As a television producer, Cynthia Salbato always looked for ways to steer viewers to the Internet, giving them more information, resources or interactive guides to her programming.
But the concept never fully gelled until Salbato, 47, of Ashland, brainstormed how the two media could intersect, only in reverse.
Salbato spent more than two years constructing an online role-playing game and social network from her custom, fantasy-themed day planner. When the project — dubbed Plan-It You — launches this month, weekly RVTV talk shows will be the supporting cast, rather than the lead.
"The enthusiasm is pretty high," Salbato says.
The television component is intended to create wider community awareness for Plan-It You, which was slated to debut in January with a group fitness challenge. Difficulties implementing an online tracking tool turned the event into a focus group of 49 participants who joined 10 different teams working toward a specific health goal.
Once the tool is in place, players receive points for their progress.
"This is very unique," says 52-year-old Kathy Buffington of Ashland. "It's the first thing I've gotten excited about," she says of strategies for getting fit.
A "warrior" guides participants — all of whom hold virtual passports to Salbato's make-believe world — through the fitness challenge.
Played by Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Kevin Kenerly, the Warrior is one of nine avatars, each of whom presides over a realm, such as emotions, relationships or prosperity. Every realm has a virtual location on Plan-It You.
Requiring no membership fee, www.planityou.com was designed on a shoestring budget, largely by local talent. It's impressive, nonetheless, says one Web-industry expert who says her enjoyment isn't diminished by the project's technology delays.
"I fell in love with the Web site," says Priscilla Oppenheimer. "The Web site is gorgeous."
The 53-year-old Ashland network engineer says she signed up for Plan-It You's beta test because it blends role-playing in the vein of Second Life and social networking similar to Facebook, both sites that Oppenheimer uses regularly. At Plan-It You, she joined the Eliminators, a team of players trying to subtract unhealthful foods from their diets.
It's that sort of support for accomplishing common goals that sets Plan-It You apart from other social networking sites, Salbato says. Players' real-life achievements ultimately benefit their communities, she says.
This month's "green game," for example, may promote a citywide litter clean-up. Players will receive points for eco-conscious activities such as composting, recycling, reducing junk mail, installing more efficient light bulbs and plumbing fixtures, even gardening and buying local food. The game is designed to track participants' progress against their neighbors and to show the cumulative effect of everyone's efforts, Salbato says.
"I'm hoping that will be our big splash."
Salbato hopes to make more waves next month with another 13-week fitness challenge — one the entire local community can undertake — this time with help from Plan-It You's tracking tool. That event will culminate in the Great Warrior Race, which Salbato describes as a mini version of CBS's "The Amazing Race."
Despite the timelines for Plan-It You, the game's strength is its flexibility, Salbato says. Players' virtual personas don't expire if they fail to meet a goal, they simply take another path and return to a realm when they're ready. The design helps participants determine which areas of their lives deserve the most attention.
"You can play your fitness game at any time," Salbato says.
"It think it's really motivating," says Buffington, who says she lost a couple pounds and as many inches three weeks into the testers' fitness challenge.
It was Salbato's desire to motivate people that led her to reproduce a custom day planner that assigned roles to daily tasks. When an employee at Kinko's suggested she sell it, Salbato first envisioned a television series and then realized the Internet was more suited to her vision.
"It tends to be passive media," she says of television.
The sudden and widespread popularity of Second Life convinced Salbato that Plan-It You could attract a following and — more importantly — help people lead more fulfilling lives simply by playing themselves instead of pretending.
"I think people are really seeking meaning right now."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.