Gaming shapes up

Computer games have undergone a revolution, with gamers able to burn the calories as they play, while developments in motion-sensor technology are set to herald a new era in interactive fitness. Angus Montgomery reports

The perception of computer game fans as sentient slobs whose only form of exercise is twiddling their thumbs has been decidedly out of date for some time. The release of Nintendo’s Wii Fit in 2008 cemented the idea that playing on computer consoles could involve jumping around and running on the spot as much as sitting on a sofa.

The idea of getting healthy through gaming is being further legitimised by NHS involvement with a fitness programme at a computer gaming festival later this month. As part of its Decade of Better Health programme, NHS Nottingham City is joining with this year’s Game City festival in the World’s Best Health Club initiative. This will see trained health professionals in Nottingham’s Old Market Square encouraging people to lose weight, get active and undertake other health and wellbeing pledges, with the help of EA Games’ upcoming release Sports Active 2.0.

Andrew Hall, head of partnerships and health improvement at NHS Nottingham City, says, ’Our Decade of Better Health campaign is all about finding new ways of encouraging people to improve their health. The computer games sector is incredibly important to Nottingham and Game City offers an opportunity to bring together public-health awareness and cutting-edge technology for young people and families alike.’

Iain Simons, director of Game City, which runs in Nottingham from 26-30 October, says the project has come about due to an ongoing relationship between the festival and EA, and discussions with NHS Nottingham City, which started this spring. Simons says, ’Part of the aim of the festival is to explore and test games in environments other than nerds’ bedrooms.’

Simons says the success of fitness games hangs as much on the design of their graphic user-interface as on the design of the products themselves, which he says ’need to be as wire-free as possible – removing the constraint of the controller is very important’. He adds, ’The kind of confidence people will have in the experience of using these fitness products is influenced by the fidelity of the data.’ Simons also points out, ’I think one of the things that has made Wii Fit so popular is the ease with which the narrative of you getting fit is translated.’

Sports Active 2.0, which will launch next month, was developed by EA Canada in Vancouver. The game moves on from current console fitness products in terms of product design, featuring heart-rate detection technology, which allows gamers to track their growing fitness through heart-rate comparison. At the moment, most products base measurements on body-mass index. Tarnie Williams, executive producer for EA Sports Active, says, ’The launch of Sports Active 2.0 will define a new era of interactive fitness with the use of innovative motion-sensor peripherals and a heart-rate monitor that provide users with a fitness experience delivering real, measurable results.’

EA’s main rival in the fitness gaming arena is the Wii Fit, which launched its latest incarnation – the Wii Fit Plus – last October. Gamers can interact with the program using a Wii balance board and the interface features a ’calorimeter’ to estimate the amount of oxygen used by the body during physical exercise and hence the number of calories burned. Nintendo says that someone weighing 70kg can burn 140kcal in half an hour on the game’s hula hoop exercise. Following the release of Wii Fit Plus, Nintendo announced a tie-up with the Department for Health’s Change4Life programme, which aims to encourage people to take part in physical activity, or, in the words of Nintendo, ’get people active, up off the sofa and moving around, using the Wii Remote’.

But the application currently getting game fans hot under the collar is the Kinect, for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which dispenses with controllers completely, with a sensor in the console picking up the gamer’s movements.

Launch products for the Kinect, which will be available next month, include Kinect Sports, which will allow the user to play sports including football, bowling and table tennis, and Your Shape: Fitness Involved, which will allow the user to use a virtual personal trainer and take part in yoga and martial arts classes.

Simons points out that while developments in motion-sensing have led to a revolution in fitness games, they are still constrained to a potential customer. He says, ’If you do workouts you’ve probably already got a Wii Fit, for example.’

He suggests the next step may be geo-tagging programs such as Four Square as ways in which the fitness agenda can be embedded into other programs and platforms. Simons says, ’Things like Four Square literally involve movement – a lot of projects like this are exploring things in playful ways.’

Other events at Game City
Studio Output will host a Glug on 29 October
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of game Pac-Man, an urban Pac-Man game will be held in ’real-life’ on the streets of Nottingham on 30 October
Game designer Keita Takahashi is working on designs for a children’s play area in the city

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