How gamification and zombies motivate employees to get fit

It’s easy to get moving when (hopefully) imaginary zombies are chasing you.

By combining entertaining game design with new approaches to behavioral health, FIX Health’s “The Outbreak” app encourages employees to compete with teammates to up their daily step count and weekly exercise minutes.

CEO Mike Tinney developed the idea after looking for ways to reinvigorate his own running routine–realizing the answer could lie in his love for gaming and his career in game development could be the answer.

“I was looking for a way to change or, in more of a techie term, ‘pack’ a person’s behavioral priorities around their own health,” says Tinney, who will speak on “Can Gamification (and Zombies) Get Your Employees Moving?” at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in April in Las Vegas. “The gamer in me started to think about a social construct that would make it more immediately rewarding for me to [train more consistently].”

During R&D, the company found that the incorporation of zombies drove players to take 37% more steps than themes involving aliens, sports heroes or holiday characters.

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With an average completion rate for participants around 93.9%, the app runs in the background of your wearable, phone or other fitness device, adjusting your daily exercise targets accordingly and feeding your results into your team’s achievements.

Oh, and as an added incentive, the zombies get faster each day.

Before he takes the stage at HBLC, Tinney sat down with HRE to talk gamification, zombies and employee wellness.

Why does having zombies chase people make them more likely to hit their fitness targets?

There’s a lot of immediate gratification and connectivity benefits that come when somebody does something because they want to and they like it. They have a good immediate emotional reward for doing [it], and that’s very rare when somebody starts out with exercise. Usually when they start out, there’s pain and struggle and it’s a habit that’s uncomfortable to develop. That’s why it has such a high drop-off rate.

Why does gamification work?

That’s the crux of what I want to share with HBLC attendees. Gamification is more of a buzzword, and a lot of companies use it without what, I think, is an actual proper professional context of game design behind it. What you end up seeing a lot in the industry is what I would call the icing instead of the cake–the icing being things like badges and leaderboards. They’re not about the actual foundation of the game. They’re not the flywheel, which is a repeatable action that you do over and over again, but that has an unpredictable results. One of the biggest differences is that games are as addictive as alcohol. They can be gripping. [A game] creates a foundation that gives people immediate gratification, a reason to continue, a sense of progress, a sense of community and the excitement of an unpredictable outcome, all combined in this experience that is an entertainment experience. It brings people joy to participate and I think that’s what makes a game-based solution a potentially very important part of our macro health environment.

How does the team aspect of “The Outbreak”–with three to 10 people on an Outbreak Survival Group–fit into the positive feedback loop of the game?

A study from the University of Michigan really influenced our thinking. The study essentially proved that your sense of obligation to another person is the most powerful motivator, as it relates to your individual desire to push yourself past your comfort level, to create behavioral change, to put forth a physical effort. They compared it against an individual’s desire to just do right by themselves, and they compared it against the competitive desire to beat another person and then they indexed that against the presence of rewards and penalties for participating.

The most powerful influencer was, if I don’t walk, you suffer; therefore, I am going to walk. They determined that that particular mechanism produced three times the baseline effort level for the longest chronological period of time over all of the other potential influencers.

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What happens after the six-week Outbreak challenge is over?

A single challenge is a moment in time. We spiked people up to 10,000 steps a day and 150 active minutes a week, but, without regular interventions, people will tend to kind of fall off that. We have a module in our technology portfolio called HealthGuard, which monitors the activity level of a population post-challenge. It anonymizes all the data points and creates a risk score based upon the intersection of the average daily steps of the population and the National Institutes of Health research on how mobility affects likelihood for chronic disease. We work with our recurring HR partners to plan future activity intervention programs at the right intervals, based on the population trend line that we’re seeing through the tech.

What will you be presenting at HBLC?

It’ll be an [educational] overview of the mechanics of game-based behavior change. If you’re an HR buyer choosing between three different [gamified solutions], how do you actually make an informed decision about the qualities you need to have to effect actual engagement and behavior change?

My co-presenter, Marina Nordby, a senior consultant of Burnham Benefits in Southern California, is going to talk a little bit about the market signals she’s seeing in terms of the desire for effective health change and health engagement. But [the presentation is] less about our programs and more about the toolbox for how you can effect health behavior changes with these methodologies.


HRE’s Health & Benefit Leadership Conference will be held April 15-17 at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. To register, click here.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].