emotions created in the mind when we take on challenging hard work. Intrinsic rewards are the powerful emotions felt when a difficult task is accomplished or a complex problem is solved. Unlike their extrinsic counterparts, intrinsic rewards are renewable.

Four Defining Traits of a Game

Adding competitive or collaborative activities to fitness programming provides opportunities to earn intrinsic rewards. These activities can be small mini-games that occur in one session, or they can be parts of a larger game that spans a week, a month or a particular training phase. Whatever the duration, any game must incorporate four traits to succeed:

1. The Goal
The goal is the specific target or end result that players or teams are trying to achieve. It provides focus, channels efforts into a single objective and gives players and teams a sense of purpose.

2. The Rules
The rules limit how players and teams can achieve the goal. Without rules, the goal would be too easy to achieve. Rules make the game more challenging and engaging, forcing players and teams to be creative and develop skills, techniques and strategies to achieve the goal. Rules promote creative and strategic thinking, collaboration and teamwork.

3. The Feedback System
The feedback system tells players and teams how close they are to achieving the goal. It provides real-time feedback and motivation to keep on playing; it also signals that the end goal is still possible to attain. Most team sports have a score that tracks total points or goals scored and a time clock that shows how much time is left in the game. The frequency of feedback loops is very important. Moments of triumph should be kept tight to increase the frequency of engagement.

4. Voluntary Participation
“Buy-in” from everyone playing the game is essential in order to establish common ground. Buy-in requires that all participants knowingly and willingly accept the goal, the rules and the feedback systems. Buy-in from trainers, or whoever is administering the game, is also vitally important. These people must be passionate about the game to get buy-in from players.

Implementing the Four Traits of Games

Example: Plank Hold Daily Challenge
The goal. Hold a plank position for as long as possible.

The rules. Maintain technique according to these guidelines:

  • knees off the ground
  • elbows on the mat directly under shoulders
  • core braced and engaged—imaginary line can be drawn from ankles to shoulders

The feedback system. Keep score with measurable data, providing scalable achievements so there is room for improvement.
Total time (seconds) of the plank hold:

  • bronze: 60 seconds
  • silver: 75 seconds
  • gold: 90-plus seconds

Voluntary participation. Create a small ritual like a special handshake or high-five for all players.

To truly motivate exercisers, fitness professionals must master the ability to create engaging experiences just as they master the exercises they prescribe. Fitness pros need to consider using the competitive, collaborative nature of games as motivational platforms for generating intrinsic rewards so that positive emotions can flourish. If trainers master the techniques from video games and positive psychology, they will further motivate those they train—and recruit a new population of clients as well.

For more information, please refer to the CEC-approved article, “Motivation: Getting Your Game On” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2012 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.