IF YOU were to conjure up an image of a dedicated videogame fan, would they be: (a) a pale, highly caffeinated, thumb-mashing, hirsute individual with little respect for personal hygiene, or (b) a toned, lithe, fitness-obsessed creature with great balance and amazing abdominal muscles?
The average gamer probably lies between these extremes, but videogame makers are striving to swing their reputation towards the latter image.
It’s part of a trend called “exergaming” that combines exercise with gaming, and Nintendo is leading its most recent charge in the Australian market.
Two upcoming titles for the company’s game consoles encourage players to get off the couch and engage in aerobic and anaerobic exercises, as well as monitor their body mass index, progress and daily food intake.
Games experts say the novel trend could prove popular and is likely to challenge the reputation of videogames as a sedentary and even unhealthy activity, while exercise physiologists claim the trend could encourage more people to exercise, even if some “Exergames” do not prove to be adequate substitutes for traditional workouts.
“Many Exergaming products similar to the WII can be found at a few websites online such as Exergame Fitness and Motion Kids. These companies are pushing the envelope when it comes to kids fitness and gaming.”
The latest big-name addition to the exergame trend is called Wii Fit and will be launched in Australia on May 8. The game incorporates use of a slim, white platform called the Wii Balance Board that Nintendo developed over two years under the guidance of designer Shigeru Miyamoto.
Using the motion-sensitive board, Wii Fit will deliver 40 exercises for players, including those that work muscles, the heart and balance. Those exercises include push-ups, leg lifts and squats for building muscles, spinning virtual hula hoops, running and rhythmic boxing for building endurance, and yoga poses, tightrope walking and performing virtual ski jumps for improving balance.
Wii Fit will also track your progress as you play the game, and use your BMI to calculate a “Wii Fit Age” to reflect your level of fitness, similar to the Brain Age measurement in the Nintendo DS game of the same name.
Nintendo Australia managing director Rose Lappin says Wii Fit is simply an extension of the get-up-and-move trend Nintendo kickstarted with the launch of Wii Sports.
“Wii Sports is like Wii Fit because it’s a lot of fun and very innovative but you’re still getting exercise while you play,” she says.
“It’s good for busy business people who don’t have time to maintain a gym membership or mums with children – it’s something they can do at home when they have a spare moment or when their children go to bed at night. It’s got a lot of different types of exercise to choose from and some of the guys sampling it say they are really working up a sweat while using it.”
But while Wii Fit can help get your heart rate up, Lappin says it is “not meant to replace gym memberships or put personal trainers out of business”, but is simply a “fun way to get active”.
Also joining Wii Fit in the exergaming stakes will be a new title from Ubisoft due out this winter for the Nintendo DS console. My Health Coach: Weight Management is designed to encourage players to exercise and to watch what they eat with guidance from a fitness coach and a nutritionist.
Its main attraction is a small pedometer that records the number of steps you walk each day. The device can then be plugged into the back of a Nintendo DS console to record and display your efforts.
The game also includes a food diary that makes nutritional recommendations based on what you have eaten, and it features quizzes, mini-games and daily fitness challenges.
Swinburne University media and communications lecturer Dr Mark Finn says games like My Health Coach and Wii Fit are likely to be effective educational tools as they encourage “learning by stealth”, where players absorb health information without consciously seeking it out.
“In the short-term I think they’ll be popular for no other reason than their novelty,” Finn says.
“I don’t think people are deliberately going out there to get fit with videogames, but these games will promote kinetic gaming, where people are interacting with technology in a much more physical way. Just like the Wii Remote allows you to play tennis by actually swinging your arms around, you’re engaging in the game in a much more natural way.”
While games like Wii Fit and Wii Sports are more likely to improve your mobility and balance than your cardiovascular fitness, Finn says they also have benefits for older players and those seeking entertaining ways to recover from an injury.
“What’s interesting about things like the Wii Board is that they’re also offering hope to people in nursing homes and people who have had injuries in the past because it is low-impact exercise and it is much more engaging than traditional rehabilitation even though it’s based on repetitive activity,” he says.
The trend for combining exercise and gaming began back in the 1980s.
The first experiments in the genre incorporated exercise bikes that travelled over virtual landscapes. They included Atari’s Puffer exercise bike in 1982 that could be hooked up to a game console and featured a gamepad on its handlebars.
By 1986, Nintendo fans had joined the trend by hooking up a Computrainer exercise bike to their Nintendo NES machines and virtually cycling around.
But while these fitness-related gaming peripherals never became truly mainstream, more recent attempts have gained a much larger audience.
PlayStation’s EyeToy range of games, for example, use a camera to detect players’ movements and have been used in a variety of titles that force gamers to stand up and move about.
In 2005, PlayStation produced a formal exercise title for the range called EyeToy Kinetic.
It featured a 12-week workout program with a virtual instructor.
Its follow-up, EyeToy Kinetic Combat, expanded on this with a 16-week course in the martial art Hung Gar Kung Fu and featured more sophisticated technology to detect and direct your every move.
The simple game displayed arrows that corresponded to parts of the mat players had to step on in time with the music, and gained serious attention from exercise practitioners when it seemed to do the impossible: encourage videogame-loving children to exercise vigorously and often.
In the US, some gyms responded by introducing the game to their facilities, while schools in West Virginia took the trend a step further, and introduced Xbox consoles with Dance Dance Revolution into each of the state’s 765 public schools in a bid to fight childhood obesity.
A 24-week study of 50 overweight and obese children from the state seemed to support the move.
The study’s participants, aged between seven and 12 years, each played the game for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and found their weight stabilised and their health improved.
Twelve participants did not play DDR for the first 12 weeks, and put on an average of 2.7kg during that time.
However, their weight stabilised during the second half of the study when they started dancing.
Dr Robin Callister, a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of Newcastle, says the results are not surprising given that games of this ilk genuinely increase a player’s heart rate.
“Dance-oriented games could help you lose weight because they involve a lot of stepping and they are getting you to expend lots of energy and just move around more,” she says.
“Also, if they have some jumping component that can be quite good for aerobic fitness and for bone development.”
However, Callister says games must raise your heart rate and get your blood pumping for an extended period of time to register serious health benefits.
Exergames that simply encourage players to hold yoga poses or balance on the spot are unlikely to see them lose weight, she says.
“These games have some merits, particularly for balance and flexibility and those are important elements of fitness,” Callister says.
“But if you spend 15 minutes doing those activities and another four hours doing nothing but sitting on a chair in front of a computer screen you won’t be getting much benefit.
“Some of these games are not a substitute for other sorts of physical activity and I’m not sure they’re better than being outside and playing more vigorous and social activities.”
But as well as improving your overall wellbeing, Finn says exergames could help break down the negative reputation some people still hold about videogames.
Australians spent more than $1.3 billion on game hardware and software last year, including almost $500 million on game consoles alone, according to market research firm GfK. This represented sales of more than 15.4 million games and a 43.6 per cent rise in sales from 2006.
Despite this evidence of their growing popularity, Finn says some Australians still view videogames as a violent or anti-social medium enjoyed by niche groups.
“We’re at an interesting point in gaming history in Australia,” he says. “We’re getting to the realisation that videogames are a legitimate culture within the entertainment industry, but we also have an ongoing suspicion of entertainment that is interactive.
“The Wii has really done more for making gaming mainstream than any other technology we’ve seen lately, and any time we see a game that is non-violent and gets people engaged that can only be good for its reputation.”