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Friday, November 26, 2021

Habit-Forming Game Comparison: Ring Fit Adventure vs. Pokémon Smile

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Both these games want you to do pro-healthy things. But they have very different approaches.

More and more games want to instill good habits in users. Healthy habits. Games as a source for good. That's explicitly the goal for games like Ring Fit Adventure on the Nintendo Switch (even the antagonist says as much) for exercise and Pokémon Smile on mobile devices for brushing teeth, as well as Pikmin Bloom for walking.

Habits take time to form, and they need certain elements. According to author Nir Eyal—who has worked in the videogame industry helping companies motivate and manipulate their players—and his book Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, designers can build lasting habits in customers with a four step “desire engine” (that you can learn about in significant more detail at this talk he gave with several gaming references) that he abbreviates as A TARI:
  1. Trigger—gets you to act. Can be external or internal.
  2. Action—when doing something is easier than thinking about it. Fast decisions where the brain doesn't have to think. To get an action, you need to be motivated and have the ability to do it (and have the trigger).
  3. Reward—habit-forming tend to be “variable rewards”, where every time you do the action, you don't know if you'll get something out of it. Your dopamine system spikes when you're searching for a reward, in anticipation for it.
  4. Investment—users think about future rewards that make the next (or repeat) action more likely.

Nir believes through proper design, designers can make a certain behaviour—started by someone trying to seek pleasure—into a habit. That means you feel pained (or stressed) when you don't do it. You can use that design for good or for evil. For this article, I'm going to review and compare Ring Fit Adventure and Pokémon Smile and see if they have this proper desire engine design. Did Ring Fit Adventure and/or Pokémon Smile succeed in their core design elements to build habits in their users’ lives?

The Desired Behaviour

Ring Fit Adventure takes you through the whole desired behaviour of a full exercise through a Japanese roleplaying game that combines fitness motions with an adventurous story. The dynamic stretch at the beginning, the game-playing, and then the static stretch at the end. Meanwhile, Pokémon Smile, an augmented reality mobile application, leaves out teeth-flossing and tongue-brushing, crucial parts of the oral hygiene habits. On top of that, having to awkwardly hold up a mobile device while you brush teeth is a major source of user friction, and it isn't at all natural and makes the habit more difficult to physically perform, as well as start. The game flow outright encourages you to brush your teeth last (and skip the tongue?) because it wants to prompt you away from the sink and to the phone, so you can tap it to capture the Pokémon, do photo-editing of pictures it took of you, and examine your Pokémon in the Pokédex.


Though I don't personally use them, both Ring Fit Adventure and Pokémon Smile have built-in external triggers in the form of alarms/notifications. You can set Pokémon Smile to send a notification to your phone up to three times a day at the same times every day; similarly, you can have Ring Fit Adventure set off an alarm on your sleep-mode Nintendo Switch.

Pokémon Smile Brushing Settings Notifications Times in-game pictures
If you want external triggers for both Pokémon Smile and Ring Fit Adventure, you can set them.

Users may also have internal triggers—the trigger in the user's mind, like routines and emotions and perhaps social pressure. For my own experience playing Ring Fit Adventure, I have an incentive to play Ring Fit Adventure several times a week because I know I want to use it as content for KoopaTV every Friday, and it would be... bad if I was unable to meet readers’ expectations of a new Fitness Friday on Friday. This doesn't reflect on how good a job either game does in triggering people to do the habit, but I will say that writing and reading about one fellow's exercise journey through a videogame is a lot more interesting than writing and reading about one fellow brushing their teeth through a videogame. Given the target audience of Pokémon Smile, another trigger could be your parents physically pressuring you into the bathroom to brush your teeth and not letting you escape until that's complete.


Both Ring Fit Adventure and Pokémon Smile bring unnatural elements to exercise and brushing teeth, which makes it less easy to perform the action.

For Ring Fit Adventure, you need to have the proper physical play area and the right physiology. You need a high enough ceiling and no objects around you so you can stretch different ways, as well as a proper view of a large monitor like a big television screen. That's a different playing area than where I usually keep my Switch, so every time I play Ring Fit Adventure, I need to unplug my Switch from where it usually is and move it to this special area and plug it there, while also making sure no one is going to be using that area (because it's a common area and not a Ludwig-only place) for the next couple of hours. (My time using it isn't just the exercising but I'm also going back and forth writing down notes for the KoopaTV Fitness Log.) Ring Fit Adventure does try to make your play area slightly less of a burden by providing users the option to activate Silent Mode where you don't have to noisily run in place, intended for people living in apartments at night. While this is a less effective cardio workout (and I don't use it), you still get to benefit from the rest of the gameplay. There are also some accessibility options (that I also have never tried) to make specific muscle movements easier for less-abled people. As for the physiology, you need to have enough energy to do the workout, but you can't have just eaten something because that's bad for your workout. ...That's definitely not unique to Ring Fit Adventure and it applies to all exercise, but it does limit the notion that Ring Fit Adventure is pick-up-and-play. You need to plan your day's schedule in advance around when you'll eat and then when you'll exercise. But once you get past the difficulties of starting the game, it's quite easy to get into it and want to keep playing... until you get exhausted. It's so... fun and easy to want to play, that the game will prompt you every 10 minutes of in-game time if you want to stop.

Ring Fit Adventure cooldown sweated cilly go ahead and change clothes Tipp
You might also want to schedule taking a shower after playing Ring Fit Adventure!

As for Pokémon Smile, the notion of holding a smartphone in one hand while holding the toothbrush in the other is completely bizarre and unnatural, which greatly increases the difficulty of brushing teeth. Yes, you don't need two hands to brush your teeth, but it doesn't feel proper. You might have a bathroom set-up that lets you put the phone on a stand or something, but my bathroom is just the sink against a wall (and a mirror). There's no place to lay the phone down, so I HAVE to be holding it. And it's weightier than the toothbrush. Also, the game doesn't support electric toothbrushes—and my dentist specifically has instructed me to use only electric toothbrushes for brushing teeth because regular toothbrushes are significantly inferior. What you need to do for Pokémon Smile to notice you're brushing your teeth while using an electric toothbrush is to wave your finger around in front of your mouth, and it'll interpret that as brush movements. Note that your hand is occupied holding the toothbrush—you need to spare a finger from toothbrush-holding duty to satisfy Pokémon Smile. Again, very unnatural. There's a bit of cognitive thinking that goes into setting it up (not the actual brushing itself), though the app will also tell you if you're brushing (or moving your finger) too slowly (or not at all) or too quickly.


You can have rewards for your tribe, for resources, and sensation. Sensation is where games come in—for mastery, consistency, competency, and purpose.

Ring Fit Adventure working hard you'll probably level up soon dialogue
Ring Fit Adventure leverages decades of already established and satisfying Japanese roleplaying game conventions for its reward systems.

I wouldn't say that Ring Fit Adventure is a Japanese roleplaying game with fitness activities added onto it, or a set of fitness activities with a Japanese roleplaying game added onto it. They really are blended together seamlessly. Regardless, the analysis here would be very similar to the one for, say, a Dragon Quest game, which Ring Fit Adventure is really based on. In any given day, you'll be conquering courses, doing side-quests, defeating enemies, collecting money and experience points, and allocating resources. However, it's also coupled with the physical sensations of the exercises, and this feels very satisfying. I'm not a neuroscientist, so I can't really tell you if the RPG part and the fitness part stimulate the same parts of the brain or different parts of it, but it comes together to be a joy to play, both for the reason you'd play any RPG and for the reason you'd want to exercise. Except it's simultaneous and not two separate activities. Depending how much you play that day, you'll naturally get different rewards and make progress, but I would say it's a continuous reinforcement schedule. I would characterise Ring Fit Adventure as far less random than other JRPGs, since enemy composition is more or less fixed and there is no notion of critical hits or RNG-based damage output, though item drops are rare, random, and relevant (so that specifically is a variable ratio schedule, though you won't care about item drops at first). In addition, Multitask Mode guarantees you smoothie/ingredient drops, though which ones you'll get are random (and some are much more useful), which is a good incentive to use that mode.

For Pokémon Smile, it's also a continuous reinforcement fixed reward schedule. Every time you brush your teeth, you'll be able to catch a Pokémon. You don't know which Pokémon, but you're guaranteed to get one assuming you brush your teeth competently. (If you did a bad job, you won't be able to throw a Master Ball, but there's no reason you should fail unless you encounter technical difficulties or something.) You also can get rewarded with hats and stickers for your photos that the game takes of you while you brush your teeth. While these also aren't random (you can look up what you need to do to unlock these), they seem like they are since the game doesn't give you hints on what you gotta do. Still, these are really lame rewards. The photo mode is creepy and... by the nature of you sticking a toothbrush in your mouth and opening it wide, it doesn't take flattering images of you that you'd want to remember or decorate. As for the Pokédex, you can visit Friend Area-esque spots with the 155 Pokémon (all of Generation 1's plus a very recent update earlier in November 2021 adding Smeargle, Ludicolo, Mime Jr., and Dedenne). The only way to interact with the Pokémon is by tapping them. They will generically jump with no special effects, unless they're one of the five Starter Pokémon (Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle, Pikachu, or Eevee), in which case they'll have a custom animation. These rewards are not very meaningful for players.


Ring Fit Adventure, like other Japanese roleplaying games, hooks you into wanting to play more with its different worlds structure. At least early on, there's plenty of story and dialogue to go around in each of the 23 worlds (not to mention the fact that there is Extra Fitness mode for a second playthrough and then Fitness Master for a third playthrough with unlockable things you'll only get then, so you'll be invested in this for a very long time—importantly, your progress transfers over, so the character build and achievements do as well), with those having courses and even side-quests that help level up your character. You'll be invested in wanting to know what happens next in the story and the characters’ development. It's not... extraordinary writing or anything, but it's at least genuinely amusing. Dragaux was the best new character of 2019 off his wisecracks and you'll want to play to read those, at least. Also, since I did mention levelling up, Ring Fit Adventure has a long list of Fit Skills you'll acquire by either levelling up, finding in Treasure Chests, or with its expandable skill tree (with skill points you acquire by levelling up as well). Learning new Fit Skills isn't just like learning a cool new spell in an RPG—you're also learning a whole new way to control your character, which may activate and exercise a new part in your physical body that you weren't using before, and that feels awesome. You'll want to keep playing and unlock all of the skills to keep that up. There are also many outfits in the game, as well as items and smoothies, and these are tracked with catalogues that you will get recognition for if you 100%—not to mention the game's many Titles, awarded for achieving things like getting A or S ranks on minigames, playing a certain number of days consecutively, or doing a certain exercise a certain number of repetitions. The game makes those Title requirements easily accessible within the game, and they're quite high, so you'll have to play the game many times to achieve those accomplishments, which helps build the habit and addictive nature of it. Plus, you can share your game progress with your friends and the world from within the game, in addition to activities like Rhythm Game and Quick Play Simple Exercises that have online leaderboards. You might be invested in topping those—they also clear on a weekly basis, which means you'll play that often to stay at the top if you're into that.

For Pokémon Smile, there is also an Awards system. It's a simple thing on the home menu where you'll get medals for completing 10 (Brushing Beginner), 15 (Brushing Leader), 50 (Brushing Champion), and then 90 (Brushing Master) days of brushing. But really, you'll want to keep coming every day for the Pokémon. Since you don't know what Pokémon will appear next (it seems pseudo-random—you won't ever get a Pokémon's evolved form before its unevolved form, and Legendary Pokémon are in the last third or so), that might be interesting. For a real example, I got Articuno before Kakuna. It's just Pokémon Smile does nothing interesting with your favourite Pokémon except for their their cute sprite. That's worth something, I suppose. I certainly was interested in playing until I finally got Tauros. But otherwise, they're not meaningful and they don't change your gameplay cycles or loops in any way, which really decreases the desire to keep playing and loop back to being triggered to play again the day after.

Pokémon Smile Pokédex Field biome Snorlax Tauros Machop Lickitung Farfetch'd Exeggcute Exeggutor
Snorlax is really happy to see Tauros there!
(Same here.)

After 155 plays, of course, there's nothing left to collect. Pokémon Smile theoretically wants you to brush multiple times a day, although the game doesn't tie anything to doing so, or even once a day consecutively.

Concluding Thoughts

Both Ring Fit Adventure and Pokémon Smile have the same kinds of triggers—they allow for reminders, and society generally expects you to exercise and brush your teeth. And for good reason, because you might feel crummy if you don't. Neither game makes it seamlessly easy to do its action—that's to be expected of Ring Fit Adventure given the physical space it has to occupy (it's still easier than going to the gym, however), though Pokémon Smile messes up by making brushing teeth extremely complicated than if you just didn't use an app at all. Ring Fit Adventure uses established game mechanics that gamers have been addicted to for decades to promote its social good, and it comes together as a very nice and rewarding package that players want to invest in and 100%. I've definitely taken a greater interest in fitness because of Ring Fit Adventure. However, with Pokémon Smile's added game mechanics, while it does have a completion aspect of it to catch all of the Pokémon, don't feel very rewarding because the Pokémon themselves are just sprites that walk a few steps left, a few steps right, and can jump if you tap them. I mean, even Diglett does that, and Diglett shouldn't be jumping around. It doesn't feel authentic, and so Pokémon Smile just fails at helping build teeth-brushing habits.

As of publishing this, Ring Fit Adventure has a Black Friday sale (until November 28, 2:59 AM Eastern). You should buy it. Pokémon Smile is free... and you get what you pay for.

Using the words design and desire in the same sentence is just ripe for creating a fun tongue twister. Ludwig obviously failed to meet reader expectations of a new Fitness Friday this Friday, but he'll go over why that happened next Friday. Have you played Ring Fit Adventure and/or Pokémon Smile? Do you agree with Ludwig's analysis? ...Do you agree with the A TARI framework by Nir Eyal to begin with? Let KoopaTV know in the comments below.

Here is the next KoopaTV Fitness Friday, explaining Ludwig's physical difficulties (and the game's attempts to get him to stop).
This review won KoopaTV's Best KoopaTV Review of 2021 award!
Pokémon Smile did get a free update later adding 99 more Pokémon.
Ludwig believes Ring Fit Adventure does better with habit forming than other fitness games as well.


  1. "Ring Fit Adventure does try to make your play area slightly less of a burden by providing users the option to activate Silent Mode where you don't have to noisily run in place, intended for people living in apartments at night. "

    Oh, I might have to sue that because the only real time I play is when THE BABY is asleep and I might make too much noise otherwise. Our apartment is not that big to be as far as possible from the sleeping BABY.

    1. The apartment bit is more for other occupants of the apartment that might be below you, as opposed to people within your same room, but I guess that can apply too.

      Does that mean you'll keep the game audio down? You don't need the game audio, but not only is the music great, the sound effects help prompt you through the exercises. For example, when to stop holding a pose and revert back. Some exercises have you not look at the screen because... you physically can't (like bending down or looking on the ground) so the sound design helps you manage that.


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