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Developing Video Games That Get Players Off the Couch

by Antonio Torres on 10/30/18 10:20:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In the competitive world of eSports, professional gamers are known to spend 50 hours a week practicing for major tournaments. We are talking about video game players who can earn thousands of dollars at events sponsored by major brands; tournaments where teams are backed by the likes of Mountain Dew, MSI, DHL, and even star NBA player Jeremy Lin. While the idea of eSports "athletes" preparing for tournaments does not bring to mind physical injuries, the reality of this competitive activity is that it is filled with health issues related to carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries and even physical exhaustion

To avoid the aforementioned health issues, eSports players are now turning to personal trainers, physical therapists and physicians who guide them through exercise routines to improve their gaming performance. Just like professional golfer Tiger Woods incorporated strength training into his routine to become a legendary athlete, gamers are starting to learn that fitness can be key to their success, and this will eventually extend to eSports audiences. 

The trend of eSports fitness has interesting analogies to active gaming, also known as "exergaming" or "gamercising." Although playing video games is often considered to be a sedentary activity, it does not have to be; in fact, active games such as the popular Dance Dance Revolution are taken to delightful extremes by players whose moves on the dance pad are even more elaborate than the ones pulled by the characters on the screen, and this usually ends with puddles of sweat. Similarly, the massive success of Pokemon Go is likely tied to the physical activity aspect of the game, which sent millions of people around the world on a hunt for digital pocket monsters hiding in the outdoors; Pokemon Go was very effective in getting players off the couch because they were not likely to find creatures hanging around their living rooms or basements. 

Development of active gaming titles goes back to the days before consoles. Early exergaming efforts by Autodesk in 1982 involved virtual reality technology, but this was an overly ambitious effort for its time; it should be noted that the increased availability of VR gear these days means that active gaming development is really coming full circle, particularly when considering titles such as Hot Squat. Players who don Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headsets to play Hot Squat are in for a physical challenge that could be really grueling once they choose to also wear a weighted vest. 

Even with mobile and VR technology at their disposal, developers interested in creating active gaming titles these days do not have it any easier than their Autodesk colleagues did in the early 1980s. In the case of Hot Squat, for example, players already know what they are getting into when they don VR headsets and immerse themselves in a virtual gym experience; this is the type of game that appeals to people who do not spend too much time on the couch. Pokemon Go, on the other hand, is an active gaming surprise because players were not expecting to increase their daily step count by the thousands. 

Gamercising development does not have to be too different from "traditional" game development that keeps players engaged and stuck to their couches. The elements of immersion, storytelling, engagement, and community still apply, at least for Western audiences. To a certain extent, Asian gamers are more willing to get off the couch as long as the titles they play are fun; there is no denying that Dance Dance Revolution is a lot of fun, and so are legacy music and rhythm titles such as Samba de Amigo and Space Channel Five, both by Sega, a Japanese studio that certainly knows how to make irresistible games. 

The pillars of effective game development very much apply to active gaming: aesthetics, music, atmosphere, storytelling, and experience. Even with all the advanced peripherals such as VR headsets, Microsoft Kinetics bars, motion-sensitive controllers, weighted vests, and integration with fitness trackers, developers of exergames still have to adhere to the basics. One new aspect of game development that should not be ignored is "gamification" and community building. Active gamers will take on fitness challenges as long as they are cool and worth the effort, and they will surely be interested in sharing their progress with their friends on social media. 

In the end, active gaming titles should not be developed as a replacement for exercise or fitness activities; they should be developed for the purpose of making them fun and engaging. The physical aspect of active gaming should never deviate from the ultimate goal of letting players have fun.

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