From Geocaching to Zombies, Run! The Evolution of Exergaming

Getting exercise outside is more than just running in circles

From Geocaching to Zombies, Run! The Evolution of Exergaming
Photo by Jordan Opel on Unsplash.

Video games and exercise are not the odd couple they used to be. People have been Dance Dance Revolution-ing their way through Dave & Buster's for a decade or so now and we're well past the home console fitness craze that launched the Wii into interactive infamy. The landscape of gaming has changed since those early days when developers tepidly introduced fitness to what had for a long time been a stationary experience, and it now includes the assumption that home gyms are somewhat incomplete without the aid of technological implements. Whether that be through the augmented courses on treadmills that lead you through the meandering path of a faraway countryside or the newly released Wii Sports package, exergaming comes in all forms.

In exploring the start of the exergaming movement, what kind of historical precedents were set for play as fitness, and what those blurring lines mean for game developers, we can form a better picture of the synergy of gaming and fitness culture. The ways in which the industry and individual developers can improve the experience of players who seek to have adventures in the wide-open worlds beyond their consoles are numerous and worth examining.

When I was in college I came across a small indie game called Zombies, Run!. It was an interactive running adventure that tracked your runs on "missions" and had a pre-recorded narrative adventure similar to an audiobook, with the story being relayed first-person as if you were the protagonist. This was years before Pokémon Go! was to become a behemoth in the realm of "on-the-go" gaming, preceding even the hit game Ingress, all of which followed the subtle success of a practice known as geocaching. Up until downloading Zombies, Run!, my experience with gaming and fitness had been through Wii Fit and various pre-VR motion tracking games, most of which weren't necessarily marketed as an aid to fitness but rather as a means of utilizing movement in gaming.

Zombies, Run! Source: Family Video Game Database.

The Wii Fit balance board used weight dispersion in order to measure player balance and BMI, encouraging players to better their posture and balance through a series of quick games and activities meant to encourage a healthier relationship with idle time. This was not without some heavy controversy, as there were multiple experts that voiced concern at the time over how a video game used by children would set such early precedents for weight and how we discuss it.

Even years later the Nintendo platform hasn't replicated the Wii balance board's measuring index, with the closest evolution being the Switch's Ring Fit Adventure, a game that also sets itself apart from other exergaming releases such as Just Dance, Zumba, and Fitness Boxing by being RPG-inspired. Unlike Wii Fit, it encourages players to actively play an adventure game all while getting fit and is the closest thing to the idea of combining gameplay mechanics with augmented perceptions of working out. Think, slaying dragons, just in real-time.

Prior to the new generation of fitness games, there was Sony's release of Eye Toy in 2003 and Microsoft's Kinect in 2010, both of which used motion sensing to track movement during mini-games. This time you were the controller. Neither of these systems used the bulky headpieces that continue to be the flagship components of virtual reality gaming nor did they use Wii's more interactive controllers. From Oculus's Kickstarter in 2012 all the way up to Sony's PSVR2, which is expected to release sometime between now and mid-2023, gaming's foray into virtual reality is still a far cry from something like Ready Player One's depiction of deeply immersive VR experiences.

Gaming is a good, if niche, way to get into fitness if one has never worked out actively before and might want the assistance of a virtual trainer for motivation. Pricey gym memberships can be financial gatekeepers for many and personal trainers are an even greater expense for most. Buying a Wii Fit unit at $147 retail back in 2008 versus a used treadmill at nearly $700 allowed families the option to make better, more interactive options without having to shell out massive amounts of cash. Exergaming was and largely still is marketed as being a family-friendly activity for those who already have a system that they might want to, for a little while, transform with a workout routine.

Ring Fit Adventure. Source: Engadget.

But then enter a game like Zombies, Run!, which has no controller, no console, nothing that might signify it as a traditional video game. It runs on its story, your set distance/time, and your own two feet. As a long-time fan of zombie games and a running enthusiast, this discovery was revelatory. Running to me personally was always in the service of seeking imagined adventures. I could run anywhere from two to six miles on summer mornings as a teenager, stopping often at the wide-open soccer fields far from my house to sit in the scratchy grass and hear the buzz of cicadas and let my imagination run wild.

This was why I found fitness games to be a bit of a let-down. I wanted something I could take with me, something that required me to go out into the world with a thin veneer of the fantastic atop it. I wanted to run the crazy distances all of those player characters always did, to pretend, in some ways, that I was on my way to fight a dragon too. While Ring Fit Adventure replicates this experience, it relies still on a console.

This is where the slight chasm between exergaming and AR gaming begins to form, at the nexus of outside exploration. Pokémon Go!'s explosive and highly successful launch back in 2016 proved that people were willing to take their adventures into their own hands and that making games accessible for free and on a large scale could help encourage people to explore their neighborhoods.

The fact that the game still has an active player base participating in weekly meetups and raids says something about the staying power of what is technically a free app. Pokémon Go!, its predecessor Ingress, and even the poorly received Hogwarts: Wizards Unite (which recently let players know it was shutting down) all share a sense of branded adventure in the vein of geocaching, a still popular pastime that runs on the same principle of exploration.

Geocaching is, perhaps, one of the first hobbies to combine outdoor exploration, environmental concern, and personal connection utilizing GPS technology. It was initiated by three men: Dave Ulmer, who hid the first cache; Mike Teague, who found the first cache; and Jeremy Irish, who developed the name of geocaching and helped implement its website. Since then, geocaching has remained a relatively popular treasure-hunting experience, evolving from the simple finding of caches to the clean-up and exploration of various scenic vista points (not unlike what we see in various video games, like finding viewpoints in Assassin's Creed or working through Final Fantasy XIV's Sightseeing Log).

Prior to geocaching, there was the art of letterboxing, which involves the same principles of exploration as geocaching--except it predates it by more than a century. Mystery is a large component of both activities, but letterboxing is without the aid of a technological implement, meaning clues are left in letterboxes (traditionally, a logbook and a rubber stamp for those who uncover the letterbox to mark their finding) and online on a Letterboxing website, which lists the general area to search (parks, monuments, beaches) and then a series of clues such as:

To catch a glimpse of a fierce, dragon-like creature, go to the tower parking lot and head southeast down the hill on the Ice Age Trail (IAT). Continue along the trail through two intersections, always staying on the golden path.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!' (Source)

The rudimentary nature of geocaching and letterboxing is without any real form of what we'd consider now as a modern gaming component, but traditionally these are games, a sort of grown-up treasure hunt that encourages both problem-solving and exercise.

While not too stylistically the same, wearing a Fitbit or an Apple Watch functions on a much more numbers-driven encouragement. These devices measure your steps, your breathing, your mindfulness, your minutes exercised, and your heartrate--all of it tightly compacted in a small computer on your wrist. Within that little world, you can compete with friends for fitness streaks, congratulate them on good training days, joke about not getting in enough steps on off days, and set PRs for yourself to break. They can be used in aid of daily routines, and aren't, in and of themselves, implemented as games. They can be used even during a geocaching outing or on simple daily hikes and swims to help you better measure your times and improve, regulate, and initiate a workout schedule. Individually, these things function fine on their own. But together, they can form a bridge between modernized fitness tracking and more traditional activities, "gamifying" them to create an environment of positive encouragement.

And yet going to national parks or even hiking local trails can be a luxury for those in a city or without a car, and while urban exploration is a popular pastime, there stands to be a middle ground between adventure and access. Enter a game like Zombies, Run!, which serves both as a training tool and actively creates a narrative around the listener, dubbing them "Runner 5" and sending them on various missions to better the small but established township of Abel after a zombie virus sweeps the nation. Since I downloaded the game way back when it was first developed in 2012, developer Six to Start has implemented many new stories for walkers, runners, and bikers to follow. Unlike something like geocaching it doesn't require travel, and can be done, start to finish, in a half-hour interval from your apartment door to whatever distance or time you set to complete.

As a city runner, I understand first-hand the monotony of following the same paths. I've run countless loops around my local canal, and while the scenic and beautiful ocean-front views never get tiring to see, they do become a fixture in need of change, and the best way to put a slight layer over the view is to have our imagination jump-started into believing that we are on an adventure. Zombies, Run!, much like Pokémon Go!, experiments with this beautifully--you get to listen to your own music while you run and it automatically turns it down with important story beats, often exchanges between characters that give the story and setting more flavor. While you run you collect items that you can then use to build Abel township and expand its territory, and there is an option to even set "zombie chases" on, meaning that during certain parts of the run you'll start hearing that tell-tale moaning and groaning from the undead and you'll need to pick up the pace or they might steal your items.

It's the simplistic approach of mobile games like Zombies, Run! and Pokémon Go! that really sell them as an aid to encourage community engagement with their environment and serve as a call to fitness. As someone who grew up absorbed in the wide, lavish world of a game like Final Fantasy XII, the call to adventure was a vital part of the experience. The natural world around us is absolutely full of such adventure, and the number of times I've shouted out "I'm Laura Croft!" while scaling a rocky incline is absurd; but the rush of reaching the top of a ridge line and looking down into the city below is ludicrously rewarding.

Blurring the lines between gaming and reality by implementing stories as a means of encouraging exploration and fitness readily encourages people to explore the places and surrounding areas they call home. To quote Charles Munz (but, let's be real, embodied wholly by Russell and Carl) from Disney's Up: "Adventure is out there!"

It always has been and it always will be.


Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.