Pokemon Go & a Brief History of Accidental Exercise Through Gaming

Pokemon GO isn't the first game that's tricked us into exercising. Here's a brief history of accidental exercise games!

Of all the incredible things that have occurred as a result of Pokemon GO (including the discovery of dead bodies and the way it’s completely turned around the discussion about Nintendo’s financial future), the app’s most astounding achievement may very well be the way it has encouraged a new generation of homebound heroes to get outside and exercise.

Though that may sound like the kind of snide attack on gamers typically reserved for the forgotten technology section of some hopelessly outdated publication hoping to grasp a new fad (“Can a video game help you lose weight?” the headline no doubt reads), it’s actually more of compliment. Some may argue that Pokemon GO may represent an anomaly in the gaming world due to its ability to encourage actual physical activity, but the truth is that Pokemon GO is simply the latest game to embrace the very roots of gaming culture by encouraging players to go outside.

When I say roots, I mean the arcade. Yes, in the spirit of theaters and concerts before it, the arcade encouraged gamers to seek their entertainment by going out. Maybe you were lucky and knew someone with a car and free time to spare, but more likely than not, a journey to the arcade meant hopping on your bike or putting one foot in front of the other until you were in front of a machine.

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What’s fascinating about this era of gaming is how determined the industry seemed to be to abandon the concept of arcades. Although there have always been people ready to call for the death of outdoor activity whenever a device like the radio or television comes along, the game industry seemed particularly adamant to bring gaming into people’s homes as soon as possible. So adamant, in fact, that within a few years of home console gaming taking off, console manufacturers and game developers everywhere flooded the market with conceptually cheap games and hardware sold at high prices. This led to the infamous gaming crash of ‘83.

Only it’s not really accurate to call it a complete industry crash. The one area of gaming that was still chugging along was the arcade scene that had seemingly become the industry’s top target for a time. Though not nearly as lucrative as it once was, gamers across the world were still getting up from their couches and going out into the world to play at arcades. The distance from their homes to their favorite arcade may have varied, but what remained the same was the will of the gaming community to cross it through whatever physical means necessary. Though not exactly marathon training levels of exertion, this was still an era of gaming and exercise existing in relative harmony.

If you happen to treat the fall of the arcade scene and the exercise it spawned as a murder disguised as progress, then it’s also likely that you name the NES as the killer. Though obviously not the first home video game console, this was the machine that invaded nearly every game-loving home and proved that couchside gaming was going to be a very big deal. It’s not exactly fair to say that the system entirely killed the concept of exercise and gaming, however. People would still travel household to household to play with friends, and arcades were still a popular secondary source for gaming when it came to certain genres and titles. 

However, the release of the NES does mark the moment that exercise through gaming began to be looked at as something of a gimmick.

No longer burdened with the necessity of needing to exert some kind of physical effort to get their gaming fix, many gamers now required a reason to do so. Even the mobile systems of this era that ideally emphasized getting out into the world and gaming on the go, like the Nintendo Game Boy and Atari Lynx, were hindered by poor lighting, bad battery life, or sometimes both. It’s not that these systems didn’t offer their own form of entertainment, it’s just that they couldn’t exactly provide some bold new future for gaming in motion. 

At least these early handheld attempts were fun, though. Some of the other, more direct efforts at getting gamers to move while playing were much more laughable. The NES Power Pad is, perhaps, the most notable example of these failed attempts, as its technology was crippled by the fact that it barely worked. Similar devices became a bit of a running joke (no pun intended). They were bought by few and gawked at by many who said “That’ll be the day” when trying to imagine a future in which a similar device actually became popular. (We also all remember the Power Glove, which, in retrospect, might have—but not likely—inspired the Wii Remote and Nunchuck combo.)

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It wasn’t until November 21, 1998 that movement in gaming really took a major leap forward. This was the day that Dance Dance Revolution debuted in Japanese arcades.

Utilizing technology not too different from the NES Power Pad, Dance Dance Revolution managed to capture the attention of the world via its fascinating gamification of dancing. Put a DDR arcade machine next to any other cabinet of the era and you’ll instantly see what made it so uniquely appealing at a glance. Even people that had never considered themselves fans of dancing were able to hop on and experience the sensation of letting bright lights and pulsating beats drown their worries away (including the worry of looking like a fool).

DDR is really the first instance of a successful game that promoted genuine exercise through the course of natural gameplay. You may not have hopped on a DDR machine looking to work up a sweat, but people everywhere began to catch on to the fact that the game actually provided a fairly impressive cardio workout. In that respect, it really established the idea of the “accidental exercise” concept as it relates to video games.

The next instance of this effect would come about a year later with the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. This skating phenomenon may not have directly required exercise on the part of the player aside from some deft thumb work, but what it did do was significantly contribute to the revitalization of the skateboarding scene in the late ’90s. In doing so, it encouraged more people to really get out there and take on a new physical activity. Though you could make the argument that some sports games before it had a similar effect, nothing up to this point had ever quite managed to produce such a phenomenon. 

The closest we’ve really come to such a thing is the way that Guitar Hero inspired people to pick up their first guitar. Most other games that encouraged you to go outside usually did so directly via a game mechanic, such as how Rune Factory 4 for the 3DS rewards you with money for spending time walking, or how your character’s power in the Bokati series is directly gathered from actual sunlight.

The Tony Hawk series did make one attempt to directly implement movement into one of its games, an idea so bold that it would have completely abolished the need to ever go outside and scrape your knees on the pavement again. Unfortunately, Tony Hawk: Ride introduced a skateboard peripheral that fell flat upon arrival, making it the most critically-panned installment in the series (at least back then). The peripheral, which was shaped like an actual skateboard, had infrared sensors that detected motion from the player, who could lean, hop, and turn in his/her living room to simulate skateboarding. This was a much better idea on paper than in practice, of course, since the peripheral wasn’t as responsive or accurate as Activision had hoped. 

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Elsewhere, DDR’s exercise influence wouldn’t really be felt until the release of 2007’s Wii Fit. Though Wii Fit wasn’t exactly disguising its intentions to help you get in shape, it nevertheless must be considered the most significant release in this sub-genre since that title. Along with Wii Sportsand Wii Play, Wii Fit was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto to be one of the Wii’s core experiences. Miyamoto was inspired by his family’s recent rediscovered enthusiasm for exercise and felt that the experience they were enjoying could be a universal one. What ended up proving him right was the way that Wii Fit simply expanded upon the things that made the Wii such an overwhelming success. Wii owners everywhere already found themselves unable to resist motion-driven games like Wii Sports, and really all Wii Fit did was expand upon the desire they had to get up, get active, and play by turning traditional exercise into a series of mini-games. While hardly the first time that anyone had discovered working out could be fun, this was one of the first times that genuine exercise was successfully incorporated into a medium that was inherently entertaining in its own right. It was almost as if people who played games had been waiting for someone to deliver such an experience for some time. 

DDR had, ahead of its time, really opened eyes to the potential gamification of exercise, but Wii Fit was the title that heralded the concept’s completion. Its staggering revenue numbers soon inspired a legion of similar titles for the Wii that tried (and largely failed) to recapture Wii Fit‘s magic. Even Sony and Microsoft soon got in on the action by using their own motion peripherals (the Move and the Kinect) to encourage the development of the next Wii Fit. While titles like the Kinect’s Just Dance would go on to find a modest level of success on its own, no game for any system intentionally created for the purpose of exercise would ever come close to matching Wii Fit‘s success. That title had managed to so perfectly execute its concept that many fans found it easy to ignore the torrent of similar titles that flooded store shelves in the years following its release.

That isn’t to say that the Wii Fit‘s innovations were entirely unfruitful, however. In showing that the gamification of exercise had the potential to create unique experiences, Wii Fit inspired the mobile and virtual reality gaming industries to consider how their platforms own natural abilities to inspire movement may also lead to successful exercise games. In some ways, virtual reality developers are still trying to really explore this concept out by augmenting traditional exercise routines with either a highly controlled professional environment or by transporting the user to some fantastic new world (such as with this VR exercise bike), but it has surprisingly been the mobile industry that has responded to the call of exercise through gaming most triumphantly. Largely through the use of an augmented reality illusion that can be easily achieved by most modern smartphones, mobile game developers (such as Six to Start, the makers of Zombies, Run!) have picked up where DDR and Wii Fit left off by continuing to seek answers to the question, “What are games that people would want to play that encourage movement through naturally fun gameplay?”

It’s at this point you may be asking, “Have we arrived back at Pokemon GO so quickly?” Well, yes we have. Though there are a few failed contributions to the so-called exergaming genre not explicitly covered (including a notable attempt by Atari to create an exercise bike peripheral for their home consoles), the sad fact is that the relationship between physical activity and gaming has been rocky since the fall of the arcade.

And yet, it would be a mistake to so easily overlook Pokemon GO’s role in this story. Though the extreme popularity the game enjoys now will most likely begin to fade at some point, it would be a real shame if game developers everywhere didn’t look at Pokemon GO and appreciate the fact that it has something significant to tell us about the concept of exercise through gaming.

While the examples of games that promote exercise may be small, it’s undeniable that when a title comes along that actually does this concept well, it tends to achieve a level of success that few other games will ever enjoy. Indeed, there are times when it seems that people who underestimate gamers desire to move and play are game developers themselves who are too quick to dismiss the sudden rise of these games as a mere fad.

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But they are most certainly not. The history of exercise in gaming may not be long, but it’s one that dates back to the foundation of the industry. We may no longer need to move to play, but so long as there are developers who keep finding ways to naturally integrate activity into their titles, gamers everywhere will continue to prove that the marriage of games and exercise does not need to be a mere gimmick.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.