For human movement and gaming to reach their full potential in the digital age, they must finally find each other.
Our movement has evolved from hunting down prey with standout endurance, to ancient games that mimic the physical feats of battle. Modern activities employ inflated balls of leather and plastic, carbon fibre implements and ATP-driven drivetrains. Our perpetual curiosity loves inventing new tools and finding ways to engage with them.
Sport pulls our bodies in the movement that they require.
But too many of its cultures are unable to create more inclusive, accessible and immersive environments.
Modern gaming connects, challenges and captivates our minds.
But leaves the rest of our bodies neglected.
Our digital connection to work, play and commerce has initiated an unprecedented era where individuals can live days on end with little motion. Life is more convenient, with so much at our fingertips, but roots us more firmly into our furniture.
There is a steady and more recently accelerating mitosis of physical activity from our daily routines.
Movement innovation is necessary to counter the sedentary dominance of our blue light existence.
Our passive leisure media has evolved from the consumption of three channels on a murky wooden box to on-demand streaming on crystal clear magic windows. Our interactive leisure media has evolved from a stack of royals and numbers on paper to pixelated projections of balls controlled by joysticks, and finally, to immersive cross-platform multiplayer zombie extermination.
Each of these innovations has evolved to improve immersion, convenience and breadth of content. Improved gaming mechanics, engagement and economics drive endorphin-releasing feedback loops. Packaged together, these innovations are highly immersive.
Gaming is not contributing to a generation that lacks motivation or inspiration. Quite the opposite. That work ethic is increasingly being channelled digitally. Fundamental to enjoyable gameplay is the ability for participants to find flow:
‘A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it‘ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Gaming creates thoughtfully engineered experiences that immerse us in autonomy, relatedness and competence, making this elusive state more available to people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels. Accessibility to flow has heavily contributed to gaming’s evolution from a niche hobby for few to the preeminent form of entertainment for most.
But with the exception of a few cases at the edge of the distribution, seductive screens are overwhelmingly sedentary. We sit, recline, lay or stand. While consumed in moderation as a part of a healthy leisure diet, gaming is not fundamentally unhealthy. However, the larger societal trends, particularly when combined with the growth of keyboard and mouse professions, indicate widespread blue light obesity.
Instead of improving the magnetization properties of our buttocks and furniture could these features instead be harnessed to compel us towards movement in a meaningful way?
Infinite worlds of gaming
The moustachioed warrior runs clumsily into an angry eyebrowed mushroom.
One life down, and back to the beginning.
Mastering the navigation of lumbering fungi, a carnivorous plant delivers a fatal blow. Two lives down, and back to the beginning.
Finally, a leap across a bottomless crevasse falls short.
Three lives down, and the game is over.
For those who anchor their gaming lens through Super Mario, the modern ecosystem is unrecognizable. Games have evolved significantly from linear mechanics that produce binary outcomes where players either win, lose or start over.
Chess, Magic the Gathering or Super Nintendo, only a short time ago the most engaging games required a shared physical space. The social utility of digital gaming experiences was capped, consistently good, but never reaching the heights of the physical world experience. Flipping this narrative, modern gaming is demonstrating that virtual worlds are a formidable challenger in tapping into what entertains, challenges and connects us as humans.
As a result, the possibilities are infinite.
‘An infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play. Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. Their game is not bound by time – the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, and to keep everyone in play.’ (J Carse, 1986)
Expansive spaces provide participants with the freedom of choice in how they approach challenges and objectives. Linear static worlds are replaced by the never-ending possibility of ever-changing experience. Multiple lives and re-entry points replace 3 lives and out. Open worlds allow boundless exploration. The user is empowered with the autonomy to explore and choose their own adventure like never before. While constraints have not been removed completely, they have never been so fluid and flexible, facilitating the continuation of more play.
Differentiated offerings continue their rampant growth, enabling our ability to connect with friends and strangers alike. Shared experiences encourage borderless community development at unprecedented speed and scale. Real relationships with real people, not artificial interactions with anonymous bots. A skatepark, a cafe, a concert, but built with ones and zeros.
On our desktops, phones and tablets, gaming is anywhere we choose to experience it at our immediate convenience. In a few short decades gameplay has evolved from disparate consoles tethered by wires in our living rooms, to persistent and networked world-building. Gameplay travels with us everywhere instead of coming to an end when our physical context changes as we move about the world. Mobile and connected, modern gameplay accommodates both active and passive engagement.
Gamification evokes nefariousness with its likes, badges and notifications that slow drip dopamine into mundane tasks or via commerce-fueled social media. At its best, human-focused design in gaming is a portal to help realize and nurture our untapped cognitive potential.
Imagine the possibilities when the industry’s finest happiness engineers unleash their talents on human movement?
Our movement philosophies have so much to learn from the rapid evolution of video gaming. For too long, movement culture has been oriented around finite instead of infinite possibilities, while our gaming culture has been stuck in front of screens.
Finite worlds of sport
The majority of our modern movement behaviours are rooted in sport. Sport should be an indispensable tool designed to engage our minds as a forcing function for physical activity. Too much of the ecosystem has devolved to amplify battles for money, status, power, and geopolitics, overshadowing participation, self-improvement and collective health.
A child’s introduction to sport should seed and sew a lifelong love for movement. Instead of casting wider nets to build larger and more inclusive and active communities, much of youth sport has devolved into narrow funnel building. The crusade for the improbable attainment of collegiate scholarship or professional status has permeated nearly every sport. Hyper specialization now begins at ridiculously early ages, requiring a staggering quantity of investment of time and resources, erecting barriers for wider participation. Children spend 5 days a week in gymnastics centres, summer hockey camps for 8-year-olds and travelling teams for AAU basketball.
We have built games with finish lines, pre-defined courts, timers and a fixed number of participants. These finite games orient our participation into zero-sum worlds, where one individual’s success is measured by another’s failure. Structures set up for play to win, instead of play to play.
Too often, this biases participation towards individuals with a natural affinity to competition. This leaves too many of us as passive spectators instead of active participants, exempting participation from as many individuals as possible.
‘*A finite game is played for the purpose of winning. If a finite game is to be won by someone, it must come to a definite end. It will come to an end when someone has won. ’ *(J Carse, 1986)
Sport is our modern-day interpretation of gladiator games, designed with elaborate fight to the death rules and metaphors that create binary outcomes.
We celebrate winners, while the runner-up is a forgotten memory. In some cases the asterisk at the end of the athlete’s resume is so large, it overshadows their achievements and accomplishments. Or worse, the vanquished becomes a punchline in the historical narrative. Robert Horry is cemented as an NBA legend because of the depth of his championship ring count. We associate his movement history with his uncanny ability to be in the right place during the most vital moments, hitting championship-winning shots. Conversely, Charles Barkley’s career will be forever judged as somehow incomplete, his movement artistry swept into the shadows of NBA lore because he ‘failed’ to win a championship. We are more likely to come across a video of his awkward golf swing instead of a thundering breakaway dunk.
Is competition undesirable? Not at all. It is a valuable motivator in pushing forward the limits of human performance. But it can’t just glorify the top tiers of human performance. Just as this can encourage some, it can discourage many.
A recalibration is required to find a more sustainable balance between competition and play, removing barriers that can limit the number of potential participants. Wins and losses should be a feature of the grander game, not define the end of the game itself.
Instead of competition-focused design, we need movement-focused design, where more joy and fulfillment is found throughout the entire process instead of tied to competition.
*‘Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play.’ *(J Carse, 1986)
Competition should play a supporting role in how we determine success. Measurement and ranking between participants become a feedback and engagement tool instead of the objective function. Where zero-sum is adversarial, infinite games offer new possibilities, where players can win and help win. Infinite games orient participation into positive-sum worlds, where joy and success can manifest as an individual or collective function, instead of at the expense of others in the community.
We have lost sight of why we push against the elastic limits of human performance. Extending the boundary of the adjacent possible should improve the collective movement health of all humankind.
The confines of finite play prevent us from exploring the boundaries of all types of human movement. Where measurement has failed us is where we are looking. Racing to 100m in 9.57 gives our imaginations a glimpse of what is possible, while raising the global life expectancy to 95.7 is our true objective.
Infinite games in movement
To explore the elastic limits of human performance at a societal level, we must transcend the finite constructs of sport and embrace the new possibilities of infinite games in movement. Expansive, autonomous, and with a collective purpose, an iceberg tip is just revealing itself.
Once only available to a few dozen live participants in exclusive boutiques, Peloton has scaled world-class fitness instruction by transporting the group experience into the home. Output leaderboards have educated an entirely new population on power output, a metric once reserved only for cycling enthusiasts. An inclusive and welcoming community has emerged. However, quantification of effort relies on their immobile proprietary devices.
Zwift has created an ever-expanding virtual world for cycling and running. As you pedal, your avatar moves through virtual worlds, allowing the ability to compete with others around the globe. Community members train harder and with more frequency than if staring at a blank wall in their basements. Minds and bodies react with vigour and enthusiasm to bio-locomote our pixelated selves.
A number of other connected fitness platforms have emerged. Mirror, Tonal, Tempo, FightCamp, TechnoGym and NordicTrack to name a few. But activity, engagement and quantification are still tethered to immovable physical equipment in the home. While quality is consistently good, not unlike a Zoom meeting, these virtual experiences struggle to reach the highs of the in-person experience.
There is an opportunity for the fusion of these virtual and physical movement experiences. For years, video games existed only in closed platform game consoles and PCs. The mobile phone and multiplayer gameplay accelerated the immersion and distribution possibilities of the industry by opening up cross-platform interaction. A similar arc can be envisioned in movement.
Pokemon Go gets us out of our homes, but the movement is ancillary. Getting warmer is a solution that blends the best of Fortnite and Peloton, with accurate fitness metrics, immersive exploration and purpose.
The future of gameplay is unleashed wherever our bodies take us, not tethered to immovable pieces of gym equipment in our homes or bounded fields of play. Our living rooms, city streets, gyms, forests or mountains. For movement gaming to reach its full potential, quantification should be imperceptible and measure both quantity and quality of movement across all environments. Indoor and outdoor, real and virtual.
Instead of a sedentary bystander, the output of the human body becomes the tool for gameplay, improving our movement health, instead of contributing to its decay. A wealth of new engagement and positive feedback loops can emerge that both delight and challenge the user, while simultaneously contributing to our health. Limitless frontiers seeded with carrots instead of restricted boundaries shaped by sticks.
The human body is the joystick. But so much more, it becomes the input device and the benefactor of movement.
Our bodies as joysticks
While today, our minds move more seamlessly between physical and virtual experiences, our bodies are left disjointedly behind. Knowledge of our movement is either unknown or remains siloed.
Life extension is the most important thing we can invent. But not just life extension; quality of life extension. Accurate and relevant measurement is vital in the never-ending search for optimal health and wellness. The movement of the individual requires a dynamic characterization and quantification.
To give the reader some imagination at the size of our movement engagement and intelligence gap, consider the state of the art in the quantified self ecosystem. The best forms of measurement are either extraordinarily expensive tools in human performance labs or tethered and immovable equipment in our gyms and homes. The most convenient and widely adopted forms of measurement quantify steps, speed, distance, location and heart rate from either our wrists, chests, handlebars or back pockets.
Given the current state of the art, knowledge of *how *humans move is left unknown. We have a gap in understanding the impact of one activity on another. Intuitively we know that a run today impacts the performance of a bike ride tomorrow, but how much is left a mystery. Steps and heart rate are insufficient in evaluating load or predicting fatigue.
This leaves our movement quality profiles a mystery to the digital world and its increasingly powerful abilities to distill, analyze and derive insight. Output, symmetry, and efficiency become known. Customized to the individual, movement goals that can optimize for both their short-term athletic and long-term healthspan maximization.
Fulsomely modelling our gait requires knowledge of how we push forward and upward against gravity’s relentless pull. Movement forces of truth.
The system must be ubiquitous. It must quantify the human, wherever and whenever we move.
It must be imperceptible. To move naturally, we must be unaware it is even there with us.
It must measure force. Everlasting movement quality requires the mapping and sequencing of output and how we move.
To fulfill the promise of the metaverse, it must seamlessly span both physical and digital worlds with ease and interoperability. As we carry out both our physical and virtual existences, either authentically or pseudonymously, we have only one body.
Upgrading human movement
Human movement forms a symbiotic relationship with our digital lives, finally acknowledging its mere existence. A significant contributor to our increasingly sedentary plight, gaming is also positioned to feature prominently in our human movement resurgence. Capturing the full and undivided attention of our minds and bodies, infinite games in movement offer the possibility of uniting the flow experienced in our most immersive expressions of sport and gaming.
‘An optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy.‘ (McGonigal, 2011)
Physical activity becomes a series of mental devices and engagement loops to encourage and engage the mind in a lifelong journey of physical play, exploration and discovery. The infinite game of human performance is played and explored by all, instead of being limited to finite gladiator games by a few.
First-principles must include all humans. To truly improve human movement, we must fully appreciate and embrace the diversity of all. The frustratingly slow transition to eradicate systemic bias of sexism, racism, ableism and sexual orientation requires acceleration.
Inclusion cannot be a debugging exercise as an afterthought, it must be a design block in the source code.
Each individual has a dynamic and unique profile encoded in their movement. To upgrade human movement, we must capture it everywhere, render it indispensably, and build meaningful engagement for everyone.
This is how we remain moved.