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.