Health Meter: Hey, What Happened to the Fun in Fitness Gaming?
As a personal trainer and a writer who covers both fitness and gaming, I've always been a fan of movement-based games. The clients at my Boston-area Black Belt Fitness Personal Training studio are not only familiar with the Nintendo Wii, but also with the PlayStation 2 EyeToy and its very cool, last-generation, motion-based gaming applications. The idea of using games to get the body moving and -- as a result -- get the player to see improvements in strength, endurance, coordination, agility and balance is a wonderful thing. It's an ideal means to an end. You are improving as a person by having fun. It really doesn't get much better than that.
Somewhere, though, the line between the "means" and the "end" has gotten blurred. Games that used fun to improve fitness have been joined on the shelf by "games" that use, well, fitness to improve fitness. It's not to the point where we should be looking for a NAF rating -- "Not Actually Fun" -- on the package, but we could be close.
Wii Fit was guilty to some degree. While the Yoga and Hula Hoop mini-games were a giant kick to play, and helped you improve your balance, cardiovascular condition and flexibility, the strength-training elements weren't all that enthralling. Games like Jillian Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum 2009 take it to another level by just about removing the "fun" component entirely. If you don't like doing squats, then you're not going to enjoy doing them just because an on-screen character is telling you to do them -- even if it's supposed to be part of a "game."
Think about it this way. If you play a lot of role-playing-games, you get used to dealing with inventory management. You have a certain number of empty slots that you have to use to carry around all of your armor, weapons, ammo, health boosts, etc. In some games, this can get very complicated and demand a lot of attention. The benefit of having to constantly be aware of your inventory is that it helps you develop organizational skills that can cross over into your real life. I guarantee you that my closet is cleaner and that when I have to travel for business, my suitcase is more organized, because of the skills I've subconsciously honed while playing "The Chosen One" in any number of RPGs. These games used a logical, intuitive and unforced means to help me develop certain skills -- and I had fun doing it.
Now, let's flip things around. A publisher sends me copies of "Sock Drawer Xtreme Clean-Up III" for both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. An accompanying PR release screams out that "SDXCU III will forever change the way you look at keeping your sock drawer at home organized -- and it'll do it at 1080p!" If I were a professional sock drawer organizer, I'd know that as a means of getting people to organize their socks, it's probably going to fail. If people's sock drawers are a mess, it's probably because they don't have the time to keep them organized or that they don't attach enough importance to the benefit of neatly organized socks.
I'm excited that there are so many health and fitness games being released, but I also know that most will fail in their objective. If you don't like to do traditional workouts, then you probably won't dig a game that takes you through a traditional workout. Fitness can -- and should -- be fun. The body loves to move. It's why people play sports. It's why people dance. The key is to find something you like to do with your body and then do it. If there's a game that can help you incorporate that into your life -- and that game has been developed properly -- then go for it. And it doesn't even have to be a "fitness" title. Heck, if you're into marching up and down while pretending to wave a baton, you can get a light, low-impact workout with the ultra-oddball -- but still engaging -- Major Minor's Majestic March. (And if, for some reason, you aren't into "marching band sims," don't worry; no one will hold it against you.)
Those interested in getting a slightly more intense workout while still having a lot of fun should definitely check out Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip. You'll need a Wii Balance Board to be able to tap into the actual fitness aspect, but you'll be rewarded with an arcade-y board sim that will get your heart rate up while you also work on balance and core strength. Another fun and addictive game for the Wii is Gold's Gym: Cardio Workout. I was leery at first. Any time there's a high-profile endorsement attached to a game, it usually sends up a red flag. Surprisingly, the game -- which, at its guts, is a series of boxing-style workouts -- is an entertaining way to get a sweat going. Considering all of the failed attempts to bring boxing to the Wii, this isn't a bad way to throw some virtual leather with some virtual bad intentions.
Next on the horizon is EA Sports Active, which will be released later this month. It will use the Wii's regular controls, as well as the Balance Board and resistance bands to deliver a full-body workout. The question will be how the game delivers that workout. If it can do it in an inspired and creative way, then it may be another must-have for those looking to get in shape while they have some fun. Being able to get fit at home can be an incredibly convenient thing. Convenience, though, can only take things so far. The attics and basements of this world are full of convenient, do-it-at-home fitness gizmos that failed to keep their users interested and motivated.