Fitness games are lame, but they don't have to be. - Vogon5 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

What's Happening

Fitness games are lame, but they don't have to be.

Nintendo had an interesting concept with the Wii. They positioned it as a living room device for use in your everyday lifestyle. In a way, it's what Microsoft is trying to do now with their vision of the Xbox as a complete media hub. But Nintendo's focus was more on things like the news, weather, and even a user's personal photo library. I lived Nintendo's vision for a little bit. It was a short period of time when I would come home, sit down, and fire up the Wii. Without even starting a game I could spend hours on it, checking the news and weather, voting on the Everybody Votes channel, downloading cool new Miis, solving photo puzzles, and other superfluous niceties included on the Wii Menu. Long before Sony released Home or Life With Playstation, and before Microsoft announced their ambitious New Xbox Experience, the dashboard redesign that really started the media hub revolution, Nintendo had almost successfully seen the other ways a game console could fit into your life, but just barely missed the mark.

That's why I'm a fan of Wii Fit. In a pre-release video I remember watching, Shigeru Miyamoto explained how he would use it a lot just as a way to keep track of his body. He told how doing a regular check-in with the digital device made him more conscious of his real life choices and habits. That's a statement that stuck with me quite a bit. Wii Fit, much like the Wii itself, was designed to unobtrusively fit into your life, and hopefully make you better for it. You could go as deep as you wanted, unlocking every workout and challenging yourself for new high scores, or you could just use it as a fancy scale that graphed your weight and BMI for you. This style of fitness game works well in my opinion, because for all the muscular intensity it lacks, it succeeds in subtly nudging you in the right direction, provided you use it with any amount of regularity.

On release, Wii Fit was a crazy successful product, selling out in a fashion I only remember seeing when the Wii itself launched. It's no wonder, then, that it spawned so many imitators. From Dora the Explorer themed knockoffs for little kids, through UFC branded offerings powered by Kinect, so many fitness games have been released since then that an army of Zerg might be outnumbered. But they all share one common characteristic: They're lame.

Once, I bought my mom a copy of EA Sports Active for Mother's Day. I hoped it might be a good way for her to get some exercise when she couldn't get to the gym or didn't want to run (plus it would finally get her to not treat the Xbox like an alien mind-control device). She never even tried to play it, but I started it up exactly once, out of one part curiosity and one part hope it might match Wii Fit, plus Kinect powered workouts to boot. Quite frankly, it sucked. Menus were cumbersome and unintuitive, profile creation took forever, and when I finally started an exercise I felt like I was wrestling with the Kinect more than my own physical limitations.

To me, this experience outlines what's wrong with fitness games. They present themselves without many defining characteristics besides some corporate babble about healthy living (I had enough of that in health class), and then they plop out some disappointment of a bland tapioca interface with ineffectual exercises, controls that often don't work, and little to no actual health tracking or good advice for my real life health. Fitness is presented fine as a theory within the game, but it has little to no chance of carrying over from one of these games into reality.

That's what I think Wii Fit got right. Later health games tried to build on the concept without really realizing what the concept was. It's not about having to do some routine to prove yourself to the game, or having your entire body tracked (with questionable accuracy). Wii Fit's success was in its simplicity and gentleness. It had a layout simple enough for my technology shy mom and young sister to use, but characteristic enough to be more interesting than a sheet of paper.

More than that, it was effective at altering my own health. The game smartly gave out advice based on context and your answers to questions it asked you, dealing with things like nutrition or posture. It might comment on the changing seasons or greet you a good morning, and more than a few times on a late night it told me to go to sleep, followed by a short lecture on proper sleeping habits. This smart tuning into the user's life only added to Wii Fit's greatest benefit: The Wii Balance Board. The board is an accurate scale that also happens to be pretty good at reading your balance and posture, and using it to keep track of your weight and progress is a great way to become more aware of your body. I believe in this highly because of my own personal experience.

I've always had a problem with my weight, as far back as I can remember. As a little kid I was chubby, and in middle school through my junior year of high school I was that kid who always wore shirts while swimming. If I ever had to change in a locker room or with a roommate I would somehow try to hide myself away. The heaviest I ever got was during sophomore year of high school, when one day I stepped back on the Wii Balance Board and weighed in at 215 pounds of pure fat, no muscle. I often times felt plain ashamed of myself, jealous of the athletes at school or anybody even partially thinner than me. Later that year, during the summer months, I resolved, very simply, to eat less junk. The next time I weighed in, I was surprised to see I was 10 pounds lighter. Spirits lifted, I finally made the conscious decision to watch my health. I began regular weigh-ins with Wii Fit, and just by this increased awareness of my weight I was able to lose even more. The beginning of my junior year was the first time I heard anybody compliment me on the weight I'd lost. I took it calmly and maybe a little awkwardly, but inside my head I think I could have cried. I've now graduated high school, leaving for college in August, and I weigh about 165 pounds. It's still mostly fat instead of muscle, but at least at the right angle and in the right light I can look pretty slim, and I've only recently renewed my gym membership.

I tell this story in the hopes of illustrating what fitness games could do with changes to the way they work and how they interact with the players. I guarantee it wouldn't have happened without Wii Fit's existence. Imagine if rather than being parred down exercise trainers, other fitness games took the proper cues from Wii Fit and offered a quantified view of one's health, with smart advice, virtual exercises that actually work and are fun to do, and incentives to keep coming back. Fitness games are lame as they currently are, which is to say a disappointing pile of broken ideas and lost promises, born out of an initial success. But they don't necessarily have to be this way, and I believe many people could be better because of it.

comments