Have We Reached Exercise Game Saturation?

Get up off your arse. Move, move, move. It's summertime! No need to go outside. Video games can you become active and maybe even lose weight. This is hardly new, but have we reached saturation?

"When I was in Best Buy the other day and saw the huge EA Sports Active displays it felt like we'd hit saturation but until we have Richard Simmons Wii Workout I don't think we've reached it,"says Ben Sawyer, who co-founded of the Serious Games Initiative and heads up the Games for Health initiative. "Famous last words, right?"

EA has been capitalising in the last couple of months on the fitness game craze with half-a-million-plus seller EA Sports Active, but Nintendo lead the re-newed interest in "exergames" with Wii Sports and Wii Fit. In 2007, Nintendo was coming off its smash-hit Wii Remote and Wii Sports one-two-punch. Those successes laid the groundwork for Wii Fit: players got up off the couch, moved around, swung their arms. There was an audience for this — but there had always been. Thing is, it was a largely untapped audience.

During the early 1980s, the VCR revolution brought exercise into the home with Oscar-winning-actress Jane Fonda telling folks to "go for the burn" with her 1982 exercise debut Jane Fonda's Workout. The tapes sold millions and made millions. The same year computer maker Amiga released the Joyboard, a peripheral on which players would stand and use their body weight to play a slalom skiing game. It was a failure, and the two follow-up titles to support the peripheral were never released. Ditto for an Atari exercise-controlled bike that never found its way out of the concept stage. The exercise bike game would later be realised in 1996 by Namco with Prop Cycle.

There was a market that could be tapped, but it needed someone to do it. And do it right. Enter Nintendo.

The Kyoto-based game company brought the Power Pad to home consoles in 1988, letting kids jog in place on a mat marked with giant buttons. The next year, Namco followed up with Dance Aerobics for Nintendo Entertainment System, foreshadowing the deluge of rhythm dancing games released in the following decades.

While they were developing Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, Konami's own staffers were reporting weight loss. Same for players when it was finally released in the late 1990s. Konami continued to release updated versions of DDR with increasingly complicated steps. The home versions were more forgiving, but the arcade ones were not. In Japan, Konami has even introduced DDR exercise routines into its health club chain called "Groove Motion DDR". Group classes use digital projector screens showing DDR patterns, mats and motion sensor belts.

Nintendo has struck gaming gold with Wii Fit, selling over 18 million copies of the game. The follow-up, Wii Fit Plus, goes on sale later this year.

"When we first announced the Wii Balance Board, people were skeptical," recalls Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's vice president of Corporate Affairs. "But consumers responded quickly and told their friends about it. Now when a new fitness game like Wii Fit Plus is announced, no one bats an eye. Fitness games are now an accepted part of the video game landscape." Not only that — but the larger cultural landscape. In 2008, Nintendo teamed up with Westin Hotels to offer Wii Sports and Wii Fit as part of the hotel's fitness program.

Get up off your arse, sure, but why not get out of your house? Go take a walk. Jog. Trend or no trend, what's the point of exercising with a game indoors? Explains Nintendo's Kaigler, "Legendary Nintendo video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who led the Wii Fit team, is fond of saying, 'If it's sunny, go outside and play.'" Sometimes that's not always possible, she continues. "Sometimes it's because of the seasons or inclement weather. Other times it's situational: Some people come home late from work, while others can't leave the house because they can't leave the kids alone."

The medical profession has started latching onto these exergames. Geraldine O'Shea, D.O., an osteopathic physician and Chair of the American Osteopathic Association's Bureau on Scientific Affairs and Public Health, first began looking at the impact of video games as physical activity in 2007. "What might appear as nothing more than another entertaining game was revealed as a tool for not just activity but directed physical therapy," explains O'Shea.

Around the same time, researchers began using Wii Sports in physical therapy. O'Shea has spearheaded a measure by the American Osteopathic Association to support video games as part of a patient's fitness and therapeutic program. "Because I believe any activity is better than no activity," she adds, "I have become a convert."

"Wii gaming actually turns over more energy than sedentary gaming, but not as much as authentic sports," said Gareth Stratton, a co-author of British study on Wii Sports health benefits. "While it's not going to replace the real thing," Stratton told The New York Times, "it's certainly moving in the right direction." Several researchers conclude that Wii Fit does not replace regular exercise, but concede that the game has done something key: raised fitness awareness.

"I think it's more important to realise now that with Wii Fit and EA Active Sports we may be beyond this being a trend," says Sawyer. "We might really begin to see a genre emerge and stay."


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