We’ve all seen the stereotype before: gamers are sluggish, chubby, and just plain out-of-shape. That’s been around since the earliest days of gaming, lumped in with the stereotype of the young, white, male gamer. Eventually it morphed into something a little different: the stereotype of gamers who loves junk food, like Mountain Dew and Doritos. Remember when South Park made the joke about the fat guy who played World of Warcraft and everyone thought it was hilariously true? In most circles, it’s now understood that none of these “facts” are universally the case. Even so, just because these stereotypes are on their way out doesn’t mean that there aren’t players out there who wish they were a little more in shape. There has to be a fun way to mix exercise and gaming, right?
Believe it or not, there’s an entire genre of titles dedicated to giving gamers a workout while providing the satisfying personal progression we’ve come to associate with gaming. While you might be familiar with current titles like Ring Fit Adventure, “exergaming” (the absolutely horrible word given to the genre by researchers and news publications) has actually been around for several console generations. Read on to learn a little about this interesting genre, from its origin in arcades to its current-day presence in living rooms.
Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive history, just a set of highlights. There are some really weird early virtual reality titles out there – I’m talking VR of the 1980s – that incorporate exercise.
Dance Dance Revolution
First released as an arcade game in Japan in 1998, Dance Dance Revolution is probably best remembered as “that game with a dance mat”. It’s an extremely prolific franchise with several console releases, but it’s truly meant to be experienced as an arcade game. (As of 2020, Bemani, the music game arm of Konami, is still releasing new DDR cabinets in Japan.) Though arcades have declined significantly since their heyday, you can still find them in some places, tucked away in malls, bowling alleys, and movie theaters. By the end of the arcade’s popularity, the proliferation of the home console and the handheld device had removed much of the physicality from play, a significant and omnipresent part of arcade titles. Using an arcade cabinet was a full-body experience: players swayed left and right with their spaceships in Galaga and Asteroids and slammed joysticks forward while playing Donkey Kong. Well-used cabinets have shiny spots and chipped paint on either side of their boxy countenances, a testament to the way gamers gripped the cabinets during particularly intense sequences. Before the launch of motion controls, home consoles just didn’t have the same sense of whole-body motion associated with them, unless you were pushing a sibling off the sofa for beating you in Mario Party.
Dance Dance Revolution, though released a long time after the glory days of US arcades, operates in a similar way to earlier arcade titles, particularly in Japan: it brings the player’s movement to the forefront, turning their body into the controller. Gamers must step on directional arrow panels in time to the sequence on the screen, which requires both eye-foot coordination and good musical timing. If you’ve ever played DDR, you know what I’m talking about: it’s hard! It’s also an excellent workout: one memory I’ll never forget is when I had to bow out of an impromptu DDR competition at a convention because I was literally too tired to move any more. (DDR guy, if you’re reading this, I wish I had the moves you do.) Later console ports of the series, which came packaged with plastic dance mats that plugged into one of the console’s controller ports, included a “workout” or calorie-tracking mode, where gamers could enter their weight and see an estimate of how many calories they burned based on the song they chose, the difficulty (which adds more arrows), and the amount of time they played. The site Get Up Move (preserved here on the Internet Archive) detailed the story of a woman named Tanya Jessen, who lost 95 pounds by playing DDR, first in a local arcade and later at home. She notes that “The regular exercise kept me motivated, and it was so much fun that it never seemed like work…unlike jogging on a treadmill.” She kept the weight off for over 4 years, gaining more confidence in herself while routinely playing a game she loved. Such is the power of games!
Wii Fit, the Balance Board, and Ring Fit Adventure
Until the launch of the Wii, physicality in games was something that was stuck in broken-down arcades and in the hands of a few gimmicky console add-ons. Codenamed “Revolution” in development – and rightfully so, considering what would happen after its release – the Wii was designed with full-body motion control in mind. Many believed that this was the penultimate evolution in gaming: with the Wiimote in hand, you could swing your arm and your character would swing a golf club on the screen! (VR, with its total visual and aural integration, was seen as “the last step” in conflating real and virtual worlds.) Though the Wii’s potential in this regard arguably wasn’t fully realized until The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which allowed gamers to slash their way through a fantasy adventure, it hit its stride a lot earlier with a new audience, one that wasn’t as interested in Link’s adventures as the average gamer.
Nintendo marketed the Wii, its games, and its peripherals toward people who were traditionally ignored by games advertising: women, whole families (not just kids!), and the elderly. To get this audience to dip its toes into the world of gaming, Nintendo packaged the Wii with the launch game Wii Sports, a sports sim that allowed Wii owners to play a variety of simplified sports by mimicking the motions with the Wiimote. It worked: having a cute little avatar that looks like you play putt-putt was a lot more welcoming to Grandma than Doomguy blasting his way through demons. Following up on the success of Wii Sports, Nintendo released Wii Fit and its accompanying peripheral, the Balance Board. The game was explicitly designed for fitness: while standing on the board, players could follow along with a virtual instructor as she guided them through yoga poses and various light aerobic activities. Even just having to stand up was different for gamers who were used to sitting on a sofa while using a controller: most Wii games required the player to stand to access the full range of motion provided by the Wiimote.
Wii Fit and the Balance Board became widely-used items in such unexpected areas as physical therapy and retirement homes. The Wii was working to destroy the traditional notions of what video games contained, how they progressed, and where they were played, which appealed to many outside of the usual gaming market. Videos emerged of the elderly striking yoga poses in nursing homes using the Balance Board and of families “playing” together, learning new skills as a group. The Wii was a smash hit, bolstered by huge groups of people who had never before been interested in a video game console.
Released with the Nintendo Switch, Ring Fit Adventure builds on the legacy of Wii Fit and the Balance Board. Players put both of their Joy-Con controllers into a ring-shaped peripheral and wear the attached leg band, all of which measure their movement as they progress through a variety of levels with the goal of improving their fitness. Though it’s notably more “game-y” than Wii Fit, which was more of a fitness tool than a true game, Ring Fit Adventure shares the ultimate goal of personal physical movement and progress (as well as the presence of an additional peripheral) with Wii Fit and similar titles. The game actively encourages aerobic exercise and workout through a fun atmosphere. Like Tanya Jessen said, it’s not work if you’re having fun.
For many reasons, the introduction of the smartphone and its later iterations completely upended the game industry. We’ve all heard about the proliferation of “shovelware” mobile games and the predatory nature of loot boxes, gatcha mechanics, and artificially gated progress. One area that isn’t talked about as much is the enormous amount of data our phones are generating about us and how that can be used in the titles we play. With the introduction of a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and GPS tracking, our phones could suddenly give us a significant amount of data about the ways in which we exercise. It was only a matter of time before an app “gamified” this experience, which brings us to Zombies, Run! (Note: I use the word “gamification”, a highly debated term, here to refer to how a non-game program provides secondary purpose to an otherwise less-meaningful activity.)
Zombies, Run! tasks the player with, well, running. Using smartphones’ litany of data-tracking tools, it rewards players who run for certain amounts of time and certain distances with in-game items, audio messages, and other tidbits. Over the course of many workouts, the app’s story unfolds. Having players run in order to collect virtual items and listen to a story provides more incremental and visible progression than exercise traditionally does on its own. Think about it: the first time you decide to try running, often times it’s a miserable experience. You’re tired, sweaty, sore, and bored, and every minute feels like an hour. Even if you get into the groove of things, hitting a plateau in endurance or weight can cause many to feel discouraged. By giving the player more frequent and immediate markers of progression, Zombies, Run! counteracts the feeling of “Why am I doing this?” Running a little more to reach the next audio log or item is an easier goal to chase than the monoliths of “getting in shape” or “becoming healthy”, giving players a little more motivation when they need it. When it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, a little game-based assistance isn’t a bad thing.
It’s a significant positive that video games and exercise are no longer seen as disparate activities. The wide range of “exergames” (I just hate that word) that are available today on all platforms is proof that the genre is here to stay. While it’s fantastic that we’re actively dispelling the myth of the chubby, junk food-loving gamer, we also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who enjoys exercise or sports is automatically “less than” a gamer, or, in the worst cases, an “enemy” of the community. Games that bridge the gap between traditional play and exercise are a way of extending an olive branch to both sides of the divide, giving us a different way of seeing our health and the health of those in our community. These games really do make working out more interesting, and they provide tangible goals on the road to good health. Besides, who among gamers doesn’t want to integrate play into even more areas of their life?