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The Wii Workout: Getting Healthy Through Gameplay

Janet Hetherington takes a look at how video games can make you more fit -- and not just your thumbs.

Get off the couch and move: Video game developers and players are interested in the adrenaline-pumping action taking place offscreen. All Wii Fit images © Nintendo.

The American Heart Association reports that about two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, including more than nine million children.

In December 2007, the Center for Consumer Freedom released a report contending that lifestyle shifts over the past several decades have contributed to obesity in America, including the fact that children tend to play video and computer games, rather than going outside to play.

“In a society where obesity has become a serious health issue, watching television has rightly been blamed as a major culprit,” says Erik Hoftun, co-editor of the Book of Games, Volume 2. “Video gaming also gets its share of blame, but the fact is that new video games and hardware actually can be great tools in fighting obesity, so much so that video games are finding their way into physical education programs in schools both in the U.S. and Europe.”

Games for Health

The Serious Games Initiative is focused on constructive uses for games in the public sector, including helping to forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.

Professionals in the health care and video game industries are meeting in Baltimore at the 2008 Games for Health conference May 8-9, 2008 to discuss such topics. “We’re planning close to 40 sessions including sessions on epidemiology in World of Warcraft, game addiction, nurse training, rehabitainment and a special session with some of the biggest companies in healthcare,” notes Ben Sawyer, president, Digitalmill, Inc. and co-director of Games for Health, in his website conference blog.

Erik Hoftun, co-editor of the Book of Games, Volume 2, finds that video gaming can be a great tool in fighting obesity.

One of the Games for Health sessions, entitled “Go for the Burn: Designing Body-Movement Controlled Video Games to Maximize Energy Expenditure,” will be presented by Scottish researcher Alasdair Thin of Heriot-Watt University.

“Active video games, or ‘exergames’ are now widely available due to recent advances in game technology including the development of low cost body-movement sensitive controllers,” Thin writes in his session synopsis. “However, it is not clear which factors are important in determining the exercise intensity a player needs to produce to effectively play a particular game. In order to maximize the potential health benefits of exergaming, there is a clear need to understand what makes a ‘good’ exergame.”

Thin and his laboratory conducted a series of experiments over several years into a number of different body-movement controlled video games from a variety of different genres, including martial arts, dance, fitness/aerobic, boxing and fitness/combat. Primary measures included heart rate and oxygen consumption and were intended to assess the level of physical exertion required to play the games.

“The results indicated that the exertional demands of the different games varied from moderate through to vigorous exercise and provide experimental support for active video games having a role in helping to promote and maintain a physically active lifestyle,” Thin notes.

Everybody Wii Now

Nintendo's Wii, which made its debut in November 2006, is perhaps best known for its Wii Remote, a wireless controller that can be used as a handheld pointing device and can detect acceleration in three dimensions. In addition to actively engaging players, it has also proved a good business strategy for reaching non-traditional players. Nintendo reports brisk sales of its 2008 video games, especially Wii products. Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii sold more than 1.4 million units in the U.S, including over 874,000 games on its March 9 release date.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii sold more than 1.4 million units in the U.S, including over 874,000 games on its March 9 release date. © Nintendo.

In addition to core titles, Nintendo plans more sports and fitness games for the Wii platform in 2008. “Our momentum is not limited to one system or one game,” according to Cammie Dunaway, exec VP of sales and marketing, Nintendo of America. “Upcoming titles like Wii Fit will keep our momentum going strong. We’re going broad and bold in 2008, with something for every member of the family.”

Wii Fit, which comes with the Wii Balance Board, is scheduled for release on May 19, 2008. Designed to combine fun and fitness, it will allow users to track their progress over time, providing an easy way for members of the family to keep active and play together.

Even arcade classics are getting in on the Wii action. In January 2008, Majesco Entertainment Company announced the release of Furu Furu Park for the Wii, which includes such mini-games as Pitch Hitter (step up to the plate and take a few swings with the Wii remote) and Super Karate (execute offensive and defensive maneuvers with the Wii remote to defeat your opponent).

“Motion-based Wii remote play lets gamers experience beloved classics in an entirely new way,” says Gui Karyo, exec VP of operations, Majesco.

And playing the Wii way can be beneficial. A 2007 study in the British Medical Journal found that children who play active video games (like Wii Sports) burn at least 51% more calories than kids playing so-called idle video games (like Halo).

Wii Fit is designed to combine fun and fitness and it allows users to track their progress over time, providing an easy way for members of the family to keep active and play together.

The researchers conclude, “Playing new-generation active computer games uses significantly more energy than playing sedentary computer games, but not as much energy as playing the sport itself. The energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children.”

The Journal also reports a physician diagnosing a case of “Wii shoulder” in a child given a new-generation computer game for Christmas. The report notes, “Anyone who has played interactive games on Wii Sports will relate to this shoulder pain in muscles that have not been used for a long time. Within a day the discomfort wears off, as with exercise after a period of inactivity.”

Pedaling Active Games

If using a special controller won’t burn enough calories, perhaps bringing video games to a fitness venue and stepping up the activity will.

Wii Fit, which comes with the Wii Balance Board, is scheduled for release on May 19, 2008.

Dr. Ernie Medina and his partners launched their first Xrtainment Zone in California in 2007. Medina, who contends that “exergyms must be more then glorified arcades,” will present a case study at the Games for Health conference relating the build-up, launch and post-launch experience of one of the first exergaming-focused retail businesses in the U.S. Their success in developing their programs, classes, and approaches to bringing exergaming to kids, seniors and adults in Southern California may serve as a model for others.

The game incentive appears to help. A 2007 University of British Columbia research team, led by Dr. Darren E.R. Warburton, determined that there are significant changes in positive health outcomes when participants use a GameBike instead of a standard exercise bicycle. The GameBike, from Source Distributors, is a full-function exercise cycle with a patented steering mechanism and a controller that plugs into any gaming console or PC-based video game. When riders begin pedaling, they become one of characters in the video game.

Citing the scientific consensus that “40% to 65% of individuals who initiate a traditional physical fitness program withdraw within 3 to 6 months,” the researchers postulated that encouraging physical fitness at a young age might substantially promote lifelong physical activity behavior and, in turn, “markedly improve health status.”

Also in Canada, Bulldog Interactive Fitness, which offers a number of video game-based programs for children aged 3 to teen, opened its ninth location in Calgary, Alberta in January 2008. Members and guests can “bust-a-move” on video dance machines, cycle live against other Bulldog members in the club, or climb to the top of Mount Everest on the rotating climbing wall.

Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) is one of the most successful video game/fitness combinations. As of 2008, over 100 official versions or “mixes” of DDR have been produced, including DDR UltraMix 4, above. © Konami.

Dance Dance Fever

Among the most successful video game/fitness combinations are video dance machines -- especially Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), a music video game series produced by Konami. First introduced to Japanese video arcades in 1998, DDR has gained significant popularity around the world, including North America, Europe and Australia. As of 2008, over 100 official versions or “mixes” of DDR have been produced, with over 1,000 songs featured across the various games.

The game is typically played on a dance pad with four arrow panels -- left, right, up, and down -- that the player steps on in response to arrows that appear on the screen. The arrows are synchronized to the general rhythm or beat of a chosen song, and success is dependent on the player's ability to time and position his or her steps accordingly.

DDR has appeared as part of regular gym classes in at least 10 U.S. states. While some fitness activities may not appeal to a wired generation and others (like specific sports) require existing athletic skills, DDR tends to bridge those gaps. DDR’s video-game format appeals to students, and it does not require specialized skills beyond basic coordination.

Putting DDR into high school physical education classes is being pioneered in West Virginia, which has some of the highest rates of obesity and related disorders in the U.S. The state plans to install DDR equipment in every school in the state by the end of 2008.

However, it’s not just kids that are benefiting from video-game dance fitness. Touchtown, a company specializing in operating video and computer information networks in senior communities, has developed Dancetown, a dance game designed specifically for the senior citizen market. DanceTown is a PC game with a web-based system for recording a player’s performance and tracking progress over time. A Dancetown player (or family member or medical professional) can see at a glance how his or her dancing is progressing day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month. Players can also see how their scores improve on standardized fitness measurements, such as the Senior Fitness Test.

Get into rock star shape with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, now the top-selling single-year video-game title of all time in terms of units and total dollars earned. © 2007 Red Octane.

Rock Star Stamina

Other exertion-friendly video games involve music and the stamina of a rock star. According to market research firm NPD Group, Activision’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, published by RedOctane, is now the top-selling single-year video-game title of all time in terms of units and total dollars earned. NPD reports that the Guitar Hero franchise has moved more than 14 million units in North America since its introduction in late 2005.

In January 2008, NAMM, the trade association of the international music products industry, announced a new initiative in which they would link their “Wanna Play?” public awareness campaign, which encourages people of all ages to experience the joys of making music, with Guitar Hero III. The teaming is aimed at strengthening the connection between virtual and real-world guitar playing, along with encouraging more people to experience and enjoy both pastimes.

The Guitar Hero franchise is now seeing some competition from titles like Rock Band, which lets players take on the roles of drummers, singers, and bassists in addition to the now-traditional iconic rock guitar god. The game challenges players to put together a band and tour for fame and fortune -- all while learning to master lead/bass guitar, drums and vocals. More than 6 million levels based on songs have been purchased since its launch on November 20, 2007.

On March 24, 2008, Harmonix Music Systems, MTV Games and Electronic Arts, Inc. announced plans to release Rock Band for Wii on June 22. The Wii version will be released as a Special Edition bundle, including the software, drums, microphone and a wireless guitar. Stand-alone instruments will also be available on June 22 for people who want to build their band one instrument at a time or want to play the drum-versus-drum game mode. The game will feature 63 songs, including five bonus songs for Wii gamers to enjoy.

My Weight Loss Coach is a program designed to focus on taking positive steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle. All My Weight Loss Coach images © Ubisoft.

Yet another music video game, Guitar Wizard (from Allegro Multimedia Inc/ Music Wizard Group in partnership with partnership with US Music Corporation's SoundTech Professional Audio Division) is a gaming package that can teach aspiring rock stars how to play real music on a real guitar. The product will include both the SoundTech Ediface Digital Guitar Interface and the patented Guitar Wizard software, allowing people to play and learn on their PC or Mac with their existing acoustic or electric guitars. The SoundTech Ediface technology converts the guitar sounds to digital for live interactive video game play.

Coaching the Game

If thrashing like a rock star isn’t enough, there are also video games that will help you manage personal diet and fitness. In February 2007, Ubisoft announced My Weight Loss Coach for the Nintendo DS system. Developed in Ubisoft's Montreal studio under the guidance of both a fitness coach and a nutritionist, My Weight Loss Coach is a program designed to focus on taking positive steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

My Weight Loss Coach allows us to approach casual gamers with something innovative,” says Tony Key, SVP of sales and marketing at Ubisoft. “The game creates customized coaching sessions based on skill level, and, for the first time on DS, includes a pedometer. My Weight Loss Coach not only allows users to take control of their physical well-being, but it does so in a fun and engaging manner.”

The pedometer is a peripheral device that comes with the game and can be updated through the DS; it is intended to aid in controlling daily physical effort, challenging users and balancing food intake. My Weight Loss Coach also features personal profiles, an input reward system, and real-life landmark checkpoints.

My Weight Loss Coach allows casual gamers to customize coaching sessions based on skill level. It allows users to take control of their physical well-being, but in a fun and engaging manner.

In addition, Health and Fitness Mobile’s (HFM) new Facebook-integrated free mobile fitness portal, announced in January 2008, delivers personal training on phones. The mobile portal delivers made-for-mobile training programs ranging from functional strength to weight loss to sport-specific conditioning. Available in image and video formats, each program offers fitness models demonstrating exercises with proper form and technique, along with trainer tips and encouragement. Designed with the health club experience in mind, the mobile portal enables users to record their workout progress during the natural rests taken between each exercise set.

HFM’s mobile fitness portal is launching concurrently with the HFM Facebook application. Through its alliance with Ad Infuse, a leading mobile ad network and solutions provider, HFM is able to deliver much of its mobile fitness content and services free to active consumers while connecting leading advertisers with HFM’s targeted user base.

Whether tracking a diet, stepping up to the dance challenge, riding the next generation of exercycle, targeting the Wii or sweating out the calories while playing rock star instruments and songs, video game players have new, fun and innovative options to shed their couch potato skins. In addition, big-screen TVs may actually encourage users of “active” games to keep playing because players can keep better track of hopping around or waving their arms.

Just watch out for that Wii shoulder.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.