Can video games really make fitness fun?

By Rachel Flynn and Corey Conley

As the days go by and I stick to my laptop and phone screen, it’s harder to draw away from the world of technology to pay attention to our physical profile rather than our Facebook one. After a hard day at work, the last thing I want to do is, well, work. So I decided to compromise – with motion controlled video games. Since I started playing these relatively active games, I’ve discovered that the rise of motion gaming has the potential to revolutionize exercise.

In the days of the traditional “gamepad” controller people’s daily lives were more active and games for the Atari or original Nintendo systems were a sedentary break from the regular hustle and bustle of life. However, with many of us working at computers for our livelihoods, many are looking for games that let us break from our sedentary worklife, and maybe even get the heart pumping.

motion gaming nintendo wii

With this in mind, I decided to purchase my first motion-gaming system; a Nintendo Wii. Although it was hardly the first to offer fitness-oriented gaming, the oddly named Wii was the first to bring the idea to the fore with its Wii Sports and especially, Wii Fit seriesWii Fit tells calculates body mass index, your weight, and calculate your “Wii Fit Age” – among other potentially embarrassing statistics – through a series of balance activities, then guides you through progressively more challenging levels of games and workouts. All the while, the machine is tracking and graphing your progress (or lack thereof), even chiding you when you’ve been away for too long.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that obesity, especially of the childhood variety, is a problem in America, and video games have long played their role in the sedentary lifestyle. So when the Wii first came out, it was a kind of revelation in the gaming world. The player now had to move to make the games work and even when playing with minimal effort, arms and wrists still had to work at games like Wii boxing and tennis. As the Wii got more popular, it added pieces like Wii motion plus and the Wii Fit balance board (included withWii Fit). Games like Zumba Fitness – based on the popular dance-based fitness program – use a belt to place the controller so the game can pick up hip movements, and Wii Fitness Trainer uses the nunchuck to pick up arm and leg movement together. As the systems progress, the games move with it.

Success, the saying goes, breeds imitators. Xbox Kinect is the most prominent motion-based challenge to the Wii, and it represented a leap forward in motion gaming. It became the fastest selling consumer electronic device of all time, and with good reason. The Kinect combined an infrared light emitter, a multi-array microphone, and a suite of motion sensing cameras into a mere $150 device.

microsoft xbox 360 kinnect motion gaming

The result is a motion-tracking device that rivals devices which typically cost thousands more, making it a darling of hackers and roboticists everywhere, who are adapting it for uses Microsoft never dreamed of.

However, most people know it simply as a novel way to control their favorite games, and in that capacity, it is still genius. The full-body tracking and control is natural and responsive, even in low-light conditions. The simple act of controlling a virtual car or airplane becomes an active, engaging event. The cameras can track six different players at once, turning each into a 20-point articulated virtual skeleton for each player, and then translating that to the on-screen action.

With the Wii Fit and Kinect it’s easy to see a future where the workout becomes something fun and engaging, where the rewards for working out are instant, albeit digital. Video games with the most addictive qualities, be it Farmville or World of Warcraft, string players along with a constant drip of rewards. Defeat a powerful enemy or complete a long, often repetitive series of tasks, and you might be rewarded with an upgrade to your on-screen avatar, or receive an “achievement.”

These achievements burst onto your screen with a sudden sound, a flash of light, a bar displaying your achievement, and an announcement to all nearby of your deed. The achievement and any associated rewards are forever tied to your character and contribute to a point total that exists only for bragging rights.

It is this achievement system that is most interesting. No achievements give rewards to the player that actually increase their character’s power, yet many players still seek them. It leverages the rarity of an achievement and the status it brings to drive players towards tasks they might otherwise neglect. Occasionally achievements bring cosmetic rewards such as a new title which displays alongside your character name, a new fantasy creature to ride or to follow you around in the world, announcing to all your skill and digital fortitude. Xbox’s online gaming service has a similar system that tracks such deeds across all games tied to a player’s account.

Such a system, properly modified, would be perfect for people looking for that extra motivation to workout. Losing that extra pound will display a new digital trophy. Breaking your jogging distance record may earn you a new digital workout room. And, of course, you’ve got to complete the virtual skiing minigame tonight because your sister is catching up to your achievement points – we can’t have that, can we?

This same bread-crumb trail of rewards that keep you addicted to slaying digital dragons or clicking pixelated cows could someday drive you to literally go the extra mile. Slim down, level up, show off – I can’t think of a better way to work out.

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