Weight-loss, gamification and common sense: a delicate balance

Reading this article on the Guardian website over lunch, and related tweets, I felt moved to respond myself.

The author of this article is right to scoff at the marketing around Weightwatchers’ traditional seasonal membership drive. After all, the messages are designed to appeal to the kind of people who make generalised new year’s resolutions – “MUST LOSE WEIGHT!” – but aren’t bright/motivated/organised enough to figure out how to do it.

Gamification, a neologism that has risen to prominence in the past two years, describes the act of taking an activity that is not a game and turning it into a game to increase audience engagement.

Proponents argue that gamification can be used to positively influence human behaviour by incentivising constructive activities that humans otherwise can’t really be bothered with.

It’s a bit like offering a child a biscuit if she cleans her bedroom, or awarding a New Year’s honour to a Conservative if he gives some money to the government.

Gamification is a concept at the heart of the Weight Watchers’ new campaign, driven this week by the launch of the website PlayWeightwatchers.co.uk – although here, the idea is to find a participant and remove their money and biscuits.

“Weight Watchers is a game we play to lose weight,” states the first line of the site’s copy in a crisp attempt to move the gruelling work of dieting away from the imagery of self-flagellating, fasting monks to the rotund bounce of Super Mario.

Dig deeper on the site to uncover the rules of the Weight Watchers game and details are disappointingly thin on the ground. “Playing” appears to be little more than an obfuscated version of calorie counting.

So the rather frivolous marketing message is annoying, yes.

But at the risk of defending weightwatchers, there is something effective about the points/goals/scoring system they operate which appeals to those motivated by targets and personal challenge, if not fully “gamers”.

Personal disclaimer/experience which allows me to comment on this in more than just a mediasnarky way: I lost 4.5 stone in 12 months a few years ago. I did this via a variety of methods (eating better & moving more being the main and most effective contributory factors – ’twas ever thus!) but I did sign up to Weightwatchers online and used the system to log (food diary), count (via their points system, which isn’t the current ProPoints, but whatever came before) and chart (via weight tracking graph) my progress. It was useful for that.

I didn’t attend a single meeting (can’t think of anything worse) and I ignored all the shuddersomely ignorant messageboards (sample question: “Which has more points? A BigMac or a Quarterpounder with Cheese?”)

The discipline of keeping track of food in and energy out and weight up/down was absolutely key for me, and has been cited by all sorts of people and organisations as a common factor in helping weight loss and healthy lifestyle be a life-change not just a crash-diet. Even the most intelligent among us can benefit from seeing a direct relationship between fuel consumed, fuel burnt and load carried. Because it is that simple.

Part of this was setting small, achievable goals – weightwatchers recommend 7lb increments, and at the time awarded you badges for hitting these targets. I took a different approach, because I’m not motivated by badges (apart from that Blue Peter one I got for painting a stegasaurus in 1983), and instead made a giant spreadsheet containing lots of weight equivalents which I could visualise better than numbers*. Because I’m a geek.

For example, 1st 7lb is the average weight of a female badger. Why on earth would you carry a badger around all the time? What a ridiculous thing to do. You’d feel far better if you put that bloody badger down and let it go snuffling off into the hedgerows or whatever (etc).

Other people may be more motivated by hitting round numbers, or dropping a BMI unit or whatever. YMMV.

Nevertheless, tracking was key for me. And WW – however full of mouth-breathers eating ready meals and fast food it may appear – was helpful in doing that. Other apps and schemes and software is available – including paper and pen, though you would have to do some jiggery-pokery to convert calories etc into something consistent to take into account that calories from saturated fat or carbs are different from those derived from protein.

Weightwatchers online database does that, for a lot of common foods (banana, 1 slice of wholemeal bread, glass of orange juice) as well as branded things (1 slice dominos pepperoni pizza, 1 muller light strawberry flavour, waitrose macaroni cheese ready meal). But on the whole I found it easier to set up and save a bunch of meals on there myself by inputting the recipes from fresh ingredients, because I cook from fresh most of the time and don’t eat ready meals e.g. “Meg’s Veg Soup = 1 onion, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tin tomatoes, 2 carrots, 1 bunch spinach, 1 pt stock, 1 slice bread, 10g lurpak light = 2 servings @ 2pts/serving” (in that example, the points came from the bread, butter and olive oil, the other things being “free”)

Since I knew that I was supposed to be aiming for a certain number of points a day, doing this sort of tracking allowed me to “budget” points throughout the day – so many for lunch, so many for a snack, and so on. If I’d already used up more points than expected on breakfast and lunch, then mid afternoon I could have an apple (free) instead of a biscuit (2pts). Sounds obvious, but if you lack discipline and willpower, then structures help, even ones that should be obvious.

And yes, “earning” points through physical activity is part of it, too. Cardio, swimming, running (I did couch to 5k) and even walking an extra tube stop or two earn you points to deposit in the bank, which you can offset against the fuel you consume. Walking an hour a day meant I could continue to share a bottle of wine with my husband as a friday night winding-down ritual. When you set activity against reward like that, it’s easy to put your trainers on.

But while it’s easy to say “walk around the block and you can have another biscuit” the key is probably to think of it the other way round: “Had a biscuit too many? Get off your arse and go for a walk”

* Here’s the spreadsheet. These values were collected from a variety of sources. As you can see, there are some values I haven’t been able to find direct equivalents for. Suggestions welcome!

[table id=5 /]

Let's play Eurovision Bingo!

Are you going to be watching the Eurovision Song Contest (final) tonight? Are you going to be watching it in the company of family or friends? Improve the experience by playing Eurobong-a-bingo!

This Eurobingo PDF file contains ten player sheets filled with random Eurovision cliches and phenomena which may be observed during the show broadcast. Simply check off each as they appear – award spot prizes for completing a line, and the first person to complete a whole sheet wins the kitty (or another prize of your choice).

There are also three additional ways to win: before the show begins, add your best guess for each of the quant questions at the bottom of the sheet. Closest wins!

This game has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. Feel free to adapt, remix and share it, but please leave attribution intact.

Thanks and happy bing-a-bang-a-bingo!

Found while walking

Part of the brilliance of a photographic observation game like noticin.gs (which I wrote about the other day in the context of synchronicity and gaming) is that – as the name implies – it encourages you to be observant and notice things when you’re out and about in the context of your everyday life.


Paul Mison wrote about noticin.gs recently saying that it’s “helping [him] to look around” and that’s absolutely the same feeling I have.

I’ve got a long history of capturing random spotted/found/noticed things and moments from my commute and daily wanderings, stretching back many years – and not just photographically, either. Sometimes with the camera, sometimes with words, sometimes just by making a mental note – it’s the habit of receptiveness to the world around that’s interesting.

This relates to something else I wrote a while back about super-noticing:

Super-noticing is something which happens a lot if you’re trained to be receptive and observant, but also if you’re thinking about a particular thing.

This in turn relates to another earlier post about the ethnographic discipline of pattern recognition:

Part of the toolkit of ethnography and anthropology in general is observing patterns. This could be patterns in behaviour, appearance, ritual, language or otherwise. The anthropologist’s job is to spot the patterns and try to understand what (if any) significance they have, especially in relation to social or cultural environment, or other prevailing conditions.

The discipline of noticing stuff is part of what makes receptiveness and observation useful in life, as well as in anthrolopology and social gaming. But it’s good to have a particular outlet (or should that be inlet?) for the activity. As I wrote in the super-noticing post,

“Flickr is great for developing a discipline around noticing, too, and Flickr groups in particular – if your eye is receptive, then every journey out into the world can be filled with potential squared circles and little fellas and malapostrophication and more.”

Well, noticin.gs turns that hyper-receptiveness up to 11, but inverts it – it’s not about seeing the patterns so much as the anomalies – the things you spot which shouldn’t be there, or stand out, or catch the attention because they don’t belong, or are otherwise notable. Noticeable. Noted.

Once you start playing noticin.gs, it’s very difficult to stop noticing things. Above and below are just a few of the things I’ve noticed while out and about, captured with my phonecam, and filed to noticin.gs.

Walking away


Synchronicity and gaming

I was interested to learn (via Mashable) that Hipster social location game Foursquare is launching in London at the end of the week. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s not in fact the primary school playground game we used to call “Champ”, but a location based social networking game played mainly via mobile apps, which involves players “checking in” whenever they visit a bar, restaurant, event or hangout to receive points based on frequency, pattern of activity, who else checks in at the same time as them and so on (there’s a full breakdown of points awarded in their Wikipedia entry). With enough points, a player becomes the “Mayor” of a particular venue, until someone else overtakes them.

Friends (and family) in the US tell me that it is hopelessly addictive and that it’s increasingly the first thing people do when arriving at an event these days.

I’m not sure that London has enough social butterflies and hipsters to make this take off in much the same way (who am I trying to kid? Of course it does!) but it reminded me a bit of two other things I’ve been engaged with in recent time.

The first is recently-acquired by Nokia social travel tracker Dopplr, which contains strong elements of synchronicity and coincidence built in to the user experience – while no points are awarded, the service tells you when your friends will be visiting your city, or when your scheduled trip will coincide with that of another traveller you’re linked to. In theory, that could mean that you’d be able to drop people a line saying “Hey, Dopplr tells me you’re going to be in Madrid at the same time I’m going to be there – let’s do lunch!” though in practice my experience has been that I tend to know when friends are going to be in the same place as me because we’re going there for the same conference or wedding or whatever.

But another game I’ve been playing recently (and really getting into) is the rather marvellous noticin.gs which is wonderfully simple yet very addictive. The game involves taking photos of things you’ve spotted and then geotagging them on Flickr.

You get points for noticing things
and points for being geographically near someone else’s noticing
and points for being the first noticing in a new area
and points for being noticed within a few minutes of another player’s noticings
and so on.

All you need to do to play is take a photo and upload it to Flickr, tag it “noticings” and make sure it has location data – some mobile phone apps include this on upload, but if not, you can always do it manually later, bearing in mind that points are only calculated on the previous 24 hours of noticings.

It appeals to me partly because it’s a habit I have anyway (spotting interesting things on my daily routine or extraordinary explorations and migrations across town) combined with a delicious frisson of pointy reward but for things which are not to do with effort but to do with coincidence and synchronicity and chance.

In other words, playing the game is rewarding in itself because it encourages you to open your eyes and capture interesting stuff in the everyday; getting points for doing so in a time/place which coincides (or not) with another player’s actions which you couldn’t know about is a delightful, random cherry on top.