In 1992, the closest thing video games had to a “fitness” title was an adventure game called Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out.
In it, series protagonist Larry Laffer, polyester suit model and poster boy for creepiness, wins a holiday to an exotic spa and is required to “shape up” by working out in the spa’s gymnasiums.
Being the days before motion-enhanced controllers and all-seeing cameras, this meant pressing the up and down keys 300 times in a row to simulate 150 “push-ups”.
Till the Nintendo Wii’s arrival in 2006, and barring a few failed experiments with peripherals, the furious repeated application of forefinger to relevant button (a process aptly called “button mashing”) was the most physical video games could get. If gameplay called for “physical” tasks—running, sprinting, administering a chokehold—simulating physical exertion was limited to rapidly pressing keys.
Virtual trainer: Some video games may help you burn calories, but they are no substitute for workouts.
The medium has come quite far since then. In the latest figures released by market research firm NPD, which tracks video-game sales, three of the top 10 sellers for February were active “dance” games, which use either motion controllers like the Nintendo Wiimote (Just Dance) or Microsoft’s camera peripheral Kinect for Xbox 360 (Dance Central). These are not games you can play sitting down.
Kinect, which abandons the need for a controller altogether and encourages players to jump around and actively inhabit the game they’re playing, recently became the fastest selling consumer electronics device of all time, selling more than 10 million units since its launch in October.
“We have seen our console sales (in India) more than double since Kinect was launched,” says Jaspreet Bindra, the regional director of Microsoft India’s entertainment and devices division. Bindra calls the Kinect, which has an inbuilt 3D camera, a “fun way to stay fit”. “It enables a full-body workout, making it a perfect fitness product,” he says. “With Kinect you jump, dance and run, making you sweat and helping you shed some extra pounds.”
But just playing video games hasn’t suddenly become a healthy thing to do. While there’s no denying that active exertion is preferable to vegetating on a sofa, the so-called “fitness” advantages of most modern video games are not as straightforward as they may seem.
“If you are already working out regularly, then playing these games will add to your fitness simply by burning calories and keeping you on your feet instead of sitting and watching TV,” says Jaya Radhwani, senior physiotherapist, A+ Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Clinic, New Delhi. “But by itself the physical activities involved in the games are very low-impact and repetitive, so it’s not an alternative to exercising.”
Games with perceived fitness benefits fall into a few categories. There are the out-and-out exercise games that feature virtual trainers (such as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved for the Xbox 360), dance games that require agility and movement (like Just Dance for the Nintendo Wii) and sports titles that mimic the actions of an actual game (such as Wii Sports). The dance games usually give “ratings” for how well you follow on-screen prompts, and higher difficulty levels require faster and more coordinated dancing. Sports games break down the complexities of an actual game to game-like terms. You swing the controller wildly to mimic a tennis shot or golf swing, or roll it to mimic a bowling throw.
Gameplay is still generally built around continuous exertion through repeated activity, and the games retain some parts of that old button-mashing paradigm. In a 2005 paper titled “The Rhetoric of Exergaming”, games researcher Ian Bogost explains the problem as one that asks a hypothetical runner to sprint, and nothing else. “Real track runners do not exercise by practising sprints alone,” he writes. “Their regimens usually include plyometric exercises for strength and power, medium-distance for endurance and flexibility, and laddered sprints for event-specific training. In fact, launching into a sprint is generally acknowledged to be one of the worst kinds of exercise, especially for those who don’t keep regular workout schedules.”
A 2007 study in the British Medical Journal found that while playing on consoles like the Wii “increased” the amount of physical energy expended, this was not a substitute for “doing real sport”.
But games makers seem to know this. The fitness angle is one pursued more eagerly by marketers than designers. Recent exercise titles like 2009’s EA Sports Active (and its 2010 sequel EA Sports Active 2) and Nintendo’s Wii Fit have shifted the focus not to perceived health benefits or weight-loss goals, but staying “active”.
It’s a focus reinforced by the booming popularity of the active dance games, where flexibility of movement is preferred over repetitive exercise. Ubisoft’s Just Dance 2 has sold more than five million copies since its launch, beating big-ticket franchises such as Bulletstorm and Dead Space 2 on sales charts.
In video games, as in real life, fun still seems to count more than fitness.
Fitness on my mind
We look at three unusual video games that try to impart health and fitness advice and benefits
‘GymFu’ is a set of “fitness mini-games” for the iPhone. You strap the device on to your arm or leg, and do push-ups, crunches, squats and pull-ups. The device’s inbuilt motion sensor gives you feedback and advice by tracking your movements. ‘GymFu’ also features a leader board for people to compete against each other and post their high scores. Think of it as a global, over-the-Net version of a physical education class.
My Stop Smoking Coach with Allen Carr
Allen Carr is an author of books that help people quit their “psychological dependencies”. Game developers Ubisoft have converted Carr’s method for giving up smoking into a curious video game for the Nintendo DS. With mini-games, lessons and an interactive “path to freedom” meter, it is an interesting attempt at harnessing the compelling quality of video games for achieving desirable real world goals.
Nintendo Wii Vitality Sensor
First shown in 2009, Nintendo’s planned ‘Vitality Sensor’ is a small plug that attaches to your finger and measures your pulse. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata indicated that games based on “relaxation” and “well-being” would be the focus for the Vitality Sensor. No further details have emerged about the device, and it still hasn’t been released.
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