The Multimedia Diet

People may not listen when they feel like they're being preached at, but raw data has a voice all its own.

My time with the Wii Fit may be the longest period that I’ve ever played one video game. As of this writing, I’ve been using the game for over 860 days. There was a month here or there that I took a break, but I always ended up coming back to it. I’ve written about the device extensively, first making fun of it and then comparing it to the competition. I’ve consistently considered the Wii Fit to be the superior program despite the fact that in many ways it is not. It is not the most effective work out regime and it’s not even an accurate representation of BMI. I’m also going to hazard a guess and say it will still be superior to the Kinect and the Sony Move’s offerings. The reason for this is fairly simple: it goes far beyond exercise by tracking your weight and commenting on your progress.

For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to be talking about Wii Fit Plus, which adds a couple of key features that are essential to turning the Wii Fit into an effective weight loss tool. Some things still aren’t perfect. The game swaps out your trainer without asking, and it still finds bizarre ways to insult you intermittently. Sometimes I wonder if the developers intentionally made that little white board into a hateful little shit just as an extra motivator. What they added to the game was the ability to string together a series of exercises to make a private work out routine. The diet planner and tracker is decent, but you can get a more portable and accessible one on your I-phone or DS. I find that it’s best to write down what I eat right when it happens rather than force myself to remember it. The push ups and ab work outs on it aren’t half bad and you can string them into an effective 20 minute regime. After that, about ten minutes of hula hooping makes it a decent routine. This isn’t enough to actually lose weight. I’ve also had to do 30 minutes of cardio in the morning and diet heavily. In this regard, the Wii Fit is not actually a good exercise game, but it is a good weight loss game.

What’s both frustrating and fascinating about the game is that your progress is not based on any kind of mental dexterity or artificial reward. It’s just your weight that determines success. The reality is that there is only so much stuff that you can do while standing on a white board. After several weeks, most users are going to notice that they aren’t really losing any weight or reaching their goals. The tendency then is to dismiss the game and throw into the pile of ever growing exercise tapes. If there is a weakness to the game, it’s that you only really appreciate how effective a tool it is with sustained use. It plants the goal of losing weight in your mind and then remains firmly honest about your progress in this area. Anytime that you gain weight, the Wii Fit patiently asks you to reflect on what may have caused the increase. It lets you change your weight loss goals when it becomes clear that you aren’t going to make it. This further inspires relfection because the machine is pointing out that your entire approach is failing rather than just treating the weight loss like a single goal. If you refuse to change the date, it merrily assigns another one as soon as the date arrives. What Wii Fit has to offer is the impartiality of having someone else keep score.

There’s a great article by Gary Wolf in which he details the lives and habits of several people who track every part of their lives. Robin Baoorah used data to see how efficient he was before and after quitting coffee by measuring his productivity while he was also quitting. Others use calorie counting programs or track the effects of new drugs with careful charts. Wolf writes, “Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever” ("The Data-Driven Life", The New York Times, 28 April 2010), It’s effective data tracking that sets Wii Fit apart from other exercise games.

The first thing that it wants when you start up is for you to weigh yourself. Every time that you do this, you get a nice sticker and the board congratulates you. All of this data is stored on a chart that you can check at any time. Everything is scaled to a BMI index consisting of descriptions like "overweight", "normal", and "underweight" in order to give you some impartial perspective. The game also inflates your Mii to reflect your appearance. It’s truly humiliating to have this kind of digital mirror held up, and to the game’s credit, users can lock all this data away. As Wolf points out in the New York times article, no one bothers to posture in front of a machine; there’s a kind of safety in its impartial charts and data points.

It’s important to stress that the way that Wii Fit induces weight loss does not happen overnight. What it’s doing is slowly increasing your psychological awareness of your eating habits and exercise routines. You keep not losing weight, you keep asking why, and as various things get results, you start to become more aware of your progress. I hovered at "Overweight" for over 2 years and made progress slowly. I started to eat less food. I began going to the gym regularly. The thing that finally produced real progress was when I accepted that I was going to have to quit drinking so much beer. Free tip: that one is super effective. This routine did not happen overnight. It was a slow process of trying to find ways to win at Wii Fit.

At a popular DICE lecture, Jessie Schell theorized that one could form a society where everyone could be motivated to improve their lives through game design, a culture that essentially channels self interest into sustaining society. A little chime goes off when you get your kids to school on time and you get five points. You get 20 for going to the gym, 10 for recycling, and maybe 1000 for voting. You get enough points, and maybe you get a nice reward like a reduction on your mortgage. Schell frames this idea from the perspective of Farmville and other casual games that prey on addictive game designs for profit, indicating that society might be better off just manipulating people by appealing to their self interest ("Jesse Schell’s Mindblowing Talk on the Future of Games (DICE 2010)", fox@fury, 19 February 2010). After my own experience with Wii Fit, I wonder if any of that would really be necessary. People may not listen when they feel like they're being preached at, but raw data has a voice all its own. You just need to prove to people that they have to change. And one of the best ways to do that is through losing at a video game.

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