Fitness video games are reshaping medium


LOS ANGELES (AP) — At first glance, the rack of video games seems out of place next to the row of elliptical machines at The Sports Authority in Burbank, Calif. The nation’s largest sports retailer partnered with Nintendo last month to sell the popular Wii console and games. It’s another sign of the times: Video games aren’t just for shooting aliens anymore.

“I actually came here looking for soccer equipment for my sons for Christmas, but this caught my eye,” said Celia Fernandez while browsing the sports- and fitness-themed Wii games at The Sports Authority. “We bought a Wii last year but don’t use it as much anymore, so I was thinking we might get them a new Wii game to go with their new soccer equipment.”

Launched by Nintendo last year, the fitness game “Wii Fit” and the accompanying Wii Balance Board have bench-pressed the gaming world. Thanks to the Wii’s motion-controller and the scalelike balance board, exercise games — or exergames, as they’re known — have become a fully formed gaming genre, attracting scads of users who don’t normally play with joysticks.

“With sales of over 8 million, it’s a sure bet that ‘Wii Fit’ has gone well beyond the traditional video game consumer in its reach,” said industry analyst Anita Frazier from research firm NPD Group. “I hear stories all the time from friends and colleagues about their sixty-, seventy- and even eighty-something parent, grandparent or aunt using ‘Wii Fit.'”

Several publishers are working up a sweat this holiday season in hopes of enticing similar consumers. Electronic Arts, THQ, Ubisoft and Majesco Entertainment have all unleashed their own exergames featuring an array of attention-grabbing gimmicks from digital cameras that scan users’ flabbiness to virtual trainers who urge players to “NEVER STOP MOVING.”

The biggest competitor to “Wii Fit” is “EA Sports Active,” the gaming giant’s own fitness franchise launched earlier this year starring “The Best Life Diet” author and Oprah Winfrey personal trainer Bob Greene. The workout simulator comes with a resistance band and leg strap, which work in tandem with the motion-controller to track players’ movements.

“Before I made this commitment to do this project with EA Sports, I’ll be honest, I was skeptical,” said Greene. “What kind of workout can you really get? I looked at what was already on the market at the time. To me, it was mostly just slow movements and relaxation, which is a great part of overall well-being, however, it didn’t actually challenge you.”

Ubisoft is taking a handsfree approach to working out with “Your Shape,” which features former Playboy Playmate and celebrity mommy Jenny McCarthy. The game utilizes a digital camera plugged into the Wii which scans players’ bodies. Many of the “Your Shape” exercises can also incorporate real-life workout equipment, such as free weights and balance balls.

Majesco’s “Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010” features the tough-as-nails trainer from NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” which has spawned its own exergame published by THQ that can transform gamers into contestants from the popular reality weight-loss competition. Both titles utilize the Wii Balance Board and can schedule players’ fitness regimes.

Whether these exergames actually help players lose weight or build muscle mass have been called into question. According to a recently released study by the American Council on Exercise that measured calories burned using “Wii Fit,” the game’s simulated activities provided a “a very, very mild workout” compared with their real-life counterparts.

That hasn’t stopped exergames from experiencing healthy sales. “EA Sports Active” has sold nearly 1 million copies since it was released in May, according to the NPD Group. A beach-themed sequel, “EA Sports Active: More Workouts,” was released last month. The follow-up features a six-week fitness program, virtual watersport activities and 35 new exercises.

Nintendo’s “Wii Fit” expansion, “Wii Fit Plus,” outsold its predecessor its first month of release, pumping out over 440,000 copies in October. With Nintendo rivals Micosoft and Sony slated to launch their own motion-controllers for their respective Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles next year, the exergame genre may have only begun to hit its stride.