The Fitocrats: How Two Nerds Turned an Addiction to Videogames Into an Addiction to Fitness

IT STARTED BECAUSE BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL, Dick Talens was too fat and Brian Wang was too skinny. Or rather,

Fitocracy CEO Mr. Wang, bottom, with CTO Mr. Talens, outside the pair’s office in Soho.

IT STARTED BECAUSE BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL, Dick Talens was too fat and Brian Wang was too skinny. Or rather, Mr. Wang was “skinny fat,” meaning he had stick limbs and belly pooch, as the 25-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate explained to Betabeat during a recent visit to the Soho co-working space where the pair’s startup, the viral hit fitness game Fitocracy, is headquarted.

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Mr. Talens and Mr. Wang sit next to each other in a sunny corner alongside their gym bags, with greasy athletic shoes tucked under their desks, an economy-sized bin of almonds and a filing cabinet of goodies such as protein powder, vitamins, oats and Splenda.

Mr. Talens, also 25, is muscular and broad-shouldered. There is hardly any resemblance between the 230-pounder he was in high school and the shredded CTO we found outfitted in a pair of flip-flops, jeans and a backwards baseball cap, typing code on an IBM Thinkpad which he had elevated atop a defunct Dell notebook. While Mr. Talens reclined backward as far as his office chair would permit, Mr. Wang, who has the physique of a welterweight, was a bit hyper. He powerwalked between his Mac and a conference room, preparing for a phone call with a potential business partner, pausing to dump into a thermos of milk what looked like enough powder to make pancakes.

Both Mr. Talens and Mr. Wang are computer nerds who enjoy the genre of online diversion known as “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs, like Everquest and World of Warcraft, in which players create a character who grows more powerful the more they play. “I remember one summer, it was like before junior year,” Mr. Talens said. “I’d literally wake up in the morning, play Everquest, like, eat a few times in the day, and just go to bed. And that’s all I did. In a different life, I’m like that kid who got blood clots and died in his room.”

While they still enjoy computer games, at some point the boys transitioned from an addiction to games to an addiction to fitness. Even before they met, they pored over the same online forums where bodybuilders were sharing fitness tips, personal statistics and before-and-after pictures. They met at Penn, over dinner with mutual friends. “It’s actually a very romantic story,” Mr. Talens said. He noticed what Mr. Wang was eating–tuna and broccoli–and thought, dude, he’s like me.

He started prodding Mr. Wang about his diet. “I was like, ‘Are you doing this for health reasons?’ I was trying to flush it out of him,” Mr. Talens said. “And he literally said, ‘I’m cutting right now.’ Cutting is the bodybuilding term for focusing on losing fat. And I was like, holy shit. I’ve never heard anyone offline talk in these terms before. This is only stuff I’ve heard online. And we became best friends ever since.”

The two now live together in Clinton Hill, having learned how to tolerate each other’s constant company after a few hellish months training together for the Mr. Penn bodybuilding contest. A little over a year ago, they quit their corporate jobs (Mr. Talens was working for Comscore and Mr. Wang was slogging through a gig as a product manager at a Connecticut-based agency) and moved to Brooklyn with the plan to launch a startup. After kicking around a few ideas—gift recommendations, sponsored weight-loss contest—they hit on Fitocracy, a website for tracking personal fitness in a way that resembles a game. Fitocracy rewards users for working out the same way Everquest rewards players for killing dragons.

The basic functionality, however, is logging your workouts. Type in an activity, “push-up,” for example, and Fitocracy will suggest categories–”push-up,” “handstand push-up,” “reverse grip triceps pushdown”–and pop up a description of how to do the exercise correctly. Betabeat, at 5’0″ and 95 lbs., received 52 points for entering 20 push-ups. Eighty-two more points, and we’d be promoted to level three. You can add notes to each activity and comment on other users’ exercises. After logging enough workouts, users will start to receive badges, like “No Stranger to the Rack,” for performing a barbell squat for 1.2x your body weight, or “Hello There!” for posting ten comments on Fitocracy. Users can also follow each other’s progress and share updates with friends, join groups and earn “achievements.”

The Fitocrats: How Two Nerds Turned an Addiction to Videogames Into an Addiction to Fitness