I’ve just reached the bottom of the half-mile hill, the warm-up portion of my run, and it almost broke me. My legs hurt, my feet feel like they’re about to fall off, and I’m not sure I remember how to breathe. But it always feels like this at the start of a run, when my body realizes I’m not just fooling with its head; that I’m actually starting a three-mile run.

I’m looking at the hill ahead, feeling the one behind and wondering why the hell I’m doing this. Why the hell I’m not sitting inside on my ass watching American Idol. Inside it’s warm and there’s beer. Out here it’s about 50 degrees and threatening rain. By the time I get home I’ll be soaked through with sweat, and, if the dark clouds ahead decide to burst, cold, wet rainwater. I see the stop sign on the corner up ahead. It taunts me. It’s telling me I’m an idiot for doing this. It may be right. I feel old, beat up and slow. Oh God, do I feel slow.

I press the center button on my iPod, and the pleasant male voice with a Palo Alto accent tells me I’ve been running for four minutes and three seconds. The voice reminds me of everything I hate about Californians and their smug, fitter-happier-smarter-than-thou attitude. I imagine he’s just some guy they picked up from the Apple office floor. I imagine there are a thousand more just like him. I call him Apple Man, and I despise him. I want to succeed just to spite him. He is the perfect trainer.

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Apple Man tells me I’ve covered slightly less than half a mile in my four minutes of running. He tells me I’m running an 8:15 pace. Not Olympic, by any stretch, but faster than my mom can run. Faster than you probably run. Faster than I ran a month ago. Shit, faster than I’ve ever run. Suddenly I don’t feel slow any more. Suddenly I feel fast. Paula Radcliffe fast. Lance Armstrong fast. Superman fast.

I cinch up my sneakers and kick. I launch myself across the street, through the trees and along a course that will take me over three miles of hard, cold ground before it dumps me back home where the couch, the beer and Idol are waiting. But I don’t think about any of that anymore. Now I think about the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement, keeping my breathing steady and the wind across my face. Right now I’m all about speed and the long-view goal of being fit. Right now I’m all about leveling.

“Life is Crap”
Jane McGonigal is the kind of developer who makes other developers squirm. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say she’s above making games that are merely fun, merely captivating. She’s out for bigger fish.

“Reality is broken,” McGonigal told the standing-room-only crowd at the Game Developers Rant at this year’s GDC. “Why aren’t game developers trying to fix it?” It’s the simple questions like this that get things moving. Revolutions are started over less interesting sentiments, and McGonigal, designer of the much-discussed alternate reality game I Love Bees, is no stranger to those.

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McGonigal holds that if anyone can make life more interesting, more fun, it’s game developers. After all, fun is their business. We’re talking about videogames, where teams hundreds strong work for years making the prospect of logging on for hours at a stretch, crafting, selling items, undertaking routine quests just for the experience points, so you can level up and go on longer quests so you can come back tomorrow and do it all again seem fun. Surely these people have considered applying their same creative leverage to real life. Surely.

But no. Most game developers have their head in the game, not life. Life’s too big, too unwieldy. In a game you can control all variables. In a game the only rules are your rules, and you can bend them if you really need to. Games are games, life is life and never shall the two meet. That’s just the way it is. But what if life were a game … now that’s just crazy talk. Or is it?

“Games have a value as an aid to quality of life even greater and more direct than has hitherto been suspected,” read a slide at McGonigal’s SXSW keynote speech in Austin, TX. “The ordinary routine of playing a game is fatal to conditions of depression, existential angst, human suffering and other serious afflictions of real life.” In other words, playing games makes us happy.

“Games are the ultimate happiness engine,” McGonigal says. “When I’m in games I have all the info and feedback I need, I have superhero skills … it’s just better than real life. … Life is crap.”

Life is crap. It’s so true it hurts. Hurts like my sides hurt as I hit the halfway point. A mile and a half behind me, a mile and a half to go. The wooden planks of the sidewalk bridge feel good on my feet. Softer than the concrete. And this is when I know I’m pushing too hard. When the relative merits of various paving materials make me happy or sad. I don’t slack up, but I remember this moment, pledge to recall this image when I complain about my knees later on.

Apple Man tells me I’m halfway to my goal. I imagine him sitting in a mesh-backed Aero chair in his dimly-lit, spacious Palo Alto cubicle as he says this. I want to run all the way there and punch him in the teeth. He fuels my fire, does his part, and I kick. Apple Man, I’m coming for you. Just you wait. Just you wait.

Revenge of the Fat Kid
Nike calls it “a new way to run,” which is about as insightful as sticking a feather in your cap and calling it macaroni. Nike+iPod is not a new way to run. You’re still running the old fashioned way – putting one foot in front of the other and remembering to breathe – but running with the Nike+iPod device is a lot more fun than doing it alone.

The Nike+ system consists of two parts: the accelerometer/transmitter and the receiver. The accelerometer goes in your shoe, where, if you’ve bought the Nike+ shoe, there’s a small pocket under the insole. (If you have a non-Nike+ shoe, you’ll have to break out the X-acto knife or the duct tape.) The receiver plugs into the bottom of an iPod Nano and receives telemetry from the accelerometer, determining how fast, how far and how long you’ve been running, then tallies all of this data this at the end of your run. It calculates how many calories you’ve burned, compares it to stored data and gives you feedback. Meanwhile, you can build a playlist from your iTunes library and hit a button for an instant “power song” when you’re feeling less than motivated. It’s like having 20 bands and a mathematician as running partners, minus the cloud of ganja smoke and the pocket protector.

With my iPod strapped to my arm I feel like a Cyborg running machine; Master Chief in sneakers. I feel like a patriot in the geek/jock revolution. I should load “We Are The Champions” on my iPod, play it when I hit the streets and gloat. Running may never correct the permanent curvature of my spine from endless hours of hunching over a keyboard/console/book that defined the first 30 years of my life, but at least I can run flat out for just over a quarter mile at the end of a three mile run. When I was in middle school it took me a half an hour to run a mile, well below the mark for the Presidential Fitness Medal. Now I can do it in eight. Take that, Ronald Regan. Revenge of the fat kid.

We feel good when we’re good at something, or when we’re told we’re good, and feeling good makes us want to feel more good, so we try even harder. This is why we enjoy games, where obstacles are set before us in increasing difficulty, and – if the game is any good – we’re never in over our heads. Nike+ uses the same principles to convince me I’m good at running. The result: I get good at running. I level up.

“You’ve Just Set a New Personal Best”

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I pass the basketball court and glance briefly over to see if anyone’s shooting hoops, but they aren’t. I’m the only one dumb enough to be out in this weather. My legs have stopped hurting, but now I’m no longer sure if that’s a good thing. Breathing makes my chest feel two sizes smaller, and I’m starting to see spots. But I’m a mile from home, two-thirds of the way done, two miles in, and I know I’ve leveled. According to my Nike+ profile, I’d logged just over 98 miles before I set out tonight. The two miles I’ve just ground under my feet have pushed me into the 100 mile club. I’m at Level 2.

The level cap in the Nike+ MMOG is, counting the starting position, 8. To get to level 8, I need to run 4,900 more miles. There are currently 13 Nike+ members at level 8, and about 160,000 at my current level, level 2. There are about 200,000 people using the system in total. At the 500 mile mark (level 3), the crowd thins by almost 150,000. Needless to say, most people don’t make it that far, and I may not either, but four months ago I was still in the 0 club. I didn’t think I would get this far, but I did. And all I had to do was run. Grind. It seems so simple looking back, but then, it always does.

Now I’m headed back up the half-mile hill, a half-mile from my house, the finish line. The half-mile-hill is actually two hills, with the finish line at the top of the second. So the last quarter mile of my run is an uphill slog at the end of a three mile run. Sometimes I sprint this portion. Just because I can. Just because it makes my numbers look good on the website.

I imagine I’m running a race, catching up to the leader then blowing him away when he’s got nothing left in his tank. I’m beating my knees into dust, punishing my body and painfully shedding pounds earned through years of Dorito abuse, and what motivates me is the voice of a man I want to kill and the thought that people are looking at what I’ve done and experiencing envy. How is this not like playing a game?

I kick to the top of the hill, push with everything I have left, almost to the point where I’m blacking out, feeling nauseous and ready to die. I make the top of the hill and I have nothing more to give. But I finished. Three more miles logged, 399 to go before I level up again.

“Congratulations,” Lance Armstrong says. “You’ve just recorded a new personal best for the mile.” Thanks, Lance. I’m glad you’ve got my back. You may be a testicle short, but you’re still a mensch in my book.

Russ Pitts is most likely running from his own past. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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