I should have seen this coming. Earlier this week I predicted a bleak, dystopian future where our descendants question how any of us got anything done when all we seem to do is play games, a (hyperbolic) summation of my feelings towards the gamification trend. Despite this skepticism, I should have known that there would be a company waiting in the wings, ready to make me eat my words and admit that maybe gamification does have a place in today’s society.

Zamzee is that company. The company has released a study that monitored the activity levels of 448 children aged 11 to 14. The children were split into two groups: one, the control group, was told to go about its business like it usually does, while the other was given access to Zamzee’s online tools. Those given access to Zamzee’s tools were 59 percent more active than their counterparts and engaged in 45 more minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” each week.

Though that isn’t a huge increase, anything that helps to alleviate the obesity problem in the US is worth recognizing. According to the Center for Disease control, children in 2008 were almost three times more likely to be obese than children in 1980 and are more likely to face health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as a variety of cancers.

The company’s main product, the Zamzee Activity Meter, is similar to products like the Fitbit and Nike FuelBand in that it claims to monitor activity and make it easy to visualize and act upon that data. Unlike other fitness products, however, which can cost from $60 to $100, the Zamzee Activity Meter costs just $29.95. This makes the Activity Meter a bit more affordable for a family on a budget, and helps to soften the blow if the device breaks during use.

By itself, though, the Activity Meter isn’t particularly ground-breaking. If all it did were measure physical activity it would be, essentially, a glorified pedometer. Other services, like the previously mentioned Fitbit, measure the same (or more) data and offer more detailed, analytical information. Don’t mistake this for sheer unoriginality, however. Zamzee is purposefully designed to be easy enough for teens and pre-teens to use, and offering too much data could quickly deaden Zamzee’s impact as its target audience gets confused and tries to figure out why their resting heart rate or BMI matter.

Which is why Zamzee’s free website not only presents this information in an intentionally simple way, but also incorporates gamification elements to encourage more activity. Though I’m not particularly sold on gamification’s place in the adult world, the principles make sense when they’re applied to a younger audience.

Like many kids my age, I spent a lot of time playing games on the (then) newly-introduced PlayStation and various GameBoy products. “Pokémon” was my drug of choice, and I spent hours staring at my GameBoy Pocket’s screen hoping that my batteries wouldn’t die. This is despite the fact that I grew up in on a full acre of land with creeks, a State Forest, and hills that may as well have been mountains for how tall they seemed. I could have gone outside and exercised, but I didn’t – I was content to walk through virtual grass and make fake animals fight each other.

If I had known what effect this would have on me years later I maybe would have made a different decision. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t work that way – it wants to be entertained right now, future consequences be damned. 

By turning general fitness into a game, however, things might be a little different. Combining the physical with the digital (and a heaping helping of rewards to boot) could – and, according to this study, does – make fitness more appealing. What feels patronizing to adults can be motivational to children, who are more willing to do something in order to get a higher score or a gold star.

[Image courtesy CircaSassy]