I am not fit. I’m not even active. Cardio for me is dancing at da club once in a blue moon, and despite my membership at a climbing gym, I am just as out of breath when I reach the front door of my four-story walk-up apartment today as I was when I moved in two years ago.
But for four days last week, I was down on my floor several times a day doing crunches and leg lifts. And not just a few sets—hundreds of each. I probably did more crunches in that period than I’ve done in my entire life, and aside from an intense chest cold, I’m still going.
What could possibly have made me commit to exercising?
A Japanese romance-slash-fitness game, of course, in which a vaguely hunky manga character berates you into working out. The game is called Burn Your Fat With Me! For Girls, and I discovered it last month in the Apple Store after playing other types of otome, or romantic adventure games geared primarily toward teen girls.
The game was launched in 2013 by the Japanese indie-developer Creative Freaks. After it gained some popularity in Japan, the developers unleashed the English language version last August. In total, the game has been downloaded nearly one million times.
Which I get. In what can only be described as a miracle, Burn Your Fat With Me! For Girls has managed to keep me crunching through a unique blend of storytelling, self-loathing, other-loathing, and an innovative concept called moevation. (More on that later.) But was it really worth it, given its sadistic methods?
In the game, the user plays a shy but talented freshman at a prestigious performing arts academy who has endeavored to lose a few pounds. To advance chapters, the player must complete an increasing number of sit-ups in real life. (I opted for crunches instead of sit-ups, mostly for the wellbeing of my nonexistent abs.)
Sure, doing crunches IRL to work your way through a Japanese love story sounds innocent enough, right? WRONG. You see, the main love interest in this game—the "motivator"—is a boy named Kei Katsuragi, who is the ultra-talented leader of the school’s acting troupe. And he goes out of his way to ridicule you about your body.
Throughout the first few chapters, every time Kei appears, he makes some biting remark about your body, your eating habits, your "need" to lose weight. He compares you unfavorably to the skinny and modelesque girls at the school, and he jokes about your desire to inhale an ice cream shop (though my character does love her some ice cream).
But in a twisted carrot-and-stick situation, Kei also helps you train. He counts your crunches while mocking you. There’s no escape from this guy—unless you want to purchase another character for $1.99.
Despite Kei’s jabs, I felt determined to stick with the game. You see, the brilliance of Japanese romance games is that you're not technically playing as yourself—you're playing as a character. And, so help me Goddess, I was not going to leave this girl, bullied and unhappy and wearing an ill-fitting leotard. I was gonna show Kei who's boss—for her.
As the story progresses, Kei’s insults become less frequent and they’re eventually replaced with words of encouragement—a classic example of the Japanese anime/manga/sim trope tsundere, in which a character is initially hostile and becomes nicer over time. (Think Mr. Darcy, but as a Japanese cartoon.)
Eventually, Kei even lauds the main character's acting talent, defends her when some jilted mean girls make fun of her—and, of course, asks her to be his girlfriend.
Happy as I was for my girl (I guess) and pleased with my burgeoning abs, I was still turned off. Sure, teen obesity rates have tripled since 1980 and losing weight can be healthy for some. And hey, the model of the drill sergeant fitness coach demanding that his (or her) devotee sweat isn't a new one. But the notion that my character then dates this dickhead? Oh hell no. Hell no for all the teen girls out there who should be focusing more on loving their bodies than pleasing a boy.
As Vogue's Monica Kim wrote after playing the game: "It turns out love isn’t the greatest motivator: anger is."
So what was Creative Freaks thinking?
It turns out Burn Your Fat With Me! comes more from a place of struggle, both with weight issues and with being a small-fry indie developer in a tank of huge dating sim gaming companies, than from a bro-driven body shaming mentality.
“I used to be really overweight, and I was able to do muscle training, run, and diet to lose weight,” Mineaki Sugata, the founder and CEO of Creative Freaks told me, as translated by his interpreter, Mardi Robinson. “From that experience, I thought to myself what if I could make a game where exercise was actually fun?”
From there, Sugata began working on what would eventually become the original Burn Your Fat With Me, released in 2011—which was geared towards guys. Two years later, in 2013, Creative Freaks released the For Girls version.
“Originally, the game was created for fun,” Sugata explained. “I also didn't have any money to budget nor anyone who knew me or my work. So instead of making the cool and gentlemanly escort type character to woo the player, I figured it'd be better to make a character that would stir up a reaction, like ‘What the hell is this?!’ It was necessary to create an impact and start a conversation.”
(Notably, Japan has one of the slimmest populations in the developed world. In 2008, the Japanese government passed a law that required citizens to undergo an annual waist measurement. Those who exceeded the government standard were prescribed dietary guidance. On top of that, Japanese women in particular face an immense amount of pressure to be thin and are actually becoming slimmer as a demographic—although people and establishments like LaFarfa, a fashion magazine geared towards curvier women, are working to combat the stigma of not conforming to the skinny standard with body positive messages.)
Perhaps the reason I kept playing was the type of outrage Sugata describes, or perhaps it was moevation, a term coined by Creative Freaks. Moevation is a portmanteau of “motivation” and moe, which is a complicated concept in Japanese pop culture. The most straightforward explanation is that moe describes a type of human attraction to anime and manga characters, though not necessarily a sexual attraction. It's just, like, when you’re inexplicably drawn to a super kawaii (or cute) character.
“[Moe] means different things to different people,” Ian Condry, an associate professor of comparative media studies at MIT and author of The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story, told me. “I define it as an emotional reaction to some feature, this emotional reaction that is very personal." He explained that moe doesn’t have to be related to the overall story or back story of the character, it can be attraction to any part of him or her or them—even a character’s glasses. “It sparks this emotional reaction in you.”
While Kei certainly sparked an emotional reaction in me, I’m not sure I would describe it as moe. More like—f*ck off, you shallow dodo.
Still, Burn Your Fat With Me! For Girls may have the potential to reach a different demographic than other fitness technology. “People spend many hours if not hundreds of hours invested in playing games,” Sugata said. “I thought, what if all those people could spend a certain percent of those hours doing something useful?”
If validation from a fictional character who gets a little nicer with every crunch or squat I do (while I work my way to the top of some fictional school’s acting program) is what it takes for me to exercise, then hell, maybe I could be a fitness junkie after all. But maybe, for my sanity and the future of our collective body image, the next edition of Burn Your Fat With Me! could nix the fat shaming. And maybe cast Idris Elba for the voice of the main love interest. Just a suggestion!