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How an app helped James recover from a broken back

April 30, 2021

Dr James Birt, Associate Professor of Computer Games at Bond University, recovered from his back injury through a gamified app.  PHOTO: Cavan Flynn

James Birt is a gamification expert but not even he could have imagined it would one day help him recover from a broken back.

The Associate Professor of Computer Games at Bond University fell down a set of stairs in September last year, leaving him in severe pain and struggling mentally.

As part of his recovery, Dr Birt turned to his life’s work, gamification, in which the principles of game design are applied to non-game contexts.

He downloaded an app called Couch to 5K Runner which aims to have users running 5km per session by the end of an eight-week program.

“It’s amazing how falling downstairs and breaking multiple bones can actually change your focus,” Dr Birt said.

“I had gained a lot of weight and was just not feeling really positive about things.

“What got me through the broken back and rehab was playing mobile games. Because I couldn’t have any painkillers, I had to keep my mind occupied with work.

“I figured if games got me through the pain stage of the rehabilitation, then some form of gamification could get me through the next part – getting life back to normal, getting the weight off.”

Dr Birt is a leading academic in the field of video games but fitness has never been his forte.

His wife, Carlie, found the couch to 5km app and with a little trepidation, a bold new journey unfolded.

“I’ve never been a runner, ever,” he said.

“The first run lasted one minute and it was quite difficult – I was absolutely stuffed because my fracture side was really painful.

“When I first started I probably didn’t think I was going to get there but as time went on I began to think I could win this game, which is what happened.”

Dr Birt reached his 5km goal last week – with help from the app and its gamification elements of progression, badges and social sharing – and has now set his sights on running 10km.

“The final badge to say you’ve done it, was incredible,” he said.

“It was addictive. The best thing was the progression and that it wasn’t bombarding me.

“I’ll be 42 this year and I think we all need to find ways to up our game, compete within ourselves and connect the digital side with the physical and health side.

“That’s where these types of apps and other digital based sensor devices like watches come to the fore – it is a really positive combination.”

Dr Birt is not associated with the app or its developers.