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Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Wii Fit, EA Active and Gaming as Exercise

I felt it might be time to take a break from Twitter and Facebook to talk about something totally different. So, today I'm going to do something of a comparative look at two exercise systems for the Wii from a strictly usability-focused perspective. I make no judgment calls on whether one will help you lose weight faster than the other - for I am not a personal trainer of any kind. What I am though, is someone who hates gyms and wants a reasonable way to get some exercise without having to leave my apartment.

Before jumping into a deeper look at the two games, an aside. How fantastic is it that gaming systems are entering this arena? For a long long time games and gaming consoles have gotten a raw deal in the media. They've been blamed for a number of insane things which I won't dwell on at the moment. Now, with the Wii, games are getting a new sort of exposure. With the introduction of Wii Fit, video games suddenly had the potential to make us healthier. I think that's fantastic for the game industry in general, and specifically, I think it's great that it means new and casual gamers have another entry point into this completely entertaining field.

That said. Let's break it down.

Wii Fit vs EA Active: which exercise game reigns supreme?

Breaking Down Wii Fit

Wii Fit gets extra points for being the first, and truly being the incentive, for this genre of video games. Still, there are down sides to being first.

But let's start with the positives:

1. Tracking: Wii Fit has a great system for tracking your progress as you try to lose weight. It let's you set goals and generally has a friendly and encouraging 'demeanor' when it comes to helping you reach those goals. It will also track the amount of time your spending with the game as well as how much time you spend on other activities.I personally found that tracking was the key to keeping me diligent about not only exercise but my diet as well.

2. Variety: It takes a little while to get bored with this system. There are strength exercises, yoga, light aerobics and entertaining balance games. You can pick and choose which ones to do, and mix it up from day to day. In particular, the balance games add a nice level of playful fun to the exercise routine.

3. The balance board: Wii Fit, designed purely for the balance board, clearly makes excellent use of it. The board is actually a bit better at providing feedback than the slightly less sensitive wiimote as I'll explain when I get to EA Active. In general the graphics showing you how you're doing balance wise are well done and helpful for keeping you focused and doing the exercises correctly.

It's not all sunshine and roses though. There are some frustrations with Wii Fit...

1. No pre-programmed or custom built workout routines: perhaps the biggest irritation with using Wii Fit is that between each exercise you have to navigate through the menus to get to the next one, wait for the balance board to verify your weight, and then finally load the next routine. Additionally, not being much of a workout guru myself, it would be nice to have some recommended complete workouts that a you could simply load up, and run through without picking and choosing on your own. This, is Wii Fit's biggest weakness.

2. Creepy Trainers: Maybe it's just me, but the trainers (especially the male trainer) Wii Fit provides to guide you through yoga and strength exercises are a tad off putting. It's certainly not great for user experience, and would be a relatively easy fix. They come off as being stilted and false in a sort of uncanny valley way.

3. Breaking a Sweat: Wii Fit may provide some aerobics, but aside from the free running options, nothing in its repertoire is really going to make you sweat. Your heart rate may climb a bit, but not overly much, which means you really do need to supplement Wii Fit with something more intensive if you are really looking to either lose weight or gain muscle of any kind.

4. Scolding: Maybe it's just me, but if I go away for a weekend to visit a friend and maybe live it up a little, it's a real downer to come back and have my Wii Fit harsh on me for having gained 1.1 pounds. Granted, it's good to be thinking about why you might be gaining or losing weight, but the threshold for Wii Fit picking on you seems terribly small. As the system itself will tell you - it's not uncommon for your weight to vary by up to 2 pounds in a single day.

Verdict?

Wii Fit is a solid experience, and I know it can work. I got the game for Christmas and had lost 12 pounds a mere 8 or so weeks later. I do want to stress that I think this is mostly due to the tracking and the resulting awareness it provided me and less to do with Wii Fit's workout options, though I'm sure they didn't hurt.

The New Kid: EA Active

Now a confession. I bought EA Active because I was getting bored with Wii Fit. I mostly blame this on the tiring necessity of being reweighed in between each exercise. I'd seen some ads for EA Active pushing the 30 day workout regime and most intriguingly, the set workout routines. No more tedious navigation between exercises! But, enough of that, what else does EA Active have going for it?

Positives

1. The Workout Routines: as I expected, the highlight of this game compared to Wii Fit are the set workout routines. Even better, you can use the 30 day workout plan which will mix up your workouts daily, helping you get a theoretically well balanced routine. The great thing about that is you won't get bored doing the same routine everyday and your muscles won't get overworked as EA Active switches up the focus depending on the day. Lower body workout focus one day, upper body the next. Also, you can create customized routines if you're the type to know exactly what you want to do.

2. Diet Tracking: A nice feature that Active has that Wii Fit doesn't is the "Journal" feature. You have the option of taking a short quiz everyday that will collect information about how many vegetables you're eating or glasses of water you've taken in. It's a nice thing to have if you really want to force yourself to think about your diet on a daily basis and can provide a nice push to get you to improve in certain areas. I like this a lot more than Wii Fit's tendency to scold you whenever your weight skews upwards a bit. It's much more specific and less obnoxious. Also, you can skip it entirely if you don't want to deal with it.

3. Doesn't Need the Balance Board: the balance board is awesome, but it's nice that EA Active doesn't actually require it. This means it can be used by folks who don't even own the balance board which opens the market up nicely for EA. Also, the balance board isn't actually useful for a wide variety of exercises (particularly arm exercises). In place of the board, EA Active uses the nunchuck, often housed in a handy leg strap you affix to your upper thigh. It works fairly well, most of the time, and is better for arm exercises and (in my opinion) seems to track lunges and squats a touch better.

4. Breaking a Sweat: EA Active has a three different workout levels you can choose from. The low and medium levels won't get your heart rate up very high, but oh that high intensity workout. I've found myself worn out after some of those workouts in a way that I never did with even 45 minutes to an hour of Wii Fiting.

5. Better Trainers: EA Active uses a mix of live videos and a CGI avatar as your trainer and the female one I've been using is light years better than the ones in Wii Fit. Her encouragement feels more natural (Wii Fit's tends to repeat itself a great deal adding to the creepy effect) and the graphics are much better as well.

Still, its not a completely easy win, EA Active does have it's downsides...

1. Distinct Lack of Weight Tracking: EA Active will track your dietary choices, your calories burned, but oddly, not your weight. If you didn't own Wii Fit (or, um, a scale) you wouldn't have a way to see just how well you are progressing. This struck me as a conspicuous enough missing feature that I had to wonder if Nintendo had purposefully kept third party developers from accessing the balance board's scale feature. I couldn't find any information to that effect - but it is food for thought.

2. Wonky Wiimote Controls: While it is nice that Active doesn't rely on the balance board, the system does not always seem to be correctly tracking the wiimote and nunchuck. This may be something that could be corrected with the addition of Wii Motion Plus, but for now it is a mildly aggravating problem with the game. In particular, some of the arm exercises are very particular about how you are holding wiimote and it's not always clear why a particular motion is not getting tracked correctly.

3. Lack of Yoga or Balance exercises: I really like these two aspects of Wii Fit, so it's a little disappointing that they were overlooked in EA Active. The stretching and balance routines are a nice, more relaxing, method of exercise after a difficult day.

Final Verdict

If I were pushed to chose just one of these two games, it would be EA Active by a wide margin. It feels like a better workout, and the experience of using the game is simply easier and more enjoyable overall. However, it's not a hugely overwhelming victory. The lack of weight tracking as well as the yoga and balance games means that sometimes, I seek out Wii Fit even though I've got EA Active waiting in the drive.

Both games are worth checking out though, if you are looking for a gym-alternative exercise routine that fits your gaming lifestyle. Now that strides are being made in this area, the future for health-oriented games is going to be pretty interesting. Wii Fit 2 is already announced, and will for a fact, have workout routines as part of the package. Here's hoping that EA Active makes similar strides when they put out their next version.

Also of interest will be how these games make use of the Wii Vitality Sensor that was unveiled at E3 this year. I anticipate that we'll be seeing a huge number of health and exercise related peripherals for the Wii, and potentially for the more hardcore games systems as well. When Natal launches, it will be a whole new ballgame and one I'm very interested to see.

Introducing the Wii Vitality Sensor

And Project Natal:

Side note: isn't it interesting how much that Natal video resembles the early Wii videos demonstrating the motion sensing controller?