I’ve never been one for stereotypes. It’s unfortunate then, that I happen to be both of the following things:
- 1. A gamer
2. A bit overweight.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that my most developed muscles are found either in the thumb I use for the “jump” button or the finger I use for the “fire” button. It certainly isn’t located anywhere near the rounded lump of a belly which my girlfriend politely assures me is “cute.”
The most worrying thing about this particular stereotype, however, is that it has research backing it up. A recent study concluded that, as well as being more prone to depression than non-gamers, we’re also more likely to be unhealthy and overweight. (It’s not all bad news, though – we can take some solace in the knowledge that we’re an older and less predominantly male bunch of fatsos than we previously thought.)
So, with these facts in mind, I issued myself the following challenge: to live for two weeks according to the rules and stipulations of a selection of “lifestyle” videogames which, with their eternally smiling, lycra-bound cover stars, have recently followed in Wii Fit‘s wake to power-walk their way up the charts.
On my mark. Get set. Go.
Day One: Weight – 199.5 lbs
Where else to start but where it all started? I put on my neglected gym shorts, fire up my Wii and place Wii Fit in the disc tray. I’m soon told that I have a “Wii Fit Age” of 23 and a BMI of 26.8. This is just a couple of points north of the “ideal” zone, but that doesn’t stop them from fattening up my onscreen Mii like a baby seal.
At this moment, I can’t help but feel a bit betrayed. If any one company had a hand in my fall from svelte, toned grace, it was Nintendo. You didn’t have to put 96 levels in Super Mario World, did you, Miyamoto? And what was I doing when the other boys were playing football? I was catching ’em all, that’s what. It felt as though the nymphomaniac mistress I kept a secret from my wife for 20 years has suddenly become a born-again Christian and started administering daily fidelity exams.
Forty minutes later, with some jogging, stretching and, well, posturing under my belt, I feel a touch out of breath, but the experience doesn’t exactly compare to breaking one’s back at the gym after a long hiatus. Clearly, one game isn’t enough …
Day Two: 199.6 lbs (Not an auspicious start. I blame my clothes.)
Today’s fitness title of choice is Ubisoft’s My Health Coach: Manage Your Weight for the DS, a game built around the idea that taking several “small steps” to change your everyday life can amount to bigger changes.
And those are literal steps. This game is big on walking. Very big. In fact, it’s so serious about walking it comes bundled with an Ubisoft-branded pedometer, officially the Least Exciting Gaming Peripheral I Have Ever Bought.
My Health Coach is built around “challenges,” minor lifestyle adjustments made on a daily basis in order to effect a long-term improvement in health. My first challenge, “Drink a pint of water with every meal,” is easy – too easy, in fact – so I try another:
“Put your salt shaker in the in the cupboard, and leave it there!” the charming stick-figure mascot implores.
This healthy living thing’s a walk in the park.
Day Four: 199.3 lbs (Now that’s more like it … even if I did take my belt off.)
I’ve not exactly being pushed to my limits, so in the interests of my bold journalistic endeavor, I select a “surprise” My Health Coach challenge: “Complete 15,000 steps in 24 hours,” the stick-man happily chirps.
One hour later, I find myself over a mile from my house, not even halfway to my target. As I walk home, zig-zagging across the road like a remarkably methodical drunk in order to push my step count that bit higher, it suddenly hits me why exercise and videogames are a perfect match …
… I’m grinding. I’m repeating the same mechanical task over and over again in the distant hope that I might one day accrue enough experience points to equip a six-pack.
And it’s boring in real life, too.
Day Six: 199.1 lbs
Today, I attempt to add another game into the mix: 505 Games’ Mind.Body.Soul: Nutrition Matters for the Wii. I say “attempt,” since, speaking as a person who is well on his way to becoming something of a fitness game connoisseur, it’s terrible.
Nutrition Matters is basically an interactive diary in which you plot your planned food intake and exercise regimen for the week. Then the game shows you projections of your weight in a fortnight’s/month’s/year’s time. That’s it. It also, bizarrely, eschews the use of Nintendo’s Miis and instead asks you to design an utterly charmless avatar which inevitably ends up looking nothing like you and instead like the product of a furtive, shameful love affair between a Mii and an Xbox 360 Avatar both deemed too hideous to breed within their respective tribes.
It also has the annoying habit of referring to “your avatar’s projected weight loss” and “your avatar’s goals,” etc. Presumably, this is a sneaky way of circumventing any legal issues, since it means they’re not technically giving “you” advice – but “my avatar” thinks it’s f**king irritating.
Day Seven: 198.8 lbs
Halfway there. One thing I’ve noticed over the last week is how hard it is to fit these routines into everyday life – I don’t, for instance, usually have time to go for a two-hour walk in the evening. This is especially noticeable when your new regimen fills both the time and, indeed, the disk drive normally occupied by your favored games.
Day Eight: 198.6 lbs
Today I tried out My Health’s Coach‘s cousin, My Fitness Coach: Cardio Workout for the Wii, and it’s easy to see the family resemblance. It’s not in the bright, colorful anime graphics, but instead in the single-minded belief that all exercise can be broken down into and measured by a single physical action. You see, what My Health Coach is to walking, My Fitness Coach is to punching. Almost all of its exercises relate to boxing in some form, and your daily workout is converted into a “punch count” at the end of your routine.
The highlight is the training mode, if only because its use of an instrumental cover of “Eye of the Tiger” means you can finally find out what Rocky III would have looked like had it been produced by a Japanese company with low-quality animation software.
Day Nine: 198.4 lbs
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that all of these games seem hesitant about helping you with an actual diet. Only My Health Coach really offers dietary advice, and even then, it’s in the form of isolated challenges rather than an actual nutritional routine.
Today, for instance, my new stick-man overlord requests that I make a vegetable stew out of leftovers. Since he had heretofore not requested that I make anything with vegetables in the first place, I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m using fresh ones.
Either way, it needs salt.
Day Eleven: 198.0 lbs
Yesterday wasn’t a good day. I spent the entire time traveling and then went for a meal. Out of curiosity, I then entered my estimated calorie intake and exercise amount into Nutrition Matters’ planner. It informed me that if “my avatar” were to maintain yesterday’s performance indefinitely, then “my avatar” would not only fail to reach his goals, but he would, in fact, be obese by April.
Thank God it’s not me.
Day Twelve: 197.9 lbs
Today, I ask my girlfriend’s younger sister, the kind provider of the Balance Board I’ve been using for this experiment, to demonstrate some of the Wii Fit games I’ve yet to unlock. She proudly and excitedly illustrates how, by placing a particularly heavy book on the board, you can “cheat” the game into thinking that you’re standing as perfectly still as a couple of volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica.
This got me thinking about the problem with virtual trainers in general: There’s no shame. Whenever I turned up at the gym having missed a couple of sessions, or whenever I failed to reach my goals, my personal trainer, the terrifyingly well-built “Cliff,” would look at me with a well-honed gaze of thinly veiled disgust. And it worked – which is why companies like Weight Watchers have built whole business models around the hot and needling sting of public embarrassment.
But whenever my new digital trainers tell me, with unwavering digital accuracy, that today’s food intake is “a bit above your daily recommended amount!,” I can just switch the prying bastards off. They don’t even remember it the next time.
Day Fourteen: 197.8 lbs
Here I am, two weeks and (almost) two pounds later, with a BMI still a notch above normal. Both Wii Fit and My Health Coach assure me that this is “healthy, sustainable weight loss,” but those words sound hollow coming from a man who is not only stick thin, but two-dimensional as well. “Healthy” weight loss is, to be fair, the aim of these games, so I’m hesitant to judge them based solely on my 14-day experiment.
So what have I learned? I’ve developed a serious appreciation for the polish and charm that Nintendo and Ubisoft poured into Wii Fit and My Health Coach, qualities which elevated them well above the other games I tried out, and qualities which are pretty much essential in ensuring these titles provide something more than an exercise routine and a calendar. For those people with the willpower and discipline to stick to the demands of a trainer who doesn’t actually exist, that dash of videogame magic probably makes these two more than valid complements to an existing workout regimen.
Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. I don’t have an existing health regime – I have an existing Ben and Jerry’s routine. I like my exercise to occur in intense, strenuous, badly warmed-up bursts, with little to no integration into my day-to-day life. In short, I like going to the gym.
Well, sometimes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make a sandwich and play Modern Warfare 2.
Craig Owens is a freelance writer based just outside London, England. He can be contacted at [email protected].