I remember my first visit, several years ago, to a video game arcade in Tokyo. I was amazed at the popularity of games that seemed to function not just as entertainment, but as training aids for various physical and mental skills. There were dancing games for coordination, drumming games for rhythm, and puzzle games for math and spatial relations. The mainstream American video game formats of the time (first-person shooters, sports, driving) may have honed reaction times and finger dexterity, but they rarely tested other skills and were almost never explicitly about self-improvement.
I became certain that Japan would soon produce a generation of highly athletic, rhythmically attuned, mentally acute uberchildren—while America would produce kids with lumpy bodies, cloudy minds, and lightning-fast thumbs. In the past few years, though—thanks in large part to the success of Nintendo's Wii console and DS handheld—those Japanese-style enrichment games have begun to invade American living rooms. Titles like Brain Age (full of timed quizzes aimed at stimulating mental activity) and Endless Ocean (basically a low-level marine biology course) have found an audience here alongside the Halos and Maddens.
Now comes the release of Nintendo's Wii Fit, the latest and perhaps most ambitious effort yet in a category I'll term "didactic gaming." Wii Fit is less a video game than a solicitous personal trainer. It offers yoga, strength training, aerobics, and balance drills. It tracks your weight and body mass index, and records the frequency and duration of your exercise sessions. (It does not charge by the hour, show up late for appointments, or gossip with other personal trainers when it should be paying attention to you.)
At the heart of Wii Fit is a "balance board" that comes packaged with the game. This small, white, rectangular platform senses subtle weight shifts in any direction. It can measure how steadily you're holding that one-legged yoga pose, or it can mimic a snowboard and let you lean fore and aft to carve turns down a slalom course. (Here's a short video that covers most of the functions.)
The Wii Fit experience begins with a weigh-in, the balance board serving as an accurate scale. Once you've created your profile, you choose a trainer (male or female—both are hot). Then it's on to the workouts.
I'm in pretty good shape, and I found the initial aerobic exercises much too easy. The basic step routine (you hop on and off the balance board in time to an up-tempo beat) seems tailored for folks who've been sedentary for decades, and it didn't manage to make me breathe hard or break a sweat. When I'd finished, the game unlocked a more challenging level—but this "advanced" step routine was still not as demanding as I'd have liked. I'm hoping future, yet-to-be-unlocked levels will ramp up the intensity.
Likewise, the introductory strength-training exercises are very low-key. Only the push-ups had me feeling any burn. Of course, Nintendo is understandably terrified of pushing too hard. (It's just a matter of time before people wearing neck braces start showing up at plaintiff-side law firms, balance boards in hand.) But the result is that those of us who are already physically active will wish Wii Fit's training wheels would come off much faster.
I did very much enjoy the yoga section of the game. I've taken a couple of yoga classes, and I found Nintendo's version quite acceptable. The poses are demonstrated clearly by the virtual trainers, and the game even tells you how fast to breathe.
The other night, a friend came fresh from her yoga class, and I asked her to try out a few poses. As she extended into "tree," rising up on one leg, I could see her balance was rock steady because the onscreen dot that measures weight shifts barely moved from its target spot. She got terrific scores on everything she tried, which suggests to me that the game does a decent job of gauging actual yoga proficiency. She did, however, warn me that the Wii can't tell if my body is in proper alignment, and that I could easily injure myself with an incorrect pose. She also noted that the game completely ignores yoga's spiritual components. To which I say: Meh.
Wii Fit's final section, the balance games, will be the biggest hit with kids and at social gatherings. These quick challenges include ski jumping, tightrope walking, and snowboarding. Some of the games are terrific fun (particularly the snowboarding slalom, for which you stand on the balance board sideways, as you would on an actual snowboard), and they really do put your balance abilities to the test.
Balance is an oft-overlooked skill that's a vital asset in any sport. The Japanese are obsessive about it: It's at the heart of sumo, for instance, and it's the secret to Ichiro's unorthodox hitting approach. Sadly, I discovered—after trying out several of these games—my balance sort of sucks. The good news: My failures drove me back to the yoga and strength-training sections of Wii Fit, where many of the drills are designed to address this shortcoming. After doing a round of the more balance-focused exercises, I played the games again to see if I'd notice a difference. I did.
This is perhaps Wii Fit's best selling point: It keeps you coming back. Like a real personal trainer, it graphs your progress, giving lots of positive feedback along the way. It knows how often you've been playing and gently chides you if it thinks too many days have passed since your last session. Should you step off the balance board in the middle of a routine, your trainer needles, "Hey, your muscles aren't going to train themselves!" Since the game keeps a history of your scores in each exercise, you can track exactly how much you've improved. Your effort is constantly refueled by your desire to post a new high score.
Wii Fit will not disappoint those who are fans, as I am, of Nintendo's patented brew of cuteness and whimsy. One of the balance games turns you into a penguin sliding on your belly to catch fish. During the jogging exercises, adorable puppies scamper by you, yapping down the road. Miis, the characters you design to serve as your Wii avatars, also play a big role, their cartoon faces popping up everywhere you look. The only cuteness-quotient misstep: One of the games has you heading soccer balls while avoiding airborne panda heads. Yes, severed panda heads—mouths open, frozen in rictus—come flying through the air at you. I imagine it's because their black-and-white color scheme is easy to confuse with that of a soccer ball. But I also suspect this may be a subtle swipe at China. If subsequent games involve severed Mao heads, I'll know I'm right.
Will I keep using Wii Fit as a regular workout? I'd definitely like to keep plugging away at the balance exercises, since I feel like I could make some valuable improvement with a little more practice. I'm unlikely to stick with the aerobics stuff, though, unless the exercises get significantly harder. As it is, they aren't enough of a challenge, and I'll soon revert to visiting my local JCC gym when I want to raise my heartbeat.
If you're out of shape and won't join a gym—due to cost, distance, or time constraints—the Wii Fit is a very reasonable alternative. It'll get you off the couch and into some mild aerobic activity. Likewise, if you have a chubby kid who doesn't like sports, this may be what the doctor ordered. But better get cracking, kid: Those Japanese uberchildren are way ahead of you.