Run from the zombies
How video games might be changing the way we exercise
Imagine running for your life—the sound of your feet as they hit the pavement. You can hear something groaning behind you. It’s close. You look over your shoulder and a zombie is hot on your heels. A hand reaches out to grab you. You run faster. Your heart is racing, sweat is dripping from your brow, and you’re struggling to catch your breath. Does this sound like fun?
A new way to encourage exercise
Across the UK and abroad people are basing their exercise routines around apps, games, and activities all associated with the zombie apocalypse phenomenon. Should future doctors start considering how some of these novel methods of exercise might be used to influence the promotion of health?
For the overweight, sedentary patient, it’s all too easy to recommend going to the gym or walking. GPs have done so for many years. But with the rise in video games and mobile gaming, it seems as if doctors are failing to coax patients away from screens and into physical exercise routines. What if there was a way to combine the excitement and immersive experience of a video game with some physical exercise? Over the past few years there has been a movement towards this, with a little zombie excitement thrown in for good measure.
Slingshot is a company based in Bristol that specialises in outdoor and street games. These are no ordinary games, however. Players are asked to stabilise the time stream in Exeter or avoid packs of dogs on the streets of New York City.
2.8 Hours Later
Slingshot’s flagship game is called 2.8 Hours Later. After paying around £30 (€35; $47), players join the game as survivors of a zombie apocalypse who are trying to make their way to the “safe zone” (a zombie themed disco) in an undisclosed location in a UK city. The game is staged and enacted in a city at night—locations have included Glasgow, London, Leeds, and Manchester—with players using a map to guide them from one scenario to another while they are chased by zombies. Many of the places where the scenarios are played out evoke scenes from horror movies—from abandoned shopping centres to old churches. The zombies (actors) can be “walkers” or “runners,” both of whom chase the players, encouraging them to run from place to place. Only by taking advice from the actors portraying the survivors will players make it to the safe zone. At the end of the 2.8 hours or so of exercise, players are rewarded with entrance to the safe zone disco. For the many people who struggle with motivation when engaging in physical activity, the fear of being eaten alive could be a powerful tool for spurring them on.
Slingshot is not the only company taking advantage of the trend for urban games for adults. In the United States, the Penn State Urban Gaming Club offers various games enacted around the Pennsylvania State university campus, including Assassins, in which players eliminate other players with Nerf guns (toy guns that fire darts made of foam). An annual festival of street games called Come out and Play turns cities across the globe into huge playgrounds, and in the game Pacmanhattan players recreate the game Pac-Man throughout blocks of New York City.
A market exists for adults to take part in activities that allow them to indulge their “big kid” inside. The United Kingdom has adult playgrounds that combine exercise equipment with children’s playgrounds. Companies offer indoor soft-play jungle gyms that are reinforced to take an adult’s weight and host adult only nights. All these schemes try to make exercising enjoyable, which, for some patients, could be the key to doing it more often.
Although these street games are exciting examples of novel health promotion, they will probably not be able to increase the amount of physical exercise people do on a large scale. Most adults will not be able to play these games on a weekly basis, so they will not achieve the 150 minutes of physical activity that the UK Department of Health recommends every person does each week. Other, more realistic, options for exercise that still involve zombies are available, however.
Zombies, Run! is a smartphone game developed by a company called Six to Start and writer Naomi Alderman. The game is a basic running app, but, like 2.8 Hours Later, the player takes on the persona of a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. While running, you listen to characters speaking to you about your mission in between the playing of your music. Suddenly, you will be challenged to a random zombie chase.
During the zombie chase, you must speed up to avoid being captured by the undead. As the zombies get closer, the sounds of their groans increase. A beeper increases in speed as the zombies get closer and a robotic announcer that states how far the zombies are behind you. Speeding up decreases the speed of the beeper and puts distance between you and the “zoms.” The chases last for about a minute and require the player to increase his or her speed between 10% and 15% to evade capture.
Those familiar with running will recognise this game as a form of interval training—a technique that involves short bursts of high intensity exercise. Evidence shows that interval training is a more efficient form of exercise than standard training, with some claims that three 20 minute sessions of interval training a week can provide the same benefits as 10 hours of steady exercise over two weeks. Thus, Zombies, Run! can be used by patients who complain of not having enough time to adopt an effective exercise routine.
Some people might feel self conscious about doing exercise and prefer to exercise alone, but these people might be the ones most in need of encouragement. Zombies, Run! satisfies both requirements. As players run, various in-game characters talk to them. They offer support and encouragement to keep people running. The story of the game is delivered in episodes—a 30 minute run is enough to hear one instalment, and many of the episodes end on cliffhangers.
Zombies, Run! has a cult following of almost half a million players worldwide, with players discussing plot points and missions the way that you might discuss episodes of your favourite television show, and all from an exercise routine. Imagine watching The Walking Dead for 30 minutes and having improved cardiovascular performance at the end of it.
More of the carrot and less of the stick
Zombie themed exercise won’t be for everyone, but imagine the lead characters of a famous soap opera mentioning on the show that they are going to a spin class. The only way to find out what happened during that class is to download an app that allows you to be in the spin class with the characters. As technologies such as Google Glass —which allows users to see images superimposed over their normal vision, using special glasses—develop it might be possible to see the television stars speaking to each other next to you in the gym as you exercise.
Both 2.8 Hours Later and Zombies, Run! reward players for their achievements. If players fail in their missions, there is little in the way of punishment. Missions are always won as long as the player keeps running in Zombies, Run!, and if you are caught in 2.8 Hours Later you still go to the zombie disco, but you are made up to look like a zombie.
How often have you talked to a patient and emphasised the repercussions of their lifestyle choices? “Your chances of developing heart disease are increased by your sedentary lifestyle.” All too often the benefits of making changes are an afterthought with our main objective being to minimise the punishments. Perhaps we should follow the lead of these innovative activities and emphasise the rewards of physical activity rather than the punishments that the patient might experience if they don’t change their ways. Research from as far back as 1973 highlights the benefits of strategies for health promotion based on reward over ones based on punishment.
Zombies, Run!, and similar health promotion tools do have drawbacks. The costs associated with these games can be prohibitive. Zombies, Run! as an app only costs £2.49 (with a further £5.49 for additional missions), but it requires a smartphone that costs hundreds of pounds.
With most adults spending between nine and 10 hours being sedentary during waking hours, perhaps we should take note of these apps. The UK Department of Health has. It is working with Six to Start to develop a fitness app aimed at reducing obesity. We should try these new ways of promoting physical activity. And it’ll be good training for a zombie apocalypse.David M Smith, third year medical student
1Hull York Medical School
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- Slingshot. About us. Slingshot, 2012. http://slingshoteffect.co.uk/about.
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Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f3937