Page last updated at 07:38 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 08:38 UK

How gaming is running with sport

By Margaret Robertson
Game consultant

Athletes
Running to victory from the comfort of your armchair
I never would have thought that the thing to change my life would be a pair of magic shoes.

I've never felt much kinship with Dorothy or Cinderella - or with Carrie, for that matter - but here I am, making decisions and changing my habits, purely on the basis of shoes.

They are, to be fair, talking shoes, which I was hoping would make the whole situation sound more rational, but I realise now only makes me sound madder. And, this being the 21st century, they don't talk to me but to my iPod.

The Nike+ system takes something I hate (running) and turns it into something I love (gaming).

Thanks to a pedometer on my foot that broadcasts to a receiver on my Nano, my iPod knows how far, how fast and how often I run, and tabulates my efforts on the Nike+ website so I can compete against the world.

I'm currently running in the great international Talls vs Smalls race, the Innies vs Outies face-off, and am 14th on the leader board for the beginner's challenge.

I'm 14th on the international leaderboard! If only my Mutant Storm scores had ever got so high.

Virtual jogging

And, to further sate my gamer brain, the site gives me a profile reminiscent of an Xbox Live GamerCard, and there are even Easter Eggs - those hidden, unlockable treats so beloved of videogames - which reward particular achievements with unexpected treats.

Five weeks ago I was running sporadically, lazily and slowly.

Screen grab from Wii Fit
Controversy rages over how fit Wii Fit can make you

Now, thanks to videogame style incentives, I'm clocking up miles come rain or shine.

And I'm not alone in this new adventure of becoming fitter through fun.

Millions of people around the world are currently really jogging around virtual parks, cheered on by the virtual avatars of their real friends thanks to Wii Fit.

Games, which have long dallied with the possibility of being fitness tools, have now established themselves as a genuinely useful addition to many people's active lives.

It's not a shift that's been universally welcomed.

Wii Fit has sparked a lot of negative comment about how effectively it can deliver on the promise of its name, with even its creator Shigeru Miyamoto back-pedalling to say that the game isn't actually supposed to make you fit, just more aware of your body.

However, those who only look to measure its cardio-vascular effects risk missing the real benefit it does to people's hearts.

Video game Olympics

For those of us who've spent a lifetime being picked last for football, or wheezing our way back from a run after everyone else has already showered and changed, the experience of being 14th in the world, or of having a cheering squad greet us when we run is a healing, heartening experience.

Chinese girl on the web
In China winning is associated with gaming more than sport

It helps associate physical activity with feeling good, not feeling bad, and that's a powerful, life-changing shift.

But is that the full extent of how games will change the world of sport? Are they destined to nothing more than motivational tools which plug in to shoes and exercise bikes and balance boards

By no means. It's now only a few weeks before the Olympics begin in Beijing, and already for hundreds of millions of Chinese the experience of losing or winning is one which is indelibly linked with videogames, not sport.

The immense popularity of games such as ZT Online and Fantasy Westward Journey demonstrate that these pastimes have become a truly mainstream activity.

How long before gaming finds itself fighting to achieve Olympic inclusion?

On the face of it, it's a ridiculous proposition, but activities such as pool, snooker and chess are all recognised Olympic sports, and there are many StarCraft players who would argue that the dexterity, speed and co-ordination their game requires far outweighs the physical demands of something like bridge - also recognised by the International Olympic Committee.

More to the point, with the rise of physical input games such as those seen on Wii and Sony's EyeToy, the argument against classifying videogames as sports on the basis of their lack of physical exertion is weakened even further.

Why would two tennis opponents need to be on the same continent, let alone the same court?
Margaret Robertson

Something such as EyeToy: Antigrav, a much overlooked PS2 game by Guitar Heroes Harmonix, is a good case in point.

An air-boarding game, it requires that you use your full body as a controller, leaning and twisting to steer, jumping to jump, and waving to pull off stunts.

It's exhausting and exhilarating, and it's hard to see how it fundamentally differs from an activity like gymnastics, even if the skill and fitness levels required are currently substantially lower.

Ball sensors

Indeed, one of the great advantages that electronic gaming offers over gymnastics or synchronised swimming is that it can be conclusively scored.

There are no suspicious national loyalties, no nakedly spiteful 5.7s. And it's this latter benefit which demonstrates the most straightforward way in which videogaming will change physical gaming.

It's not just a question of games converging with sport, it's that sport is also converging with games.

No-one who has watched the evolution of Wimbledon's Hawkeye, or has enjoyed the virtual fielding overviews of Sky's cricket coverage can have missed the way in which sport is learning to incorporate technology.

It's not a straightforward proposition, as the debates surrounding the introduction of instant video replays in football and the refusal to allow automated LBW calls in cricket proves, but as technology advances the arguments against these systems will become harder and harder to sustain.

There's no reason - in principle if not in practice - that we couldn't ultimately have sensors in ball and bat, in racquet and shoe, to measure to a millimetre exactly who was where and when.

And, continued to its logical conclusion, this line of technological integration could take sport to a place where we barely recognise it.

If we could measure every movement of the racquet and consequently model every movement of the ball, why would we need a real ball at all?

And if we don't need a real ball, why would two tennis opponents need to be on the same continent, let alone the same court?

Why would two runners need to be on the same track, or indeed need to run at the same time, if one could download the other's ghost?


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