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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008

VIRTUAL JERKS

Wii not?


Staff writer

Nine months pregnant, and a few days past her due date, Keiko went to her grandmother for advice. "When your mother was a few days late, I had a game of table tennis and the next day I went into labor," grandma said.

News photo
Wii gamers use the "Wii Remote" (left) to control their on-screen personas, while the console (right) is hooked up to a TV or other screen. PHOTOS © 2007 NINTENDO
News photo
Yoga a la Wii, in which users practice while standing on a "Balance Wii Board"

Keiko, 33, didn't have a table tennis table, but she had what you might call the modern equivalent: a Wii.

For those of you who just thought "a what?," chances are you haven't watched television for about a year and so probably have no need for a TV-dependent gizmo anyway. You see, a Wii is one of those video-game consoles where players use a movement-sensitive wand to control their on-screen personas. The tennis game in "Wii Sports," for example, requires users to wave their arms around in real-life forehand and backhand movements — a lot like in a game of table tennis.

Wii can play tennis! thought Keiko. She hooked up the system, had a game, and — what do you know? The next day her baby was born, and he's now so active you'd swear he'll make a sportsman himself — and a real-world one at that!

Since its debut just over a year ago, many have debated whether the Wii, which is made by Nintendo, will provide a substitute for real-life physical exercise or, if not, at least be a catalyst for couch potato gamers to, well, get off the couch.

Meet Wii-user Kosuke. He's been playing video games for over a third of his 28 years — and was evasive about whether that had anything to do with his somewhat wan and weedy frame.

"Wii is good because it makes complicated commands during play easy — it's very intuitive," he reported.

That's all well and good, but, getting right to the point, does he consider it exercise? Does he sweat when he plays?

"Well, no. I guess when I first started playing Wii — with games such as "Dragon Quest Swords" — I was swinging my arms all over the place (to control the swordsman in the game)," he said. "But when you get used to it you realize that small wrist movements are sufficient to achieve on-screen movement."

Wait a minute. Did he mean that if Wii users were a wee bit wily with the wrist, they could, for want of a better word, hoodwink the wand? Whereupon they'd weasel out of a workout?

"Something like that," he said, warily.

What's worse, Kosuke's experiences wed well with the results of a recent study at Liverpool's John Moores University in the United Kingdom. That study found that children who played on the Wii for fixed periods of time each day during a week used 51 percent more energy than ones who played for the same amounts of time on so-called "sedentary games," on consoles such as Sony's PlayStation or Microsoft's X-Box. However, energy expenditure levels for video games are so low to begin with that this translated into a mere 2 percent increase in the Wii children's overall energy output for the week.

That suggests that Wii might be an improvement, but it certainly doesn't come near to replacing a run in the park.

Then, in early December in Japan (overseas launches will follow early this year), Nintendo upped the fitness ante, launching a new Wii attachment: the "Balance Wii Board," a device that essentially locates your center of gravity. That came with a suite of games, such as ski jumping and yoga, that use the board as an interface.

Titled "Wii Fit," the new package unambiguously seeks to take Wii into the fitness market. But what was it that prompted Nintendo to suddenly have a whack at improving the public waistline?

When Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's legendary game designer, launched the product in July at the E3 2007 industry fair in the United States, he revealed that the maker's motives were hardly altruistic.

Nintendo wants to expand its market beyond established gamers by making "video games relevant to everyone in the home," he said. And in order to do that, he continued, "the one subject we felt we had to have . . . was health."

First-time gamers

So what kind of health-themed games did they come up with?

"At the moment I'm into the ski-jump game," said Kosuke, whose wife bought "Wii Fit" the day it came out.

"You have to thrust with your legs and then lean forward to simulate the jumping, and it is really quite tiring," he said. "The hula-hoop game, which involves much hip swirling, is tiring too."

A quick survey of two other "Wii Fit" users suggested that the yoga games in particular are popular with women, many of them first-time gamers, who have contributed to Wii Fit being one of the top three best-selling games in Japan for the first three weeks since its debut.

Kosuke's wife plays the yoga game every day, following on-screen prompts to make wide-ranging poses and at the same time keeping her center of gravity in the desirable position — as indicated by a wandering bleep on screen.

"She is well and truly addicted to it," said Kosuke. "It also allows her to watch her progress over time — and her Body Mass Index (BMI)," he said.

All of which suggests that "Wii Fit" will be well-liked by worrisome weight-watchers. But will it wean them off more worldly workouts?

"Who knows," said Kosuke. "I think it's more like a supplement — after all, my wife still goes to the gym."



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