Gaming & Technology

Exergame sales are healthy, but benefits might be exaggerated

LOS ANGELES — At first glance, the rack of video games seems out of place next to the row of elliptical machines at The Sports Authority in Burbank, Calif.

But the nation's largest sports retailer partnered with Nintendo last month to sell the popular Wii console and games. It's another sign of the times: Video games aren't just for shooting aliens anymore.

Launched by Nintendo in 2008, the fitness game Wii Fit and the accompanying Wii Balance Board have bench-pressed the gaming world. Thanks to the Wii's motion controller and the scalelike balance board, exercise games — or "exergames," as they're known — have become a fully formed gaming genre, attracting scads of users who don't normally play with joysticks.

"With sales of over 8 million, it's a sure bet that Wii Fit has gone well beyond the traditional video game consumer in its reach," said industry analyst Anita Frazier of research firm NPD Group. "I hear stories all the time from friends and colleagues about their 60-, 70- and even 80-something parent, grandparent or aunt using Wii Fit."

Several publishers are working up a sweat in hopes of enticing similar consumers. Electronic Arts, THQ, Ubisoft and Majesco Entertainment have unleashed exergames featuring an array of attention-grabbing gimmicks, including digital cameras that scan users' flabbiness to virtual trainers who urge players to "Never stop moving."

The biggest competitor to Wii Fit is EA Sports Active, the gaming giant's own fitness franchise that it launched last year, starring The Best Life Diet author and Oprah Winfrey personal trainer Bob Greene. The workout simulator comes with a resistance band and a leg strap, which work in tandem with the motion controller to track players' movements.

Ubisoft is taking a hands-free approach to working out with Your Shape, which features former Playboy Playmate and celebrity mommy Jenny McCarthy. The game uses a digital camera plugged into the Wii that scans players' bodies. Many of the Your Shape exercises can incorporate real-life workout equipment, including free weights and balance balls.

Majesco's Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010 features the tough-as-nails trainer from NBC's The Biggest Loser, which has spawned its own exergame, published by THQ, that can transform gamers into contestants from the popular reality weight-loss competition. Both titles use the Wii Balance Board and can schedule players' fitness regimes.

Whether these exergames help players lose weight or build muscle mass has been called into question. According to a recently released study by the American Council on Exercise that measured calories burned using Wii Fit, the game's simulated activities provided a "very, very mild workout" compared with their real-life counterparts.

That hasn't stopped exer games from experiencing healthy sales. EA Sports Active has sold about 1 million copies since it was released in May, according to the NPD Group. A beach-themed sequel, EA Sports Active: More Workouts, was released recently. The follow-up features a six-week fitness program, virtual water -sport activities and 35 new exercises.

Nintendo's Wii Fit expansion, Wii Fit Plus, outsold its predecessor in its first month of release, pumping out more than 440,000 copies in October. With Nintendo rivals Microsoft and Sony set to launch their own motion controllers for their respective Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles next year, the exergame genre might have only begun to hit its stride.