Thursday, October 27, 2005

How Many Cookies Do You Want?

I'm not good at moderation.

Janeane Garofalo once noted that "How many cookies do you want?" is a pointless question, as the correct answer is "All." However many there are, that's how many I want.

(A slightly more useful question is "How many cookies will you have?" as it balances the firm desire to eat all available cookies with the competing desire not to look like a glutton or end up weighing 300 pounds. In private, the social disapproval factor is greatly diminished, so the best strategy for one who doesn't want to have eaten cookies is to not buy cookies.)

But it's not just food; I'm also a glutton for books, DVDs, and videogames. I stay up too late reading or watching. Or stay in playing a game or watching a video when I should go out and exercise or spend more time with people.

The videogame workout is an attempt to harness the power of gluttony in the service of physical health. An exercise game should be addictive and entertaining in the way videogames are, but have the side effect of making one more fit. It still tastes like a cookie, but it's highly nutritious!

One way to accomplish this is to bolt disparate parts together, adding an exercise component to a game that doesn't inherently need one. Like adding wheat germ to a chocolate-chip cookie recipe. Make the game require some physical activity as a cost of progress. The problem is that the exercise reduces the fun. It means you're playing a sub-optimal videogame, one that could easily be improved by removing the exercise component.

The best exercise games combine the addictive nature of videogames with the addictive nature of exercise. The movement is part of the fun, not a cost one has to pay to get the fun. The exercise component is there because it adds to the realism, adds to the challenge, and adds to the sense of accomplishment when you meet a goal along the way.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Yourself!Fitness, meet Eyetoy: Kinetic

For the past two weeks I've been improving strength, balance, and flexibility with Maya, my PS2-based personal trainer. And starting to like yoga. My current favorite pose is Side Plank...

The Yourself!Fitness workouts are fun, varied, cheap, convenient, and really do feel like having a personal trainer there in the room with you. Still, there's room for improvement. Greater variety in types of exercise and better music would be welcome. And the "fun" factor is sometimes lost. Compared with something like DDR, interacting with Maya really does feel more like a workout than playing a video game. Great when you want that level of rigor, but sometimes you don't. Exercise with Maya is fun as exercise, because you feel like you're making progress, but it's not fun the way a regular videogame is. There's still room to explore the space between the two. What we need is some competition, a few more companies trying to do the same thing Maya does - make exercise convenient, fun, and comprehensive, personalized to your individual needs.

Enter Eyetoy: Kinetic.

Remember the "Kung2" game in Eyetoy: Play2? Kinetic uses the same general dynamic to teach fullblown fitness routines. Fast like cardio Kickboxing, or slow like Tai Chi. Plus it does warmups, cooldowns, and customized workout routines. The eyetoy camera lets you observe your form and compare it to the onscreen graphics.

EyeToy:Kinetic won't be available for another month - I'll be sure to snag a copy and give a full review then - but in the meantime, here's an excellent review comparing Eyetoy:Kinetic to Yourself!Fitness.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

In The Groove (PS2)

In The Groove was made by and for dance game fanatics. The core new feature is a large set of modifiers ("mods") which change the way the arrows move along the screen. In Marathon Mode you play a preset menu of songs in a preset order with a preset sequence of modifiers. There are still arrows to indicate steps, but rather than the arrows marching uniformly up the screen they swoop in, or they move in waves, or they spin as they approach targets which are also allowed to meander about the screen. The upshot is that you are really forced to get in the groove and step based on the beat more than the onscreen graphics.

The background is simplified compared to standard DDR - there are no annoying onscreen cartoon dancers or full music videos to distract from the steps and the music. The normal DDR difficulty scale goes up to 10; this one goes much higher by adding mods and hand steps - places where you have to drop to the floor and slap the pads with a knee or a hand to trigger three or even four spots at once. The game also adds bombs - moments when you need to not be on a specified pad to avoid losing health and points!

For working out, Fitness Mode lets you play a random selection of songs at a given step difficulty until a specified calorie total is achieved. Recently I've been using it to play 1000 calories' worth of 6-foot songs a few times a week. Note that In The Groove extends the scale in both directions - compared to a standard DDR game it has more super-easy step sequences to get started with as well as more super-hard ones to work up to.

All in all, In The Groove is a worthy addition to the DDR genre. Hard-core players should buy it immediately (or at least, as soon as they get tired with their current game). First-time players might find it too intimidating and be better advised to start with a more traditional game - I suggest DDR Max 2.

Amazon links:

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Big Video Arcade Exercise Game List

Rated by exercise intensity, impact, and what area is being strengthened to what degree (U=Upper body, L=Lower body)...

game max min impact aerobicstrength
Dance Dance Revolution 10 1 high high med L
Propcycle 7 1 low high med L
Mocap Boxing 8 2 med medmed
Whitewater Rafting(?) 9 2 low high med U
Downhill Bikers 9 2 low high med L
Police 911 61 low high med L
Para Para Paradise6 1 low medlow U
Sega Ski Super G 4 1low low low L
Alpine Racer(1,2) 31 low low low L
Alpine Surfer 3 1 lowlow low L
Top Skater3 1 lowlow low L
Hangliding(?) 3 1 none low low U
Samurai(?) 3 1 low med low
Gunblade NY 2 1low low low U
L.A. Machinegun 2 1 low low low U
Brave Firefighters 2 1 low low low U
Wave Runner/Wave Shark 1 1 lowlow low L
Motocross Go! 11 lowlow low L
Manx TT Superbike Twin 1 1low low low L
Motor Raid 1 1low low low L

I know I'm missing a bunch of great games, so please add a comment or email if you have specific favorites I left out (including /your/ suggested ratings, or corrections to what I've listed above). Incidentally, the few I've marked with a "?" are descriptive - these are games for which I don't know the exact name - help there would also be appreciated.

UPDATE: I had to take out the "general comments" column because it made the table too wide. I'll make a separate page with the full table as part of a general site FAQ soon enough; for now the abbreviated list must suffice.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Maya is Kinda Creepy

So far, I've done six sessions with Maya of Yourself!Fitness. I love the workouts and it really does help get the moves right to watch Maya do them and mirror what she does...but I have to tell you, she's starting to creep me out.

Maya falls smack into the uncanny valley.

First, there's the neck/head thing. Her neck doesn't move quite right and the head doesn't always face the right direction relative to the rest of the body. Especially when doing something where the body hunches forward such as a sideways step-touch, the head is all wrong. She reminds me of the zombies in a's like the neck is broken and wobbling around a little but the body doesn't realize it yet and keeps on going.

Then there's the face. She talks, and her lips move, but the rest of the face doesn't move with the lips. And the lip movements aren't right - it's like a badly-dubbed movie. And her head sometimes seems too small for her body. Though she looks fine in posed shots and at key points starting and stopping an exercise, some of the transition frames are just plain...odd.

Her chatter is often inappropriate to the situation in ways a good programmer could have fixed but didn't think to. She'll announce "Moving on to kicks!" when it's the first exercise so there's nothing to move on from. Or when we just did kicks. When we do X on the right leg followed by X on the left leg, she'll say "Let's do X!" both times rather than saying "Now let's try the other side" at the transition. Sometimes the last segment in a workout is a rest; she'll say "let's take a moment" and sit there for ten seconds before announcing the workout is actually complete. When the music changes, sometimes it goes silent for a half minute. Which I wouldn't mind if it were worth the wait, but the new track is usually just as cheesy as what it replaced. I just want Maya to go find the hidden Deejay and smack him upside the head for sleeping on the job while she's trying to give a good workout, but she never seems to notice the silence. Maybe she's asleep too!

So it's still a fantastic program - and you should buy it right now - but there's room for improvement.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Videogame Exercise Triathlon!

Last night I believe I completed the first-ever videogame exercise triathlon. Three events, one game console (PS2).

First, I completed my scheduled half-hour general daily workout using Yourself!Fitness. (Maya recommended I work on lower body, since I'd done upper on Monday).

Then, I did some upper-body strength training by playing Prince Of Persia:Warrior Within for a half-hour on the Kilowatt Sport.

Lastly, for additional aerobic exercise I brought out the DDR pad and played Dance Dance Revolution Extreme for a half hour, working through a variety of "Nonstop Mode" and "Challenge Mode" routines. Now that's a workout!

Could one use this series as a real competition event? Not without some substitutions. You can't use Maya in a competition - there's no point-scoring component - so we'd have to substitute a different third event. An EyeToy fighting game would be ideal - either Boxing or Kung2. As for the Kilowatt Sport, we'd want a game that's a little more hard-core and score oriented than PoP. How about Gran Turismo? Okay, so now we have three exercise events that require wildly different skillsets. Gran Turismo (in arcade mode, with a specified exercise level, track, and car), DDR (with a specified nonstop-mode sequence), and Kung2. The final score for the triathlon is the sum of the scores for each set, possibly with some multiplier to deal with scalability.

Clearly I'm going to have to try this out, work out the rules in more detail and see if it can actually be held as a competition. Seems like it would be a good candidate for the next PAX, either on its own or as a feeder event into the Omegathon.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Your own personal trainer (Yourself!Fitness)

Wouldn't it be great to have your own personal trainer?

A personal trainer could evaluate your fitness level, design a varied workout customized to your fitness goals, abilities and available tools and lead you through that workout. Your trainer would periodically ask you how you're doing and adjust the difficulty level, stopping to explain the tricky bits or to rest for a bit. At the end, he/she would congratulate you on a job well done and remind you of the next scheduled workout.

Why haven't you got one yet?

Well, it's inconvenient to get to the gym and to coordinate your schedule with somebody else. And it's expensive to pay somebody just to help you exercise. And maybe you don't want to feel like you're being judged or are wasting somebody's time (or failing to get your money's worth) when they keep having to stop and explain all the moves.

Enter Maya.

Maya is your personal trainer. All you have to do is buy a copy of Yourself!Fitness for your platform of choice - you can get it from Amazon for PS2, XBox, or PC. Maya will tailor the workouts to the tools you have - for the full range of activity you'll eventually want to get hand weights, a stability ball, a step, and a yoga mat, but you can get started without any of these. Maya can also lead you through yoga exercises to relax you and improve your flexibility.

This is not actually a game, but it does fall into the category of using videogame technology to make getting in shape more convenient and enjoyable. Like cereal brand X is "part of a well-balanced breakfast", Maya is part of a well-balanced fitness regimen. Something a little more traditional alongside the music games and the Kilowatt-mediated shoot-em-ups. Good for what ails ya.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Eyetoy:Play2 (PS2)

The Eyetoy is a USB camera accessory for the Playstation 2. Amazon offers it bundled with the game "Play2" for about $50 here.

Play2 is a collection of silly party games. The two with the most exercise potential are fighting games: Knockout and Kung2. Knockout is a boxing game much like the arcade game Mocap Boxing except that the camera is facing an image of you in the ring. You can punch your opponent and you can duck his punches. It feels a bit like real fighting. It's better than Mocap in that you can try to punch the other guy whenever he looks open - you don't have to wait for a target area to be explictly announced and there's no boring/tiring "punch him 37 times straight" nonsense. The best part is how you shrug off being knocked down: a bunch of stars are swimming on the screen around you and you have to wave them aside. The worse the blow, the more stars and the more waving they require. Very creative and intuitive!

In Kung2, cute tiny ninjas launch attacks on you from all sides, which you swat aside with a convincing WHAP. If you have a martial arts background, it's a surprisingly good way to exercise your block and punch combinations.

The most generally enjoyable games in the set aren't necessarily the best exercise. I got a kick out of Secret Agent, in which you spend a lot of time standing perfectly still to avoid detection while you use one free arm to slowly and stealthily pick a lock. Mr. Chef lets you practice your short-order cooking skills. And Air Guitar is a nod to the music game genre - it lets you play a simplified Guitar Freak equivalent without a physical controller.

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