In an intriguing presentation delivered at the 2008 Games For Health conference in Baltimore, longtime game designer and frequent Gamasutra/Game Developer contributor Noah Falstein (pictured) related the history of "exergaming," which has recently come into greater public awareness with high-profile titles such as Wii Fit.
Falstein pointed out that the concept of exercise married to video games goes back farther than most aware - when he was working on the classic Sinistar in 1983, publisher Williams Electronics brainstormed arcade concepts that included hooking up game machines to exercise equipment.
His concept, a flight game controlled by a stationary bicycle proved too expensive at the time. (Later in the presentation, Falstein cited a Namco-developed 1996 hang-gliding game, Prop Cycle, controlled by an exercise bike, though the game was not successful.) A realized idea came two years later with RJ Mical's Amiga Joyboard, used to control a skiing game.
Foreshadowing eventual Wii marketing, Bandai released the floor-based Power Pad controller for NES in 1987 with the ad copy, "Where the family gets into tip top shape and has a marvelous time doing it." A variety of Power Pad games as well as other similar peripherals were released around the same time.
Numerous attempts were made in the early to mid-1990s to successfully get gamers in shape while keeping them entertained, but few made a big impact on the gaming world - Falstein described the underlying problem as, "Nobody wants to go to an arcade to work up a sweat."
That maxim was proven wrong towards the end of the decade with Konami's blockbuster Dance Dance Revolution. "This really was the title that proved it was possible to make it popular," Falstein said. "This is the rare example of something that was designed purely as a fun game that has become successful as an exercise game." Since its introduction, the game has even been used in public school physical education programs.
Falstein pointed to DDR's huge success as the spark that "opened up" gaming to physical applications, with factors such as growing childhood obesity concerns and the graphical fidelity of modern gaming systems contributing to the lasting success as well.
He brought up a number of recent examples of fitness-conscious games and products, such as Respondesign's Yourself!Fitness for PS2 and Xbox, similar to an exercise video but more dynamic and adaptable; the EyeToy games for PS2, which encourage physical activity but, like many Wii games, can be played with considerably less effort; and Powergrid's heavily physical Kilowatt controller for PS2, Xbox, and PC.
Current and upcoming titles singled out by Falstein include the Konami-published DS trainer Let's Yoga as well as Nintendo's worldwide smash hit Wii Sports and its imminent Wii Fit.
Falstein was sure to note that both fun and fitness properties are necessary in exergaming. Some titles are released as entertainment with added exercise, some as exercise with added fun. "I think there's room in the market for both those things," he said. There are two important markets to target: existing gamers who can get suckered into exercising, and those who are already keen on exercise but have not traditionally played video games.
The games that are most successful both as commercial offerings and as actual fitness aids are those that cannot easily be cheated, such as DDR - as Falstein points out, human nature is such that if players can succeed at the game with less physical effort, they will do so. Products such as the EyeToy and the Wii are easily exploited in this area.
Looking forward, Falstein sees technologies such as GPS and alternate reality making their way into the segment, with positional sensors getting better and cheaper as time goes on. Concepts such as biofeedback, brain monitoring, and skin response are also on the horizon. Ambitious installation games such as wall climbing are possible as well, even if they preclude home use.
Speaking both to the immersive power of games as well as their potential fitness applications, Falstein noted that he "burns so many more calories" when dedicating his concentration to Advance Wars while on a stationary bike - he is able to keep himself pedaling far more easily than when he is reading or watching TV. "I'll have trouble walking after I get off the bike," he said.