Today marks the US release of the Wii Fit, a new exergaming accessory for the runaway favorite gaming system by Nintendo. Having watched and described the emergence of the exergaming field for several years now, Wii Fit validates a forecast I made several years ago -- that the growth of exergaming as a casual play outlet would eventually lead to its being used as a substitute for gym-based exercise for some. The combination of accessibility (it's in your own living room - home turf for decades of casual entertainment-driven fitness), casual play, and usability for multiple activities makes this new accessory a potential killer app for today's digital lifestyles. Equally as important, the appeal to non-core gamers in the traditional sense extends the Wii franchise even further into female and boomer demographics.
Exergaming today is a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it may get more people off the sofa and at least moving their bodies, and hopefully burning a few calories and strengthening something besides their thumbs. This is the line that will be pushed by exergaming enthusiasts, eager to position the field as a needed solution to couch-bound slothfulness. In a country where the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in recent years, we should be open to new ways of chipping away at a problem of crisis proportions.
However, it also provides an easier out for those who don't want to take the necessary steps to address their own health issues or that of people in their care. Schools use the Wii and older games like Dance Dance Revolution as a substitute for physical education. Doubtless, institutions will buy Wii Fit as an additional "healthy" way to appeal to constituents written off as the "video game" generation, or otherwise unmotivated. I was in a very large chain gym recently (disclaimer: I am also a fitness instructor on my "non-futurist" hours) and watched as gym members hopped on a new cycling video game, for lack of a better description, and peddled along with their on-screen avatar as a means of making the ride more interesting and, well, entertaining. This was happening just feet away from a brand new cycling studio, complete with state-of-the-art spinning cycles. Given the choice, cycling to a video screen will be more appealing to some, even if the results don't compare with those achievable on the real bike. This is the dangerous road we venture down in exergaming today.
A world full of gamers spend their days and nights caring for and feeding virtual avatars, dressing them and sculpting them to make them look more attractive, hitting the "jump" button to grab extra "health" points, looking after tomagotchis to keep them from withering and dying, and waking their sims up to go to work or mine gold to build and develop their online lives. We spend millions of hours each year cultivating the "lives" of these digital representations, and as a society we'd rather spend money and attention launching a new game title than divert a fraction of that attention, effort, and skill on looking after ourselves.
Our challenge to game designers, fitness companies and anyone else involved in these fields is to find better ways to connect our need for entertainment with direct personal wellness benefit. We see hints of this with Nike+ and similar fitness ecosystems that are emerging (watch for an upcoming paper from us on the topic). We see possibilities in augmented reality technology that brings play into real spaces. New combinations of mobile, location and personal sensing technologies are opening new doors for technology-aided wellness. But we hope industries involved, and important venues such as schools and health care facilities will take care to strike a balance between entertaining and engaging the public with actual, sustainable health improvement. With public health in a state of crisis due to issues such as adult and childhood obesity, industry should resist pushing more video games behind the shield of physical fitness. Hopefully Nintendo et al will keep social wellbeing in mind as they push out the boundaries of exergaming.