My Workout Partner is a Role-Playing Game

Two hundred bucks. My health insurance company will give me $200 if I just go to the gym, 50 times in a six-month span. That's about two times a week. Coming into May, I only needed seven more visits to collect the moolah. And even with cash on the barrelhead waiting, I started making excuses why I couldn't go that day.

If there's one thing I am highly motivated to do, though, it's grind through a role playing game. That I can deal with. Give me an XP total, give me a level, put a set of quests in front of me and I will power through them and rank up. Whether it is a traditional RPG or a singleplayer career in a sports game, I will pursue them, even unto physical exhaustion. Anyone who's played Borderlands to 4 a.m. knows what I am talking about there.

That's why I find something like Fitocracy so intriguing. It's been in a beta since February, and a friend pointed me to it a couple weeks ago. (For those interested, they're taking beta registrations here.) It's a site that isn't really a video game but it definitely applies the design of one, and while I'm ashamed of my bench press, I was pretty proud that I hit level 5 so quickly.

"I actually don't treat life any differently than an RPG," said Fitocracy co-founder Brian Wang, who grew up as a skinny kid playing Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series, before moving into World of Warcraft when it came out. "I'm always thinking of leveling up myself, which in this case, is actually myself, not my World of Warcraft character."

Wang, 24 and fellow co-founder Richard Talens, 25, college friends from the University of Pennsylvania now working in New York, are both fitness buffs. They're also gamers. Talens, who grew up as a self-described chubby kid, has been an MMO player since the first generation of such games, going back to Ultima Online.

You see the RPG influence as soon as you join. Straight away, I was offered not a workout plan, but eight "quests." Do this many sets, go this many times, squat this much weight, do these types of exercises. After about 10 minutes I constructed a workout plan that, in an hour, completed six quests.

I came home sore, but delighted at the huge XP boost I'd earned once I entered in the results. Furthermore, I had a new weights regimen that, while a little unorthodox, was a total body workout that was fresher than a boring-old standby I'd been using for nearly seven years in lieu of actually researching what I should be doing.

"We see it in the fitness space, one of the top problems people face is that they don't get immediate feedback on their workout progress," Wang said. "It'll take a few weeks before results start showing up. So people have to get in the gym, maybe they're intimidated by being there around all these other fit people; they work out, they're sore, and they're feeling like what do they have to show for it other than that pain and a demotivation to even come back."

Wang and Talens understand both the gaming and the fitness communities, how they see themselves and, more importantly, how they see the other. They also understand gamers' distrust of seminar buzzwords like gamification and publishing trends like exergaming.

Probably the biggest vouch for Fitocracy's gamer cred is how its members came to the site. Fitocracy's early users migrated in from sites like Reddit, whose community is recognizably gaming-oriented and technologically savvy. Another big source of signups? Something Awful. These are notoriously hard-to-please communities and demographics, hardly fitting stereotypes of meatheads or Men's Health models.

"What I like about the population is a lot of them grew up like me, either overweight or super skinny, but gamers, and they developed a passion for or an addiction to fitness," Talens said.

As a game, Fitocracy is in its infancy. Everything is on the honor system - sure, you could lie your way to level 17, but what's the point. And two weeks in, I'm still staring at the same two quests I've yet to complete (and won't, until I develop more strength). Talens and Wang say they're trying to tune the quest system so that members are served more of them, but not so many that their entire fitness plan becomes checking off an assortment of boxes with no consistency.

They're of course exploring ideas like mobile applications so you can "play" at the gym; the community constantly asks if nutrition will be integrated into the XP system, and they're considering that too. The manner in which I created my new weights workout was absolutely intended, Wang said, and Fitocracy wants to grow that out in the quest system. "Character classes" or something approximating that are also a possibility, for those who want to specialize in, say, running, or weight training, weight loss or toning up or whatever.

Where it is most solid, though, is in the support communities it is building and in the authentic voice the site has with its gamer community. "We're not coming at them from the position of an EA or Activision, selling a big corporate product; we're not trying to sell 60 million copies on the lowest common denominator," Wang said. "This is a message that resonates with a lot of people. When they see it, it clicks with them."

Indeed, I find it to be a lot more compelling than a fitness title on a console, which restricts you to playing it wherever your console is. (And my office is a terrible space for that). Fitocracy assigns an XP value to just about any type of workout activity, rather than force its users to perform the regimen it has developed.

Of course a healthy lifestyle should be its own reward, but at 37, I've realized too late in life its critical importance to my physical and emotional well-being. There are lots of bad habits and choices that make recommitting to a daily workout difficult to sustain.

But experience points, levels, quests—simply feeling like I was in a familiar structure where I knew how to succeed—provided me with a motivational breakthrough. I just now tipped past level 6. And coincidentally, it was the same day that I sent an envelope to my insurance company, with proof of my 50 visits and a form asking for my $200.

My Workout Partner is a Role-Playing Game
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.