Gaming’s next big thing doesn’t involve guns or fantasy worlds but weight belts and yoga mats

by Neilie Johnson (Gamepro Magazine)
January 10, 2011

The majority of the public probably thinks that exergaming–otherwise known as exertainment, virtual exercise or digital fitness–is a recent phenomenon, but the fusion of video games and exercise has been around for going on thirty years. Seen in gaming’s infancy as a mere novelty, 21st century industry trends indicate that exergaming is not only on the rise, but is on the brink of saturating our society and becoming one of the biggest and most profitable trends in gaming history.

The exergaming genre owes its roots to early precursors like Nintendo’s Power Pad, Atari’s Joyboard, and Namco’s flying bike simulator, Prop Cycle, but it wasn’t until Konami released Dance Dance Revolution that the concept of combining video games and physical activity was proven to be both commercially and critically viable. But as notable as DDR is, the current exergaming craze was clearly motivated by one product in particular: the Nintendo Wii. While exercise games had been attempted before, titles like Yourself!Fitness, which debuted on the original Xbox and PS2, amounted to little more than digitized versions of classic fitness videos.

But thanks to its family-friendly vibe and motion controls, the Wii encouraged a legion of non-gamers to get off the couch while also providing developers the technology to actually build a fitness game from the ground up. Games like Wii Sports indirectly encouraged movement while products like Wii Fit, the Wii Balance Board and EA Active further cemented Nintendo’s hold on the minds and bodies of gamers everywhere. The benefit wasn’t just reflected in the bottom line, either: Nintendo’s sudden commitment to health was a PR boon as well, culminating in an announced partnership with an unlikely ally, the American Heart Association, for an initiative called Active Play Now.

“Our two organizations come from different worlds, but we share a common goal,” says the organization’s president, Dr. Clyde Yancy. “Nintendo has demonstrated clear leadership in active-play video games with the popularity of the Wii system, and I’m confident that together we can encourage Americans to become more physically active.”

Not to be outdone, Sony and Microsoft have also released their own motion tech solutions, the Playstation Move and Kinect respectively, which should help the fitness trend infiltrate more and more living rooms.

“As the gaming industry introduces more exercise-based experiences, and in particular exercise-based experiences with PlayStation Move due to its precision and immersiveness, you’re going to see more dynamic and emerging demographic growth from a platform that is foundationally built for this type of gaming,” says John Koller, Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing.

While Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect have opened more doors for developers of exercise games, Nintendo’s Wii deserves full credit for giving new life to the exergaming genre.

But winning the fitness fight may depend on more than simply providing a compelling, entertaining and affordable exercise regime. According to a study done by researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, only 2.2 percent of Americans actually use exercise equipment. Or as the Future of Fitness White Paper written by the Nielsen Co. puts it, “Within the foreseeable future, the most popular modes of achieving fitness may be almost unrecognizable by today’s standards. Tomorrow’s teenagers may laugh when we recall how we used to ‘go to the gym.”

If muscle-heads and home gyms are out, then what’s in? These days, it seems wellness-seekers are opting for a back-to-basics work out strategy which means they want a more comprehensive approach to exercise that works for the entire family. That’s good news for game developers since they can offer the kind of affordable, and most importantly fun, fitness solution many families are looking for; best of all, these increasingly robust fitness regimes can be enjoyed in the privacy of the living room, eliminating the hassle of going to the gym.

The social impact that exergaming is having also cannot be discounted. Gaming is now the dominant form of entertainment, overshadowing other major industries like movies and music. Meanwhile, obesity continues to be a worrisome topic of discussion, and thanks to the rise in fitness titles, this may be the first time the game industry has gained widespread recognition as having something positive to offer to an important social issue.

But we still have a long ways to go before video games are seen as a valid alternative to playing sports or regularly going to the gym. Despite a big increase in media exposure in recent years, traditional gaming has just begun to seep into popular consciousness, and for the majority of the American public, exergaming is still mostly a fad; it’s also important to note that no game developer advertises their product as a replacement for a regular exercise regiment. The good news, however, is that the exergaming trend is indicative of a new perception that gaming is no longer just for geeks—it has something to offer to a wide and varied audience. It also highlights the positive effect that gaming can have, not just on the body but on the mind and spirit.

With millions of consumers and billions of dollars at stake, game developers will continue to fight for the priviledge of entering our living rooms, and the fight for exergaming dominance will no doubt be fierce in the years to come. But thanks to the positive message that exercise games inherently carry, this is one war in which all sides can claim victory.

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