The Great Wiivide

This weekend, as I mentioned previously, I picked up a Wii Fit. I’ve been using it for a few days now, and I’m ready to talk about it:

I’m still overweight! This thing is useless!

OK, OK, I’m just kidding. Honestly, it is completely awesome. Here’s the interesting thing: gamers don’t seem to think it’s awesome. Only, apparently, normal people.

Most of the articles that I’ve read about the Wii Fit focus, understandably, on the fitness angle. It’s easy to see why. A game that helps you get in shape! True fitness enthusiasts may not understand what the fuss is all about. Technically, there’s nothing the Wii Fit “does” that you couldn’t do by yourself in a gym with a scale. What it provides, it seems to me, are three things:

(1) Structure, meaning suggestions on what to do next. (2) Measurement and bookkeeping, in terms of weight/BMI tracking. (3) Most importantly, it gives you a plausible reason to be working out in your house instead of in a gym, where you will be surrounded by the sorts of people who go to gyms.

For me, the importance of this last point can’t be overstated. I know there are all sorts of advantages to going to a gym with other people: the friendly competition, the socializing, the crushing despair of seeing people twice your age benchpress twice your weight, the filthy locker rooms, the athlete’s foot, and so on. But for me, all of these wonderful things just serve to make me want to run away. I am, fundamentally, an antisocial creature. No matter who you are, reading this weblog, no matter where you are, no matter how we know each other, there is a 99.99% probability that I don’t want to shower in the same room as you. Sorry. It’s the way I am.

So for the past few days, I’ve been waking up in the mornings and spending 30 minutes or so with Wii Fit as my only cold, electronic gym partner. Even when it is cruel to me–as when it plumps my Mii out into a little butterball- shaped porklet–I find it more tolerable, and more motivating, than the finest $5,000/year deluxe gym. And fundamentally, exercising is less about fancy equipment than about motivation.

Wii Fit divides activities into four rough areas: Yoga, which involves breathing and holding a pose for a period of time, Strength Training, which lets you do reps of some calisthenic activity, Aerobics, which are exercises designed to burn calories, and Balance games, which are about adjusting your balance to win an on-screen game, such as a ski slalom.

Interestingly, these four activities represent two distinct feels. Yoga and Strength Training both adopt a serious attitude, giving you a kind and impossibly fit Japanese trainer to demonstrate the activities in question, to urge you on, and to gently chide you when you give up on your push-up routine because you weigh 800 billion pounds and cannot possibly support the massive flesh drooping from your frame on your two, spindly, twig-like software developer’s arms. The latter two categories are “mii-based”, in the sense that they take place in a world populated by Nintendo’s Weeble-like cartoon avatars. One wonders if Nintendo expected people to stick to mostly one section or another, or if they were simply trying to provide variety. Either way, it works.

What I don’t think has come through in most of the reviews of Wii Fit that I’ve read is any sense of how fun the game is. The balance mini-games are all simple, yet both challenging and addictive. The board is uncannily sensitive, and the slightest shift in your position can cause dramatic moves in your onscreen counterpart as he or she skiis, or snowboards, or plays a variant of Super Monkey Ball, or slides around on an iceberg in a penguin suit trying to eat raw fish.

And yet, as I look around gaming forums and web sites, I see…nothing. No discussion of the Fit whatsoever. The straight press is fascinated by the game, but the reaction by the “hardcore gamer” community has been strangely muted. My only theory is that despite the bleating and whinging about wanting “innovative” games, when actually confronted with something innovative, they don’t know how to react. And they go back to buying the latest ultraviolent twitchy shooter with a bad camera. Maybe “hardcore” just means “retarded”?

I don’t mean to oversell the “difference” of Wii Fit as a game. It is much likeBrain Age, but with the promise of training one’s body instead of one’s mind. What I think is innovative about it is that it is one of the most successful attempts to merge “personal improvement” with actual unmitigated fun. “Edu-Tainment” has been the castor oil of the software industry for years (even earning a sarcastic and self-aware song outlining the history of naturalist John Muir in the original Sam and Max, Freelance Police). But Nintendo has created a self-improvement product that, I think, people will actually enjoy using. And that is no small feat.

Will I continue using the Wii Fit every day? Only time will tell. But at this early date, I’m impressed.

There is also a larger question here for the game industry. Significant parts of the industry–Sony and Microsoft, I’m looking at you–seem fully committed to making the same old garbage, but with higher resolution. Words can’t really describe how “special” this is as a business proposition: “Let’s make the same games that didn’t sell all that well last time, but let’s spend even more on art assets (and cutting edge, expensive hardware that fewer people can afford) to do it.” In the meantime, Nintendo makes games with simpler art assets on less expensive hardware, and is literally selling them as fast as they can make them. Customers (remember them?) aren’t buying the Wii because they are listening to the gaming press. They’re buying it because they recognize that Nintendo has created something different, and something innovative. And apparently, “different” and “innovative” sell better than physics engines that lovingly simulate blood spatter through particle effects.

I’ve heard it said that the games made for hardcore gamers are, often, made by hardcore gamers.

If that is the case, here is some free advice for Sony and Microsoft: I think it’s time for you to start firing your hardcore gamers. They’re costing you an awful lot of money.