Physical gaming begets passive players, argues Ian Bogost
Morning television is the freight train of fitness trends. These breakfast shows introduce families to lightweight takes on current events and fashions. The first morning show aired in 1952, and its audience was primarily stay-athome mothers. While much has changed, US morning shows such as Today and Sunrise still sell traditionalism, including the latest health trends or fitness gizmos, topics that have traditionally appealed to women.
A decade ago, breakfast shows started to advocate videogames rather than decry their villainy. In 2002, the home console version of Dance Dance Revolution ( DDR) made an appearance on Today. Then in early 2004, high-end DDR mat manufacturer RedOctane started promoting the story of Tanya Jessen, a Seattle woman who had lost 95 pounds playing DDR – “through nearly zero change in diet”. By the end of that year, DDR was a morning show regular. Good Morning America featured it among Toys To Get Kids Off The Couch. Today interviewed Jessen and other extreme DDR dieters.
Fitness games weren’t new. Atari created a prototype stationary bicycle interface in 1982, and physical input devices such as the LJN Roll & Rocker and Nintendo Power Glove offered more ‘active’ ways to play NES titles later that decade. But they had never been popular, not in the way DDR inaugurated.
Suddenly, middle-aged women started buying PlayStations expressly to play DDR as a home workout, much like young men might buy a console solely for Madden or FIFA. The promise of these fitness games continued through the mid-’00s, first with EyeToy games such as AntiGrav; then with Wii and its physical Remotes; then with Wii Fit and Wii’s Balance Board, a device explicitly sold as an exercise tool; and finally with Sony and Microsoft’s Wii-alikes, PS Move and Kinect.
The trend didn’t last. For one part, it’s because all fitness crazes are fleeting. Just consider the Jazzercise tapes or step aerobics platforms or Bowflex machines stuffed into
With Xbox One and Kinect 2, the era of physical interfaces for fitness and active play has
come to a definitive close
our attics. But for another part, physical videogames were never really compatible with ordinary homes. The average den is neither sufficiently large nor configurable enough for simulated dancing or sports. Early versions of Kinect required absurdly large distances between sensor and player. Gamers might move furniture temporarily, but once the novelty wears off, decades of interior design habits return the living room to its familiar, passive state. In fairness, the same was true of Jazzercise videos: after a spurt of initial interest, we moved our coffee tables back into position and tuned in to Wheel Of Fortune.
With Wii, Nintendo had adopted the industrial design of the TV remote because of its familiarity. In so doing, it forgot that the remote’s greatest power lies in its facility for sloth. With Wii U, Nintendo has largely given up on the Wii Remote, relegating it to party game curiosities like Just Dance, or reverting it into an NES-style controller for Super
Mario 3D World and its ilk. But with Xbox One and its pack-in Kinect 2 accessory, the era of physical interfaces for fitness and active play has now come to a definitive close. Kinect 2’s purpose is precisely the opposite of its predecessor. It’s an inactivity support system.
When you first set up your Xbox One, it encourages you to connect the optional Kinect 2, sweetening the deal by explaining that it will allow you to operate the console “without putting down your sandwich”. Inaction only becomes more pressing from here. “To engage, lift your hand,” reads a tutorial. Once identified, the hand becomes a cursor, like a Wii Remote minus the minimal exertion required to hold one aloft. Voice commands such as “Xbox on” even obsolesce the need to press a controller button to begin gaming (even though a button must still be actuated to power on the controller).
Apart from using facial recognition for signing multiple users into different Xbox Live accounts, little about Kinect 2’s behaviours really makes things easier. Selecting a menu by voice, logging into a service, launching an app: these practices become incrementally less laborious – compared to the already nominal activity of piloting a cursor around a screen to select an object with a button. Such a fact is noteworthy: the decade-long experiment in physical gaming has culminated in a ‘next generation’ of total corporeal reprieve. Save your button-pressing vigour for Titanfall, a game you’ll still need to put down your sandwich to play. At least for now.