I was called upon to be the ‘exergaming expert’ for a mainstream magazine for 20/30-somethings. The article’s focus was on using the Wii for exercise. Some of the questions the journalist asked me got me thinking more about the misconceptions people still have about exergames.
During the course of my interview, I made a few interesting observations. The question came up about how to ‘enhance’ game play for the Wii in order to elicit greater health benefits. Enhance, as in, what additional things beyond the scope of game design would I recommend. Or, another way of putting it, what other (non-virtual, non-exergaming) activities would I suggest to complement the benefits of game play. So, if a game elicited a higher cardio response (as most games do, unless they include some form of weight-training exercises), would I recommend a session of weight-training or yoga as a complement to the game? Or, could strapping on a set of wrist weights during game play (shudder!), doing a set of sit-ups while a new level is loading, or wearing a heart rate monitor actually improve a player’s fitness outcomes?
As I was pondering my answers, I started realizing that these questions had nothing to do with exergaming. They were all about comprehensive fitness program design. The exergame just happened to be one of the activities in an exercise regimen. It was no different than if I were asked “would adding swimming to my workout enhance my treadmill exercises?” Sure, cross-training improves overall cardiovascular fitness. And swimming may, on some level, improve your performance on the treadmill. But a session of swimming does not directly change the current treadmill workout. (Unless, of course, you put your treadmill in the water. But then you run the risk of either watering-down the treadmill workout, or simply drowning in it).
When answering the journalists questions, I tried to keep the readers of the magazine in mind. This was a young, mostly female, wii-savvy with an active lifestyle-type audience. In other words, if the weather was too cold to play real tennis outside, they would play Wii Tennis inside. I imagined, they probably already had gym memberships, fitness DVDs or were the types willing to try new exercises. They probably owned a few fitness exergames (EA sports, Biggest Loser, Jillian Michael’s bootcamp, Your Shape), which are glorified workout DVDs more in-line with traditional fitness activities. This was the audience who would probably get a kick out of doing a lunge matrix off the Wii-Balance board or adding 2lb weights to their hand-held controllers. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this, mind you (but they probably would jump at the opportunity to use an underwater treadmill, too).
But are articles like this doing exergames a disservice? Does it send the message to fitness enthusiasts: playing these games is not enough, you have to add something more. Does it send a message to the game designers: people are outgrowing your games, make more? Or, is it missing the mark completely. What message does it send to the people who really need to be active: you can’t escape exercise, be it at the gym or during game play, at some point you’ll have to do a sit-up.
When did game play go back to being exercise, again? Why are people not focused more on promoting the game play aspects of these games? Stop talking about how these games burn calories or its cardiovascular benefits or, gasp, how to make it more challenging! Everytime a sedentary person associates these games with exercise, we, as a health industry lose their interest! It’s a game, first! The health-benefits are built-in.