The World of Exercising Experiment: The Mantearing

This is a post about being a geek parent, losing weight and making a game out of it all… it’s closer to Jane MacGonical’s gaming theory than anything RPG related.  But if you are a gamer parent and face (potential) obesity problems, this may be of interest to you.

Last fall I was faced with a double conundrum.  I was gaining weight at a steady pace, standing knee deep in rising cholesterol levels.  I could see my wife’s growing concerned for my health.  At the same time, my very cerebral 8 y.o son Nico, recovering from his 3rd ear surgery in 3 years, was getting into early onset childhood obesity.

I took my own health in my hands and went back to the gym, hired a personal trainer and a nutritionist and promptly started losing weight again (I’m at -15 so far).  But I was a bit at a loss about helping Nico lose weight. Short of turning the house into a food police state, scrutinizing everything my children ate, my wife and I struggled to bring balance back to our typical 21st century “too busy for life” household.

That’s when I had an idea which I pitched to my wife Alex.

What if I we had Nico perform twelve 30 minutes bouts of  exercise on a monthly basis with either of us? That turns out to 3 a week, which is what  health guidelines prescribe as the minimum activity level people should have.  Nico also has Phys Ed at school,  swimming lessons on weekends and plays Soccer as an after school activity once a week, so all in all this looked like a good deal.

We also agreed that we’d reward the monthly efforts. If he hits his target, we’d give him something worth about 20$.  I knew he liked Junk Food, so maybe he’d like to go out for poutine once a month.

Alex: Why don’t you ask him what he wants?

After a short discussion, Nico accepted to do it… in exchange for me paying his own World of Warcraft account. He argued that playing games was better than eating junk food.

Hey, who’s the parent here?

Of course, I agreed.  I would keep paying the account as long as we did all 12 exercises sessions each month AND that he never played the game without my permission first.

So in essence we invented a game, where we played exercise games (and walks, bike rides, etc.) in order to gain “money points” to keep playing another game!

I think Jane would find this very cool.

So we started that way back last October. Want to know how the experiment turned out?

While Nico resisted doing exercise at first, he grew accustomed to it and it’s now part of his weekly routine.  We biked till mid-November, we bought the Just Dance games for the Wii. We also made extensive use of Wii Sports and the PS2’s Dance Dance Revolution games.

As a very surprising turn of events, Nico took to Alpine skiing with Alex and he loves it.

Nico lost about 10 lbs, in spite of growing a few centimeters!    He’s also calmer, less prone to mood swings and he looks and acts happier.  His school grade even bumped a few  points up!

Already a major win!

That I get to exercise more with him is a double win!

Nico and I took on playing World of Warcraft together. He got all the extensions for X-mas while I got the Cataclysm one for my account. We leveled up a bunch of characters and have tons of fun. Our Goblin Shaman/Warlock team just hit level 31 earlier today.

But here’s what I never saw coming: a few weeks ago I asked him if he wanted me to cancel the Wow account, possibly switching to a new reward. I wanted to make sure that he remained motivated to exercise.

Nico: No daddy, I want you to keep paying for our subscriptions, not so much because I love playing Wow, but because I really like spending time playing with you.

Epic win anyone?

Beyond the obvious lesson I was served by my 9 year old son, it made me realize that I took as much pleasure and comfort spending that time with him.  That while the exercise was good for our bodies and minds… spending some fun, relaxing  time with  family was good for our souls.

That’s what caused the man tear.

P.S. Speaking of games to lose weight, E of “Geek’s Dream Girl” fame has taken inspiration from my “Keep Chatty off the Internet game” I’m currently playing. She created an “Exercise and stay Healthy” game over at the Plus 5 CHA forums.  I happily joined, please join us if you want to!

Image from The Weight Lifter’s Blog


  1. That’s pretty sweet, although it’s a shame you’re horde… All the cool kids (me) play Alliance. 😉

  2. Awww…. 🙂 Almost brought a mantear to my eye, just reading about it.

  3. Epic win, indeed.

    And double points for seeing what was happening, and arresting the issue.

  4. Awesome! Now, I must get my son eating more, so I can start stage 1 of my new plan to get in shape.

    Seriously, though, dude. I’m proud of you guys. You inspire me to try and do something similar.

  5. *tips hat to epic win*

    Well played sir. In the grander scheme of things, you’ve taught your son an all important lessons– if you set goals and work to achieve them, you will reap the rewards.

  6. That sounds great! I don’t have children myself so I don’t know if my viewpoint is worth much. It kind of seems to me as though there’s an awful lot of ways to not actually be all that involved with your kids like this. When I was growing up that would have meant being plopped down in front of the TV or maybe a game console. Now there’s all the old standby’s plus social networks (which, perversely, aren’t likely to teach social skills if you don’t already have them), webpages on pretty much anything you can think of, handheld game consoles in case playing them only at home is too much bother, and at what age does everyone start having a cell phone..? Hardly a new idea either (I keep thinking of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” which is a little older than I am).

    With all that to potentially work against you, using one of the very things that could so easily be just another solo thing and turning it into a family activity is an impressive win. 🙂

  7. I found myself in the same situation in Sep. I saw myself overweight and decided to change it. Went Primal (Primal Blueprint) and haven’t looked back. August: 207 lb, 36″ waist, 24% body fat. Now? 173 lb, 31″ waist (like when I was 16!!), 13% body fat… beach body by June. 🙂 Rawr! On top of that, I’ve got energy like crazy, can fast for 16-24 hours no problem when/as needed, do great body resistance exercises… I love it!

    I’m really happy to hear about Nico’s progress! Health affects all aspects of life, as you’ve noted. Glad he’s enjoying being healthy and is associating it with time with his mom and dad. That’s freakin’ awesome! Way to be a great dad. Most parents would look at getting results but not necessary how those results are arrived at. Make health a habit, and a fun one at that, and you’ve got a healthy and fit kid for life.

  8. @Asmor: Thanks man. I haven’t explored much of post-cataclysm Alliance quests but from what I’ve seen, the Horde quest are funnier, less formal sounding. (Apart the gnome starting ones which are awesome)

    @Andy: Shhh, it will be our little secret.

    @LordVreeg: Yeah, I’m happy we reversed the situation and I hope we’ll keep it up.

    @Eric: Oh man, no no no! 🙂 But do try something like that. Gamification works beyond what I expected! We’ll talk about it today! 🙂

    @Sunyaku: Thank you kindly sir. The goal was not teaching the lesson… but everyone was schooled here 🙂

    @Lanir: That’s the beauty of it all… never in our history have we had so many ways of marrying games with personal growth (or rather, personal shrinkage in our case) than the present day. I intend to exploit this to the core!

    @Rafe: Congrats my man… Nice work. Thanks for the kudos… I hope the lessons we all learned stick with us for quite some time…

  9. 🙂


  10. Chatty – Makes me wish we could get you down here for some gaming fun (and walking across the huge building) at Comicpalooza 2011!

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  13. That is an awesome story and one that I think needs to be used over and over in family’s homes.

    Obesity / addiction issues are quite prevalent in MMORPG’s (and other video games too). Do the developers see this or do they just not care?

    It’s great to see that you took the issue and dealt with it now and taught your son some valuable lessons from it.

    People are more important.