Friday, August 11, 2017

Pokemon GO, DDR, and WiiFit: The Evolution of Exercise

I was doing my Monday's exercise this week when it occurred to me that my views on exercise and gaming might make an interesting explanatory Friday post.  You see, if virtual reality catches on, I fully expect a nice big armada of exercise-based video games to sprout forth.  In present day, there are only a few options.  Depending on who you are, you may have heard of none of them, so let me explain some of the biggest ones briefly.

Pokemon GO

An exploratory walking game, Pokemon GO ties into the popular series Pokemon, first introduced in the late 90s.  

You may recognize parts of this, perhaps.
The idea of Pokemon was that all the animal species in the world are fantastical monsters (called Pokemon), from electric rats (Pikachu) to adorable fire lizards that grow into dragons (Charmander to Charizard), to various kinds of birds, bugs, and other fauna.  As the main character in the Pokemon games, it is your job to go meet them all, learn about them, befriend them, and become the best Pokemon Trainer in the world.  There are a lot of ways to play, but the original games had two versions: Red and Blue (Green, in Japan).  That was so you would play with a friend, and have fun together.  

Pokemon GO takes that same concept, puts it on your smart phone, and bids you go explore your neighborhood and town.  You find Pokemon everywhere, from your front porch to across town at the library.  In short, the game rewards you for getting off your couch and walking or jogging around town.  You don't get credit if you drive, because the game tracks how fast you're going and nobody walks at 40 mph.  

I played Pokemon GO for over a year, but they made a lot of mistakes when they launched the game and over the months since.  They're only now getting their act together, but it was too late, I ran out of patience.  It's a shame, because I explored a lot of parks and parts of downtown while I was playing.  

Dance Dance Revolution

If you were relatively young in the 90s, this entry needs no explanation.  However, for everyone else.... Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) is a competitive dancing/movement game.   Unlike Pokemon GO and most other video games, it uses a controller for your feet instead of your hands.  

Yes, really.
To play, you stand on that, listen to the techno music and press the arrows as they get to the top of the screen, which can look like this:

The arrows, as you can see, scroll up to the top, at which point you're supposed to hit the corresponding button on the controller.  Do so in time with the music, and you'll get a better score.  "Perfect" means you were spot on.  "Great" means you were just slightly off, "Good" means you were a bit off, etc.  The people playing in this video are far from perfect, as you can see, but in some circles in the 90s, perfection was an art form with this game.  There were literal competitions that paid prizes and even money.  

If you're still confused as to what this actually looks like in practice, I took a crappy video of myself doing a relatively easy song. Unfortunately, Blogger apparently doesn't like my crappy video, and it's not playable, so I found you a video of a couple playing instead.

If you don't want to watch the whole minute and a half, they're doing a middle-fast song, which involves plenty of steps at a reasonable pace.  It also involves jumping in place to hit two arrows at once, sometimes in quick succession.  The guy shifting his mat halfway through the song?  Very legitimate, though really experienced players usually try to simply adjust for it until the end of the song.

Basically, this video game goes from "gentle walking in place" to "hop at crazy speeds 'til you drop."  It tests your fitness and your balance at the same time.  Each song on the CD comes in three difficulties, which gives you replay value and the possibility of learning how to play.  Also, Dance Dance Revolution is an entire series of video games, so when you get tired of one set of 30ish songs, there's approximately 15+ more games you could buy and play.  

Wii Fit

If you've ever thought having a personal trainer might do you good for keeping up with your exercise, the folks who made Wii Fit agree with you wholeheartedly, and set out to make you an electronic one.  There are actually a number of video games out there like Wii Fit, some less video gamey than others, but since this was the most popular one, I'm opting to explain it.  

Like Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Fit comes with a special controller. 
I always kind of thought it looked like a scale, which I hated for some reason...
 Unlike DDR, this game is not particularly competitive.  You stand on that controller, which acts like a computerized balance board.   The game features yoga, balancing minigames, and even aerobic exercises.  The game coaches you in how to do the exercises, how to improve at them, and how well you're doing at them as you play.  Because the controller tracks where your balance is, it's capable of telling if you're off balance, how you're moving, etc.  

Here's a video of a single minigame, with a side-by-side of the actual human playing it.


 You'll notice he doesn't actually jump off the board while he plays, which personally makes me prefer Dance Dance Revolution.  But I've historically been terrible at physical activities, especially balance-related ones.  

So What?

These three games, and knockoffs like them, are a few in the thousands of video games that have come out in the past decade.  However, I think they are the future of exercise for a number of reasons.  

First, inertia and lack of mobility is a factor.  Your average Joe or Jane might want to be more fit, but may not have easy access to a gym, hiking trail, or safe area to walk in.  After a long day at work, most people aren't interested in driving another 15-30 minutes to go to the gym, tire themselves out further, and then go home.  They would rather go home, and maybe exercise there, maybe just crash.  With an in-home exercise station, the option is available whenever.  

Second, if you don't already love exercise, or don't consider it fun (which is the state I'm in), trying to get into shape is an excruciatingly boring and painful enterprise.  I didn't love exercise growing up, and year after year of abysmal yearly school fitness test reports merely solidified my distaste for the subject.  I don't hate gyms, but since people drain my energy, I tend to prefer not going to one.  So a more solitary, yet safe alternative is needed.

Lastly, psychology.  Research is showing more and more that "game-ifying" your workout (and literally everything else) is very psychologically rewarding.  People love seeing progress, earning rewards (even simple ones like a message on the screen saying, "You achieved 45 jumping jacks in a row!") feeling like they've accomplished something, and even competing with others.  

If full virtual reality becomes viable, the market for this sort of thing could only improve.  After all, why pedal a stationary bike looking at the other gym-goers, when you could wear some fancy glasses and be seeing some high resolution beach scenery?   Instead of jogging on a track and seeing the same thing over and over, you could be looking at a virtual simulated hiking trail, complete with different trees, shrubs, bird sounds, and wildlife.  All the while, the game will track how long you've exercised, how hard you're exercising, how far you've gone, and congratulate you after you reach a set goal.

For someone like me, who is not inclined to fitness but does love video games?  It might be the ticket to less effortful, more rewarding fitness.  

Notable Mentions

Not included in this article specifically, but worth knowing about:  

Fitocracy, which is a personalized fitness coach on your phone, but requires you to go exercising yourself.  It tracks the exercises you do, letting you log your goals and activities, and also provides gameified quests and achievements to prod you into doing more, or doing similar exercises.  In addition, it works as a social networking site, kind of like Facebook, so you can compete (or commiserate) with your friends. 

Zombies, Run!, which puts you as the main character in a post-apocalyptic storyline, written by a published author.  The world ended, zombies are everywhere, and the survivors have banded together to form settlements safe from the zombie menace.  You are Runner 5, one of a very necessary group of individuals who retrieves supplies from the wilds so that the enclaves of survivors can continue to exist.  You go running (jogging, walking briskly), and the game paints the story around you.  And the zombies are only the beginning.  As you go, you learn about the world, the people of your community, and what happened to cause the zombie apocalypse.  The game was hugely successful, and is now into its 5th "season" of story.  This app was actually successful in motivating me to go jogging for a time, merely because I wanted to know what happened next. 

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