Ouch!

I’ve continued to do the Wii and, like any other video game, it trains you to play it very well. I’ve actually gotten to the point where it doesn’t insult me most of the time. (“You performed exceptionally poorly on the Don’t Stick Your Thumb In Your Eye challenge. Is it because you are a big, clumsy American or are you especially uncoordinated?”)

The Wii takes an exceptionally sensitive weight reading, then uses your keyed in height to calculate your BMI. And then helpfully displays your Wii as underweight, normal, fat or obese, based thereon. I honestly can’t imagine a large American corporation coming up with an exercise system that called its users obese and clumsy.

This, however, has to be the unkindest cut (from F– My Life):

Today, I finally got Wii Fit to lose some weight. Came home and set it all up only to be told that I weigh too much to use the board. FML

So, yeah, I bet it caps out at 300 pounds. Fair warning. (Note: 330# according to various web sources.)

Look, treat as a fun way to get off your ass and you can have a good time. Also, if you use it daily, just to do a “body test”: it’ll keep track of your weight. It is, of course, a bad idea to focus on weight if you’re trying to get in shape and, as I noted, the Wii Fit is very sensitive.

But while the Fit software tends to overreact to weight fluctuations, you know if you’re looking at a normal weight shift or a third helping of mashed potatoes. It’s programmed to not react to a minor weight shift, and notes that you can swing a couple of pounds in a day, but it’s not unusual for me to swing five pounds in a single day. (Something I observed years ago, back in the karate days.)

But it’s a lot harder to ignore a general trend. And regardless of how you view the Wii’s general approach to fitness, you can do the weight thing every day.

Meanwhile, my personal trainer mother wants to give me a real body fat test at her gym.

Anyway, the only real weakness with the Fit is that there isn’t enough content. The Wii Fit Plus should resolve that, for a while.

Core Muscles

I forgot to mention in the Wii post that the Wii Fit talks a lot about core muscles.

I had not heard of “core muscles” prior to the Fit, though I did intuit what they were. Especially when they became “those things that hurt” after doing the Fit’s balance games–which are, in essence, all about leaning slightly one way or the other.

Althouse has a post about this, though with not much commentary, referencing a New York Times article on how people are wrecking their backs in the quest for washboard abs. I had a couple of thoughts.

Like, first, if they meant “abs”, they would call them “abs”, not “core muscles”. There was no stigma attached to “abs”, such that they, like stewardesses, had to seek a new name. If the secret to great abs was just “exercise your abs a lot”, well, that wouldn’t be much of a bloody secret now, would it?

Second, I used to be really skinny. This was a time when I could crank out a hundred sit ups, and was required to, actually, as part of my martial arts training. Never had six-pack abs. I never thought of it as something to strive for. In fact, I thought–and still think–it’s a little effete to focus on that sort of thing.

Third, when did washboard abs get to be the thing everyone had to have? What’s wrong with a nice, flat stomach? Or even a slightly rounded one? And if they’re so gosh-darned important to have, why can’t people face just doing what needs to be done to get them without wrecking their bodies?

OK, I’ve gone into full Andy Rooney mode, which means it’s time for this post to end.

Wii-dux

We recently passed the One Year mark on the Wii Fit board–we had one pre-ordered, actually. Sort of amusingly, I’m the primary user of the board, though I’m sporadic. The Boy used it for 8 hours one day, got all the high scores, took his blood sugar down to alarmingly low levels–interesting that–but then never cared to use it again.

The obvious distinction there is that The Boy is definitely a hardcore gamer. (I’ve been one in the past, but it got difficult to keep up ‘round about kid #3.) The Wii isn’t really about hardcore games. We have a few, but they don’t get much play.

Of course, what the Wii is about–the reason it comes close to outselling the XBox 360 and the PS3 combined–is a simple physicality that makes it both accessible and interesting in a way that thumb twitching is not.

What’s less obvious, of course, is that–particularly with the Wii Fit–the physicality isn’t all that interesting to The Boy, at least in part because it’s just way too easy for him. And this is before he started doing his current program, which he says has really improved his reflexes. (The other part, I think, is that hardcore gamers tend to want to minimize any exertion between their intention and action.) But it’s not that easy for me, which I take to be a sign of “aging”.

And, when I say “aging”, I of course mean “any deterioration I can attribute to forces outside of my control, regardless of actual causes, particularly causes that I might not want to address.”

Anyway, one of the tests on the Wii is to stand still–well, really to balance. If a kid can hold himself still, it’s just a matter of standing very still and with weight distributed equally on both legs. I’m pretty sure this was never a problem for me before. I mean, I do okay on the test. Very close to perfect. But this and a lot of the other tests (shifting weight, standing on one leg) seem challenging in a way I don’t think they would’ve been a “few” years ago.

I used to do all kinds of karate maneuvers on one leg (which is of dubious practicality, but that’s a discussion for a different time). But not having had the technology at the time, it’s hard to say how much (or even whether, he suggested optimistically) of a deterioration there’s been over the years.

Meanwhile, I’ve wrested quite a few of The Boy’s high scores away.

It’s just a temporary respite, of course. The Flower and I played a couple hours of Wii Sports over the past few days, and she can give me a run for my money–beat me, even–on tennis and baseball, and her bowling skills are coming up. She doesn’t quite have the light touch needed for golfing, and nobody can really touch me on boxing. Well, yet. Give her time.

All’s not perfect in the Wii world, of course. As much as I love the Wii, it’s more a tantalizing taste of the future than a great implementation. The wiimote suggests a time when true motion capture will be used to interact with games–and perhaps other software, though I think contra Minority Report, big gestures aren’t going to ever be the norm–and the new MotionPlus is supposedly dynamite, but the games do show the limits of the motion control. (Of course, at the other end, you have complaints that the MotionPlus is too sensitive. There’s a lot of frontier to be crossed, technologically speaking.)

Worse, despite the killer console sales I’m not seeing a lot of games that really embrace the motion, and the whole gaming support industry is really not set up to distinguish between traditional hardcore games and games that use the motion system effectively.

Then, there are minor issues. I think the Wii Fit board is too narrow. (I’m used to a wider stance from my karate days, and one size fits all doesn’t seem optimum.) Also, there’s a lot of nagging. I understand why it’s in there, but it does seem condescending at first, and–after two years–irritating. It’s all designed to be gentle, but needs to be a lot more easily dismissed after the 200th viewing.

Still, we’ve enjoyed the console, and I foresee it having another three years life, easily, on our shelf. I don’t see replacing it with a button masher ever though.

Why The Wii Changes Everything

Well, for one thing, there’s this.

I remember when the Wii was announced. A great many of the commenters predicted its failure. “It’s hardly more powerful than the GameCube!” they complained. But I had a feeling it would be a success.

Because I wanted one.

Now, I’m a gamer. Whether or not I qualify for hardcore anymore is certainly debatable. I don’t game as much as I used to, and I’m less willing to invest in the big games any more because I know it’ll be a challenge (at least) to get past the learning curve to where I’m actually reasonably good at the game. (And I don’t mean good in some Internet competition way, but just good enough to actually enjoy the process. Which is the point, after all.)

But I’ve been playing with computers since back when they were shared and billing was done by the millisecond. And I played on the first Pong machines. Certainly, I played computer games when doing so meant you had to type in the code yourself. And that was where I left off with video games (as distinct from computer games): When I could program my own.

The last console I owned, therefore (and one of two or three in toto) was the Channel F. I didn’t like the action on the Atari 2600 (or the graphics), though the Atari 800 was a cool computer. By the time the NES rolled around in 1983, I had long abandoned the arcades and really couldn’t much relate to the kinds of games that ran thereupon. (I was playing strategy, PC-style RPGs which are entirely different from the Japanese style ones.)

I wasn’t real thrilled to live through the late ‘90s and the constant calls of “PC gaming is dying!” For one thing, PC gaming is the wild west of development: Anyone can write a game and try to sell it. There are no licensing fees. I’m not a Microsoft fan but they’re smart enough to realize that making their development platform available for free benefits them tremendously. (Of course, they struggle with the other side, which is artificially restricting games from the PC platform to boost their XBox cred.)

What I realized about PC gaming, though, is that I played it when since before it was worthy of the word “niche”, through the years where entire stores were devoted to PC games, and now, as their relative market shrinks. So why wouldn’t I keep on playing when it goes back to being a niche again?

Which brings us to the Wii. Since I missed out on the NES and all subsequent iterations of consoles (though I bought an N64 and a PS2 for The Boy at various times), I really, really, really hate the controllers. One thing I’ve never been fond of, gaming-wise, is the tendency of some games to require artificially complex control sequences to do stuff. (Yeah, what I like about fighters is offset by annoyance over having to do these 7-8 sequence combos.)

So, somewhat ironically, consoles are to me, a closed world. I can’t bring myself to memorize random codes. I’ll do a little finger training for a strategy game, for example, but the basics mechanics have been standardized on those for years. To me, the control interface is a barrier that we should strive to eliminate. (This is one reason I always look at what Molyneux is doing; I know he feels the same way and it’s interesting to me how he manifests this drive.)

Even if I did go through the trouble–what is essentially meta-game effort–when it’s all done, I’m clicking buttons. If part of the fun of playing a computer game is doing something you can’t really do otherwise (slaying a dragon, fighting a god, etc.) then the fact that you’re doing it just by pressing buttons removes some of the elemental joy. (A good place to start with any game is to find some action that’s pleasurable, and that you can find a pleasurable form of feedback for.)

The action/feedback cycle is the key element of electronic gameplay. There are some games that are little more than that. There are some games which have all the elements of gameplay but miss on that, and they’re virtually unplayable. But once you’re oriented within a game, there’s another element to the cycle:

intention->action->feedback

You mean to do something, you take the steps needed to accomplish that, and the game gives you feedback. The complex key-sequence is an artificial barrier introduced into the action sequence and the learning curve for any game is what it takes to unite intention with action.

The Wii changes that by using your native action to power the game action. So you don’t have to train much, and the training you do parallels what you would actually do in real life. It’s a weak parallel, of course, a shadow of what’s necessary, and in some ways completely wrong from a technical standpoint. (Think Guitar Hero which, while not a Wii game, is the exact same principle.)

Anyway, the introduction of the whole body into the game is an element of immersion completely lacking from traditional gaming, and it’s simultaneously both powerful and intuitive.

So I’m not surprised that the Wii sales figures are comparable to those of the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. And I’m not surprised that the Wii Fit was the #1 selling game on Black Friday. The games are absolutely trivial: On the Wii Fit, there’s a game where you hit soccer balls thrown at you with your head by leaning left and right (and returning to center as needed). This is a two button game, or three button at the most, and you’d be bored of it nigh instantly.

Add the body factor, though, and you’ve got something.

Ski jumping? That’s practically a one-button game. But make the actions leaning and flexing like an actual jump, and there you are.

I suppose it’s good for you in some ways, but that misses the point. It’s the feedback. Eventually, of course, you’ll get so good at the the controls that you’ll need something subtler and more challenging, which isn’t something we’ve seen a lot of yet.

But this is promising. Hell, the Wii Fit board is fun, but why not have, alternatively, ankle controllers? Cap or ear piece for head motion?

Think not? Well, consider that one of the prime laws of gaming has been that you couldn’t get people to buy peripherals. You always had to make your game for the lowest common equipment denominator. What changed that?

Dance Dance Revolution.

Then what?

Guitar hero.

Now, the Wii Fit. And what do they all have in common? A level of physicality that hardcore gamers eschew. Even Guitar Hero: You can just click the buttons, but isn’t what makes it attractive that you can ham it up as a guitar god? Hell, I play guitar–but I don’t play anything like the archetypal rock star. It doesn’t appeal to me much, but I can see the appeal–and it doesn’t surprise me that various real-life rock bands play it.

The Wii itself may be a fad. And it may be supplanted by additions to the Xbox and the Playstation, or by another console altogether. (Although Nintendo certainly seems to be using its brand well.)

But the physicality? I think that’s here to stay.

Wii Fits, or “Hey, you, fat, ugly American, eat some rice once in a while.”

Back in the Atari 800 days–prior to the smash hit console 2600–there was a game called “Star Raiders”. It was essentially a real-time version of the old “Star Trek” game invented back in the ‘60s, and it pitted you (in first person view) against some blocky “Zylon” warriors. What was interesting was that when people played it, they tended to lean left or lean right along with jiggling the joystick the way they wanted to move.

It was, in its own way, a uniquely immersive game.

I never owned an Atari 800; we went with Apple ][s. In fact, the last time I owned a console, it was a Channel F. I lost a lot of interest in owning gaming consoles when I found I could make my own games. Also, computer gaming, while it converges with console gaming in many respects, mostly appeals to me in the areas where the two are disparate. (Adventure and strategy games and quirky little classics like Nethack.)

Generally, when I pick up a console controller (I gifted The Boy with an N64 and PS2 over the years), I find it foreign. Lots of buttons. And for a lot of games, if you want to be good at them, you’re mastering some arbitrary set of control sequences. But the Wii appealed to me instantly.

Now, I’m really what’s known as a “hardcore gamer”, even though I don’t have much time these days to play. I’ve got over 300 games, easily, mostly acquired in last 15 years, but with a few from going back to the early ’80s. Except for sports simulations, of which I own very few, you can find just about every major game made in the past decade on my shelves. I’ve even played some of them!

Despite all this, the Wii appealed to me instantly. Even though the games are trivial, it’s a million times more fun to mimic all the goofy activities than just smashing buttons. (And there are some wonderfully goofy activities in, say, Wario Smooth Moves.) Also, it drives a lot of the hardcore gamers completely nuts to have this device–this non-gamer’s device!–absolutely crush the XBox 360 and PS3. (That produces a special smile for someone who’s had to listen to the “Are computer games dying?” nonsense for the past 20 years.)

So, we acquired a Wii Fit a few weeks ago and finally had the chance to put it out yesterday and give it a try.

Fun. Guaranteed to drive the poor hardcore console folk nuts. “It’s a gimmick!” they cry. “People will buy it and forget about it!” “You should go outside to be active!” The last being particularly amusing coming from someone who probably hasn’t seen the sun since it actually was heating up the earth untowardly.

However, this simple device plays on the same simple premise that the wiimote exploits: Mimicking the action of what you’re doing is far more entertaining than button mashing. As such, simple games like “Hula Hoop”, “Ski Jump”, hell, “Running” becomes entertaining.

And unlike the wiimote, some pretty demanding requirements are made. As friendly as Wii Sports and other early games were, Wii Fit does not hesitate in calling you fat, clumsy and, probably, funny looking.

It’s a little shocking to have a game call you “obese” or even “overweight”. It’s using the highly flawed BMI standard, of course, but I imagine more than a few folks walking (or not walking) around with a few more pounds than they’d like to admit were offended by the news. (If you’re actually in shape, you’re unlikely to care what the machine says.)

If you fail its balance test, it asks if you fall down a lot while walking.

It gives you a “Wii Fitness Age”, probably much older than you actually are.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Nintendo DS “Brain Age” product–or just think about it for a moment–you’ll realize that the first time through (or first several times), you’re learning how to make the board respond. This tends to give you a nice apparent improvement spike at the front.

I didn’t really “get” the balance test, so I tested at 55 one day and 35 the next. I’m not even sure why I did so much better on day 2. I actually gained 3 pounds according to the scale (though some of that might have been clothes and time of day). Eventually, though, it all settles down and becomes a reasonably interesting and amusing metric.

You do have to put up with your Wii looking all fat and sweaty, though, especially if you are fat sweaty.

I’ve heard some parents worry about the Wii’s effect on their kids’ self-esteem. My kids (all in the “normal” range) just looked at the machine like it was crazy when it said something stupid. But they had fun playing the games–even The Boy, who has a hardcore gamer’s disdain for the Wii in general.

When he got on the board, he pretty much killed in every event. Apparently his balance is near perfect. Who knew? He even worked up a sweat. He did maintain that he preferred to make a jackass out of himself in private. Yeah, one does look as though one is having fits during some of the activities. Heh. It’s good to lighten up.

Anyway, to my mind, the board underscores how much there is still to be done with the whole concept of getting gamers up. For example, on a tightrope game, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to the old Crazy Climber game which, itself, was kind of a blast because of the way the controls mimicked the hand movements of the climber.

Tell me that wouldn’t be awesome to act out.

Hell, a lot of classic games would be more fun. Say, Pacman! The running game in Wii Fit has you stick the wiimote in your pocket and not even use the board. Running around a maze, eating pellets, alternately running from and chasing ghosts: That’d have to be more fun. And it’d doubtless change the PacMan championships. The tightrope game also had a kind of Mario feel. I never played Mario, but I would if I could be Mario.

By the way, that’s why I don’t do many sports games or Tomb Raider. Watching a bunch of characters (even animated characters) run around makes me want to do the same. (We’ve always wanted to put a Lara Croft-style obstacle course in the back yard.) I’d rather play football, however badly, then watch it. (I also don’t watch much TV sports for similar reasons.)

So, keep it coming, I say. Nintendo–at least partly responsible for turning the world into couch potatoes in the first place–could turn us all away from the couch potato lifestyle.