The birth of the fitness gaming phenomenon

Video games for fitness

The fitness game phenomenon did not begin in the heady days of 2006 with the advent of the Nintendo Wii. No, games designed to get players off their couches and into a more active brand of gaming had existed before then, they just didn’t reach quite the same stellar heights that the genre has since Nintendo’s little white monolith tore a massive whole in the fabric of the gaming landscape.

The fitness game phenomenon. Dance mats.

Who remembers the days of dance mats? Clowning around with your mates or (for the less fly among us) your sister, in your bedroom with a bottle of pop or (as you grew up) alcoholic alternative. We do and we remember that they were damn exhausting!

For those of you who never played these games, now perhaps mercifully consigned to the dark fringes of leisure centre center arcades, they were a fairly simple idea. The games were designed around the use of a board or mat on which you would stand and which had various compass point pressure pads. You would watch as arrows indicating which pressure pad you needed to stomp on flew down the side of the screen and then throw yourself around the matt attempting to keep up with the rhythm and speed of the music. The aim? Simple, make your garishly dressed avatar out-dance your opponent’s.

Let’s face it – they were fun. The low grade visuals and chance to watch your less graceful, or otherwise impaired, friends and family totter around the mat before totally wiping out on the harder sections of the dances made for some priceless multiplayer moments.

However, the dance party games always seemed to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis and never really fully managed to take advantage of what they perhaps inadvertently achieved: making you sweat in your pursuit of dance glory.

Take a bow Nintendo

With the dawn of the Wii Nintendo and specifically gaming Einstein Shigeru Miyamoto finally took modern man’s desire to maintain a healthy lifestyle from the comfort of their living room and turned it into a computer game as well a money making dynamo.

Key to the success of the Wii has been Nintendo's ability to capitalize on this desire. Enter Wii Fit, a game which Miyamoto apparently came up with when he noticed how much enjoyment he and his family got from drawing a chart of his weight and sticking it up on the wall.

“Seeing how that was able to excite … my family, I thought, Oh this is really neat idea that I’d like to bring to other people”.

It proved to be more than a neat idea. Thanks to the Wii’s breakthrough motion control technology (the system that reads your wild swings or gentle squats) and the evolution of a more advanced form of peripheral in the now familiar “Wii Fit board”, players could perform a set of exercises while the game measured their impact and charted physical performance over multiple sessions.

Cue insane sales figures (Fit is currently the third best selling console game in history with 22.61 million units sold as of May 2010) as everyone from office workers to more tech-savvy members of the older generation rushed out to get hold of this digitised, cheaper and less patronizing, personal trainer or one of the Wii’s other appealing active titles. You heard the occasional hardcore gamer squeak about how the Wii had an SD card rather than hard drive, but the hoard paid no heed. 

And perhaps rightly so. Did you ever think you’d see your grandma play a video game? We didn’t. Then we saw Wii sports bowling and cowered in the brilliance of its accessibility. This was what Wii and Wii Fit achieved. It piqued the interest of people who before viewed video games as something for anaemic, black t-shirt clad teenagers.

With Fit, the potential of active gaming had been realized and a veritable Pandora’s Box opened. Sony and Microsoft continued to bitterly fight each other for the title of best games console like, as Miyamoto himself described, “two carnivorous dinosaurs” while the auspicious little white herbivore continued to trump them both in sales. 

In 2010 with their own new motion sensor systems Nintendo’s giant rivals will attempt to crash the party and cash in on the Wii’s achievements. Despite this, the success of the Wii in starting the fitness gaming avalanche should be applauded. They took gaming in a new direction and went closer to reversing the trend of technological advancements making life less active than any other gadget in living memory.

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