In the 1980s videogame advocates answered criticisms with claims of improved hand-eye coordination. No one was actually playing games to become more coordinated, but the possibility of some marginal benefit was a convenient tool to defuse skeptics. When Nintendo released the first Wii Fit in 2008, a new pretext for indulging in the pleasures of play was added to the list. Videogames can help get you in shape. This covering pretext helped launch a new wave of fitness-focused videogames catering to people’s desire to be in shape without having to endure the awful repetitions of regular exercise, from YourShape to UFC Personal Trainer.
At E3, Nintendo demonstrated a third entry in its fitness series with Wii Fit U. Like the first two games, the claims to improve a person’s overall health seem tenuous. The game instead uses its pretext to provide a condensed encyclopedia of simple physical pleasures. In one game, players use the balance board to simulate jumping on a trampoline. The game has a strange sense of restraint and control to it. Literal jumping is not allowed. Instead you must squat down as low as you quadriceps will allow, then quickly shoot upward, going just to the threshold of an actual jump but without letting your feet leave the board.
At this point the game simulates the free floating thrill of being launched into the air, sending players increasingly higher with each jump. At first you float up only a few meters, but soon you are at mountaintop level, watching clouds drift by and looking back down on the trampoline and the miniaturized town it stands in. At the hyperbolic extreme jumpers will finally leave the Earth’s atmosphere and spend a few surreal moments floating in space.
In another game, players stand behind the balance board and hold the Wii U controller infront of them to guide an aiming reticule for a water cannon. By performing a lunge onto the balance board players fill up their water cannon and then shoot at various Miis running through the background. The more quickly you perform lunges the more water you’ll have in your meter to shoot.
These games do indeed strain one’s muscles for the minute or two that they last. Whether or not that is enough to constitute a full fitness regiment remains open for debate. Like its predecessors, the charm of Wii Fit U does not finally depend on whether or not its “good” for you. Instead, it offers an opportunity to use your body in playful ways, connecting spirited itch for getting a high score with the enlivening rush of blood and adrenaline that comes with full body movement. These experiences don’t have to be healthy to be good, in the same way that Mario and M.U.L.E. would still have been wonderful without the incremental benefits of hand-eye coordination.
Wii Fit U may have been the most subversive game at E3, then, for its ability to let players feel pleasure from the bodies, regardless of type or category. The simple fact of its coordinated movements, accompanied by the dreamy surrealism of trampolining into outer space, creates a corporeal happiness that, for the few moments it lasts, becomes its own justification with no need for pretexts.