What MMORPGs Can Teach You About Physical Fitness

As a kid, I used to play online roleplaying games occasionally. One element of the game I always found addictive was the ability to level-up your character. Generally you would start with a character without any skills, and you would eventually have to train your character to become stronger.

As an adult, I realized that life was a lot like an online roleplaying game, except a lot more fun. Carrying over the game metaphor of leveling-up to my personal life made exercising and staying in shape a lot easier.

I’m amazed that some people can spend hours a day playing a repetitive computer game, but can’t find the motivation to exercise. From my perspective, exercising has almost the same reward system as a game. Except exercising has actual benefits in RL.

What are Your Stats?

The basis of many roleplaying games are your character’s statistics. How much damage can he take before he is killed, or how much strength he has. These are usually rendered as numbers in the game, giving the player something to track and improve.

Your physical fitness has the same stats. Your weight, the distance you can run, the amount your can benchpress. All of these are characteristics of your personal fitness. Instead of having 20 strength or 120 HP, you can run a mile in six minutes or complete one hundred push-ups in a row.


One game I enjoyed when I was younger was the game Diablo. In retrospect, it was actually a fairly boring game. In order to take your character from a meager level 1, to a godly level 99, you would repetitively click on enemies for hundreds of hours.

The reason the game was addictive was, in part, because it used a progressive training system. As your character became stronger, you had to fight harder and harder enemies in order to progress.

Fitness works in exactly the same way. As you level-up your body, you have to take on bigger challenges to improve. The first time I did an arm curl in the gym, I must have used 15 or 20lbs. Now, I’ve progressed to 40lbs. At first, I had difficulty completing more than twenty push-ups. Now I can practice with one-arm push-ups.

The Game is Entirely Relative

The one element I enjoyed about games is that you rarely felt self-conscious for being a lower-level. In fact, after playing a game repeatedly, I would often start a new character to train her from the beginning.

I don’t see why you can’t carry that attitude over to the gym. It doesn’t matter that they guy next to you can curl 100lbs, or that the woman on your right is running twice as fast. All that matters is that you’re training at your level and directing your effort at improving.

Playing the Game

I started exercising semi-regularly about six years ago, and consistently four years ago. And, I found, that once I get over the initial learning curve, I found the activity more enjoyable than most of the games I had spent hours playing as a kid.

Whenever I view exercise as just something that needs to be done, I lose my motivation and enjoyment for going. Thinking about what my current level is and how I’m going to train myself to increase my stats is what makes games entertaining, both online and in the gym.

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  • Stefan | StudySuccessful.com

    What a fantastic methaphor Scott!
    ‘One element of the game I always found addictive was the ability to level-up your character.’
    That is what I love also about playing games. Get new weapons, get new skills, get better!
    I am actually excited to start playing God of War II again, Kratos needs some new blades!

  • Mike Stankavich

    Scott, this metaphor really resonates with me. I hate to admit how many hours I spent building 10 level 50 characters in Dark Age of Camelot.

    I was thinking that you could also factor the quest into the metaphor. By leveling up your character in RPGs, you can do more difficult quests. Leveling up in exercise enables you to take on quests like mountain climbing, long hikes, bike rides, rock climbing, and any number of other goal oriented outdoor sports. Eventually you can take on major quests such as triathlons or marathons.

    I lost my way on my fitness program after a recent move buried my equipment. Thanks for giving me another paradigm that I can use to build my motivation to get going again.

  • Peter

    What’s a less clichéd way of saying ‘you hit the nail on the head’? I was enamoured with Final Fantasy 7 way back when. It’s so true, I loved that I could level up my character, the weapons, magic, etc. Obviously there’s no actual value in that outside the game, unlike life.

    Self improvement is something I’m not terribly adept at due to lack of will, but I think I’m learning, slowly. I want 9999 HP, and I want to be able to use Cloud’s level 4 limit, ‘omnislash’ lol. Thank you for this wonderful analogy. Your mind is simply brilliant (and I mean that in a paradoxical way).

  • Ryan Krueger

    As you and the the others have said, the ability to improve and level up was (and still is) my favorite part of video games. Perhaps it is just a self selecting group of people who read self improvement websites, or more likely a thing most people really enjoy.

    The only thing I might add in your article is the huge difference between video game leveling up and real life improvement–the time it takes to see results. I would imagine this is one of the biggest reasons people do not view working out like leveling up. In video games it takes an hour maybe two to level up. Going from benching the bar to 200 is going to take several months, if not years.

    You did touch on that issue in mentioning that you have to make the workouts fun. When you see them as a chore you don’t really want to do it. Also, writing down your progress is key as you can actually see your “stats” increase. I think if more people did this they would be more successful.

    Good post.

  • Jackbid

    Scott, excellent article. I want to thank you for writing it..

    I spend a lot of time everyday playing MMORPG games. I should actually spend some time towards my wellness in RL. I really want to do it… and hope that I succeed in forming the exercise habit. Till date, I’ve been unsuccessful. I am very lazy…

  • Vlad Dolezal

    So true.

    Speaking of game metaphors, I had a friend who used the sims as a metaphor when getting over his fears of approaching women.

    In the past, he would talk to a woman, and every time something didn’t go well, he imagined a sims-like red number above his head – “Relationship points decreased”. Then he realized how counter-productive that was, and instead every time something didn’t go as he planned, he imagined a green number and something along the lines “starting a conversation skill increased” or “Ability to hear no gracefully increased”.

    It’s one of the most fun examples of reframing I’ve ever heard 🙂

  • evilK

    WoW, FinalFantasy or Diablo.. the “level up” concept of this games is completely artificial, false, lifewasting. Really want a true feeling of reward playing a video game? Play Demon’s Souls. The only game that can achieve the positive “tired in the bed before sleep” concept that Scott talked about in another article. Without a guide, of course.

  • Mister

    @evilK quit all MMORPGs…. don’t play computer games just try your best to quit, everytime you play just regret and resolve never to do it again. Put aside wearing glasses, losing social interaction and becoming unhealthy: the important negative effect of MMORPG is wasting time. Instead of becoming a gamer, become the top physicist in the world instead!

  • Mizter

    Martial arts are like MMORPGs.
    Each belt is like leveling up.
    With each progressive belt you learn new skills.
    Also, you keep getting stronger and if you participate in competitions, you feel the reward for having your ‘strength level increase’.