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This Zombie Video Game Actually Gets Lazy Desk Workers Off Their Butts

Shaking up the corporate wellness space with a game that pits office workers against digital zombie hordes–and each other.

You, Internet reading desk worker, are probably what Mike Tinney would call a reluctant adopter. Despite having heard that sitting is the new smoking, working out during work hours is a tough sell. Inertia is powerful.

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Mike Tinney

These “reluctant adopters” (aka most of us) present a problem for corporate wellness programs, which aim to decrease the cost of health insurance by creating an overall healthier workforce. The thinking goes: Instead of sitting on our butts in a desk chair for 8 hours a day, taking small steps (literally) throughout the day can create healthier workers. The benefits are tangible for both employers and employees, since three-quarters of all insurance claims come from preventable conditions. Employers can save money on their insurance costs if people spend less on health care, and an easy way to do that is to a live more active 9-to-5 life. If somebody is moving once an hour, their risk for key chronic disease areas drops between 15% and 25%. Wellness programs can also make for healthier wallets: Employees who participate typically get up to a 30% discount on insurance costs.

But if people don’t actually do the work, the investment doesn’t pay off for the company (or for the employee’s heart health). Signing up for a wellness portal barely counts as a finger workout. Most people don’t want to break a sweat in the office. So, how do you get lazy office blobs to change their very ingrained behaviors?

Tinney thinks he has the answer: Video games. “We approach the paradigm of behavior change differently than any other wellness company so far,” Tinney, the founder of the Fitness Interactive Experience, explained to Fast Company. A former executive at the mega-popular multiplayer game Eve Online, Tinney thinks the addictive power of games can be used to get people to exercise. “They’re a pretty powerful paradigm that we can use,” he said.

Seeing an opportunity to make a buck in the $90 billion health care industry, Tinney left his job at Eve Online three years ago to found the wellness platform (which is also known as FIX). Initially, the software had a lot of the same features as his competitors. Participants log onto the website to track their health goals: what you ate for lunch; how many steps you walked. The portal hooks up to most popular fitness trackers, or the user can manually enter data. Tracking alone can get people to change their behaviors, but users can also opt for a sitting cessation program, which every hour gives people a challenge to get them up and away from their desks.

Most of those features are available with any run-of-the-mill workplace wellness software, and none of them really address the reluctant adopter issue. “None of that really got us market traction beyond its minor novelty features until we attached an actual story-themed walking challenge with unpredictable results and team-based play,” explained Tinney. Since adding gaming components to the platform, Tinney has attracted 13 clients, including big-name companies like Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, and Cigna.

Click to expand

FIX’s first game is called Step Ahead: Zombies. “Zombies aren’t for everybody,” admits Tinney. “But they are a pretty good paradigm as a reason to walk,” he added. The game divides the office into teams that race against each other to run from a zombie outbreak. The team is trying to get to the safe house before the zombies get there. IRL activity determines your pace in the game. If you don’t make it to the house before the zombies, you get eaten and join the zombie team.

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The zombie invasion simulation is designed with the reluctant adopter in mind, those people that have a very low tolerance for friction when it comes to being active on the job. Their willingness to participate is directly correlated to how easy is it to play along. First, Step Ahead is available on all sorts of platforms: phone, tablet, desktop–you can even play by text message. It only takes about five minutes a day to check in and participate. A user can also hook it up to a wearable. But in addition those carrots, there are also sticks. The team moves through the board at an average of your team’s step count, so an active person has an incentive to get a sloth to work harder.

In the near future, the game will also incorporate behavioral modeling. Based on past usage of the site, FIX will categorize users into one of three personality categories. The site will subtly adjust its tone and tempo to appeal to your personality type. Zombies are also just the beginning. An alien-themed game is already in the works. Tinney sees Step Ahead as an umbrella for all sorts of themes.

If one thing is clear, it’s that the game works. Keith Kantor, the CEO of the natural food company Service Foods, signed his company up for a zombie challenge last fall, as a part of a pilot program. As a company with a health-related mission, Service Foods already had a hefty workplace wellness program in place, including personal licensed dietitians for employees. Kantor, who has a degree in naturopathic medicine, didn’t think he could get his employees to further buy into healthy living. Since adopting FIX and playing the game, however, his employee engagement in wellness has increased by 25%. Per Tinney, 86% of the people that use his service walk more, and 70% of people that use the service say they go to the gym more.

Corporate wellness is an area ripe for innovation. As health care costs rise, companies are looking for ways to save money by creating a healthier workforce, and corporate wellness, when done right, is a cost-effective way to do that. For every dollar Kantor invested in the zombie game he got over $4 back. That’s because FIX’s zombie game isn’t just engaging, it’s fun. People get super into it. “You can hear them trash-talking about it in the office,” Kantor told Fast Company.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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