Life is a role-playing game: Weight Watchers & Archaeology

I’ve watched various people do the whole weight-watchers routine over the years. Hadn’t really put much thought into how it works and so on, but Clive Thompson at Wired has:

A friend of mine recently slimmed down on Weight Watchers. She joined two months ago, and in just a couple of weeks, she’d shed 10 pounds. She’d been trying for a year to lose weight, but nothing worked — until now.

Why did Weight Watchers work so well? For a really fascinating reason: because it isn’t a normal diet. It’s something more. Something fun.

It’s an RPG.

The Weight Watchers program is designed precisely like a role-playing dungeon crawler. That’s why people love it, stick to it and have success with it. And it points to the way that we could use game design to make life’s drudgery more bearable.

The full article is here. Thompson explains a bit more:

As I watched her poke around on the screen, managing inventory, calculating points, staying within her range, it hit me:

Weight Watchers is an RPG.

Think about it. As with an RPG, you roll a virtual character, manage your inventory and resources, and try to achieve a goal. Weight Watchers’ points function precisely like hit points; each bite of food does damage until you’ve used up your daily amount, so you sleep and start all over again. Play well and you level up — by losing weight!

It’s a fascinating idea. Thompson cites Jane McGonigal’s recent presentation at SXSW, on using game design to make the drudgery of many every day activities into fun challenges. A Q & A with McGonigal is here, and a synopsis of her presentation is here.

The connection with archaeology: well, clearly, there are many tasks in day-to-day archaeology that could benefit from being made more game like. Cataloging stamped bricks, for instance… actually, to be a bit less flip, I’m thinking of public archaeology, and programmes like the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Thompson quotes McGonigal:

“Games are an incredible language and system. They should be everywhere,” she said. “Why are we making games only for the bound pages for a computer screen or console? Why aren’t we doing that to help people navigate and understand the world around us?”

She couldn’t be more right. As McGonigal points out, there are already some witty attempts — like Chore Wars, Wii Fit or Seriosity’s system that tries to limit corporate e-mail overload by forcing people to “spend” virtual totems to send a message. I can think of tons of things I’d love to see turned into a game: doing my taxes, dealing with my inbox backlog, being stuck in traffic.

And this stuff is clearly possible, because if Weight Watchers can turn something as unpleasant as dieting into a playful activity, the sky’s the limit.

What would an RPG – alternate reality archaeology game look like? What would the goals be? Well, we might want the public to understand the importance of cultural heritage, and to treat it appropriately when they encounter it in the landscape. We might want people who discover sites on their land, or in national parks, to report it to the authorities, to conserve it. We might want to create a knowledgeable public who can read the past out of the landscape. We might want to fight looting, or the wanton destruction of heritage sites or buildings. We’ve got all sorts of goals; I can imagine creating a game-like system to reward people who meet these goals. But games have to include sticks as well as carrots… what might the sticks be?

Perhaps the game should be web-based, played via PMOG or something similar, ‘recovering’ good archae websites, and ‘destroying’ pseudo-archae sites, or political uses/abuses of archae… thoughts?

ps- Jane McGonigal’s website

6 thoughts on “Life is a role-playing game: Weight Watchers & Archaeology

  1. In ‘Fantasy Metal Detecting’ you choose regions you’d like to search for antiquities with a metal detector but don’t actually search them. At the end of the year your choices are cross-referenced with actual finds recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Your ‘score’ is based on the number of PAS objects recorded for your regions. (This is similar to the ‘fantasy football’ and ‘fantasy baseball’ games where contestants build virtual teams out of real athletes and are ranked based on how the real players succeed during the sporting season.)

    ‘Ancient Coin Photo Safari’ is a game where players attempt to hunt for particular ancient coins or to quickly classify coins from a photo database of unlabeled coin images. This game is used to generate meta-data for museums acquisitioning large numbers of portable antiquities. I first mentioned this on my blog under the title iArtifact / GoogleArtifact. This game is something like a scavenger hunt.

    In both of these games the ‘stick’ is receiving a poor ranking relative to other players.

    The stick can be loosing money: A sporting league collects fees from players. A fraction of the money buys spy satellite time to take pictures of at-risk heritage sites several times a day. Players attempt to recognize the vehicles of the looters and predict when they will return for further digging. Player guesses are sent by text message to heritage officials who verify correctness by driving out to make arrests. The player making the most correct predictions receives a share of the entry-fee ‘pot’.

  2. Just wanted to say great blog. I some how found you when i was looking for all things online. I wish you the best.

  3. I love archaeology! I have every indiana jones and lara croft game. well maybe not Indy’s. I have books fiction and non-fiction and am working towards school for archaeology. I absolutly love rpgs and would love to see the two together!

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