It’s just passed 5 AM on a freezing Chicago morning. A lone figure hurries down N. State St., cursing under his breath. “How did my friends convince me to sign-up to a 40-minute spin class and pay a crazy $30 for it?” he wonders. As a keen road cyclist, he was skeptical of the concept. Loud music, an overly enthusiastic instructor and other class participants whooping along. “No” he thought, cycling was meant to be about the serenity of the road, just the lone rider, the bike, and their burning legs.
He finally reaches the studio and methodically sets up his spin bike. As the music starts pumping and the pedaling begins, something catches his eye. On the front wall, there is a giant ‘Torqboard’ that lists each rider and a number that ticks up as they pedal. Names swap around as different people score at different rates and the lead changes. He puts his head-down, turns-up the resistance and gets ready to sweat. This is a game he wants to win.
He puts his head-down, turns-up the resistance and gets ready to sweat. This is a game he wants to win.
What’s in the game?
Given endurance sports require dedicated preparation to push physical and mental barriers, they are fertile ground for the application of gamification to improve training quality. In recent years, we have seen numerous fitness focused companies looking to use gamification techniques to drive user engagement and ultimately their bottom lines. These techniques can be grouped into three broad categories of increasing complexity:
- The all-important metric – Flywheel’s ‘Torq score’ is an example of this. It can be a measure of absolute effort like the Flywheel Torq Score (based on power), or tailored to your own physiology as in the case of the Strava sufferscore (based on the user’s own heart rate zones). Simplicity is the key here. There is only one metric for the user to consider. It allows them to instantly know if they are ahead of their previous efforts or beating fellow athletes. This simple score can drive the user to ‘go-harder’ in a training session, as well as encouraging activity repetition in search of a higher score.From a company’s point of view, these are ‘hook and go again’ mechanisms that encourage customer engagement. To drive loyalty, it is good to have a ‘bespoke’ score that is not easily portable across platforms. For example, the Flywheel Torq score is a power based metric, however it does not obviously map to standard wattage. In order to see how you are advancing and measuring up on the Torqboard, you need to keep coming back to Flywheel.
- Competition and status-building – With more users, there are more opportunities to create challenges that speak to the intrinsic motivators of the endurance community. Competitive community challenges are typically the preserve of sports clubs, where members are competitors as well as comrades. Athletes want to test themselves against like-minded people and gain recognition (bragging rights) for their achievements. Members set a goal to be ‘top of the leader-board’, train to that end, and then highlight their achievements to the community. This, in turn, encourages other members to do the same and everyone is stretched to achieve more than they would individually. Having a large community of users and a competitive mechanism between them, promotes high-levels of ‘sticky’ active users, a holy grail of customer engagement. Strava (billed as the social network for athletes) encourages users to create route ‘segments’ and compete with others to become king or queen of that segment. Variants of this concept are also available, such as creating a group for your local triathlon club and tracking who completes the most miles in a week. The company that can create the most engaging community challenges will have a clear competitive advantage in customer acquisition and retention. Furthermore, partner firms will want to tap into this community. This creates additional revenue opportunities for the community owner. For example, Strava segments are now built into Garmin GPS sports devices.
- The immersive experience – Probably the most intriguing gamification potential is through transporting the user into a new virtual world that is controlled by their actions in the real world. The key enabler is technology that can augment traditional training equipment (e.g., treadmills, turbo trainers, etc.) to generate a virtual world. Once a user enters a virtual world, a myriad of opportunities become available. The immersive experience in itself creates engagement, as well as providing a ready-made platform for rewards and competition. This can turn a tough and monotonous indoor training regime into a fun and rewarding experience. Imagine training with a virtual partner who gives you real-time, spoken feedback on how you are progressing. You can also create your own virtual avatar that can be upgraded upon completing elements of your training plan (such as acquiring new virtual running shoes). Your training plan turns from a screen full of numbers into a virtual world of characters and quests. Zwift is the best current example of an immersive training experience. It is an indoor bike turbo trainer game where you hook your trainer up to your computer or smart device and are transported into a virtual world of cyclists. You can see your avatar cycle the course, with the speed controlled by the work you are doing on your trainer. It allows you to ride on your own or join group rides that encourage real-time messaging.
Your training plan turns from a screen full of numbers into a virtual world of characters and quests
An interesting question is whether this type of endurance game can inspire non-athletes to take-up endurance sports, and expand the overall market. Given the inherent pain involved with endurance sports, it would have to be one hell of a game!
Is it just a game…or can it be reality?
There are an established set of techniques that drive user satisfaction and business performance:
- Create a simple but bespoke scoring system that hooks users and encourages repeat use.
- Develop a community that can compete, compare results and create ongoing ‘community buzz’.
- Leverage the latest technologies to create virtual or augmented realities to enhance the enjoyment of users and open up additional marketing opportunities.
Companies should, however, be aware that there are some clear tensions between gamification and real-world training. Endurance training fundamentally requires continuous concentration on a few key metrics. Therefore, too many game elements can simply be distracting and counterproductive. Part of endurance training is also to train the mind to remain focused in non-stimulating environments. Endurance sport is not obviously fun like a computer game. Going through tough training, where you feel like giving up, is part of what is needed to make one successful. Technology also has a long way to go before it can truly compete with outdoor experiences…if it ever could.