Active computer games, such as those championed by the Ninetndo Wii, may soon end up as an Olympics discipline. We review the state of the growing sports games industry in the UK and elsewhere.
All over the world, talented competitors are training hard, putting in long hours at their chosen discipline, and seeking the chance to represent their country at international level. With the Beijing Olympic Games in progress, that's no surprise. Yet these people are not preparing for any traditional sporting activity.
For the first time in the 2008 Olympics, computer gaming will feature in a deadly-serious digital games tournament. Although this year it's just part of the opening welcome programme, its inclusion reflects a new wave of research and technological advance that is forcing a rethink of many gaming stereotypes.
Computer games don't tend to be associated with the ideas of excellence, achievement and athleticism that the Olympics embody. In our culture, they've had negative press for years, whether compared against traditional outdoor pursuits (say, playing football in the park) or traditional indoor ones (say, reading a book or having a conversation).
Recently, new games such as 'Brain Training' for the Nintendo DS have begun to counter the idea that games are pure brain-rot - and indeed that gamers who play them are only of the solitary male variety: a message reinforced by advertisements featuring Nicole Kidman, Julie Walters and Liv Tyler. Whether or not you find the hype convincing, there are now significant numbers of researchers who believe that games can work with the brain's natural learning techniques to improve cognitive skills from problem solving to complex visualisation.
Not for couch potatoes
The latest research and technologies are also challenging the idea that gaming necessarily creates couch potatoes. New games that entice players to participate in dodging footballs, swinging golf clubs or hula-hooping the night away is bringing so-called 'active gaming' to a wide, and extremely receptive, audience.
Harry Holmwood is director of In2Games Ltd, a UK-based games company that specialises in active gaming. Its 'Realplay' range uses motion-sensing controllers in games of pool, golf and car-racing. "Our technology, like the Nintendo Wii and Sony's EyeToy, have put players' physical moves into games," says Holmwood. "They take players off the sofa and get them onto their feet, making the gaming experience much more real."
Realism isn't the only reason for encouraging physical rather than purely virtual moves. "Our first game was a physical fighting one called 'Dark Wind'," says Holmwood, "and it even included a calorie counter to show how much energy you were burning off."
Can games really burn significant calories? Certainly, according to Dr Alasdair Thin, a lecturer in human physiology at Heriot-Watt University. He examined the level of physical exertion involved in using Sony PlayStation's EyeToy, a gaming system that tracks movement to control a screen-based game. 'Kinetic' for the EyeToy is designed to give players a workout, with a virtual trainer and exercise schedules. "We decided to test it independently against a standard exercise test on a cycle ergometer," explains Thin. During testing, adult players exercised while having their heart rate and oxygen consumption measured. The ten-minute aerobic session of the 'Cascade' section of 'Kinetic' resulted in the subjects' heart rates achieving the lower end of the recommended range for a training effect.
Intense three-minute bouts of a further game, 'Sidewinder', raised the players' heart rates to the top end of the training range. After a total of 36 minutes' playing time, each player, Thin calculated, expended on average about 300 calories - the equivalent of a brisk hour-long walk. Preliminary results show that new 'Wii Fit' games also burn useful numbers of calories.
"The 'Hula Hoop' game is on the border between moderate and high-intensity exercise," Thin explains. "It is interesting how such a simple game can be great fun and also require significant exertion."
Even ordinary games may fight flab, contrary to the commonly-held view. Research published in 2006 questioned whether gaming should be classified as 'sedentary activity' at all. After measuring the metabolic rate of boys aged seven to ten as they played 'Tekken 3' on a PlayStation, academics at the University of Miami found they showed increased respiratory rate and ventilation - the equivalent of walking at two miles per hour. The calories burned would add up to an average weight loss of 1.8kg a year.
It's rather obvious that we are not, as a race, becoming more toned and athletic as we play more computer games. In fact, over the past 20 years in which gaming has grown, so have our waistlines: more than 20 per cent of the UK population is now classed as obese. What's really going on? It's a question that has exercised Professor John Speakman of the University of Aberdeen's Centre for Energy Regulation and Obesity - and he has some surprising answers.
"There's been a consensus that a sedentary lifestyle has been a major factor in rising obesity," he says. "But our research shows that we are expending no less energy on physical activity than we did 25 years ago."
In work carried out with colleagues in the Netherlands, Speakman used the 'double-labelled water' technique to measure test subjects' energy expenditure. "We label the oxygen in the body knowing that when the person expends energy, carbon dioxide is lost and some of the label is washed out. To take account of the water that's also lost, we also label the hydrogen - and the difference gives you an accurate measure of energy expenditure."
How do games and TV impact on us? "We might be changing the things we spend time doing, but there is no overall impact on our energy expenditure," says Speakman. "For example, our use of TV occurs in an evening time period when we have historically always been sedentary - listening to the radio, or going further back in time, simply sleeping." The problem seems to be the relationship between television-watching and food - one leads naturally to the other as a result of advertising and our tendency to graze. But are computer games guilty of the same influence?
"There isn't any evidence to link computer games and food intake," says Speakman.
If you're holding a Wii controller and Nunchuk, or taking aim with a motion-sensitive pool cue, your hands aren't free to gorge on snacks - so far, so good. But what is the likelihood that computer games could actually contribute to a fitter lifestyle? Professor Speakman isn't sure we can break our programming. "It's genuinely hard to shift people's activity levels," he counsels. "People might do some intensive exercise - but then fall asleep for three hours. Unconsciously, we often compensate."
Alasdair Thin is more optimistic about a role for active gaming. "Conventional sports and exercise offer the greatest potential to each a high level of fitness. But if you aim to change behaviour and promote a more physically active lifestyle then something fun and enjoyable, like an active computer game, has tremendous potential," he says. One particular possibility he foresees is that games respond to an individual's ability and skill level, evolving to challenge the player as they improve.
'Challenge' is the name of the game with a novel piece of exercise equipment called the FT3 X-treme Sports Simulator, developed by a former UK Olympic athlete. Tim Dudgeon, a freestyle moguls skier who competed at the Nagano Winter Olympics 1998, saw the potential to adapt a gym treadmill to replicate life on the slopes.
"I realised that any kind of extreme sports board - a snowboard, surfboard or wakeboard - could be fitted with wheels and trucks (for turning) and run on a treadmill," he says.
After several years of development and prototyping, the technology was right, with an extra-wide belt - but he felt it lacked interaction. "We then fitted a wireless tracking device and a screen, and developed software based on computer game technology to give people feedback." Thrill-seeking extreme-sports fans can race headlong down a snow-covered slope, competing to improve their turns-per-minute and increase their 'Xtreme' factor.
Is the gameplay enough to keep people exercising? This is certainly Dudgeon's idea. 'Unlike a jogging machine, you can try a new game every time. We're keying into the sense of novelty to get people fit." And he would like to take it further. "Extreme sportspeople are heroes to the kids now. Children have grown up with computer games but may not necessarily have tried these new sports. This way they can pick up really useful skills that are realistic enough to apply to real-life skiing."
Realism is a much-debated topic when it comes to computer-game simulations of sports. "We've found the key is to strike the right balance between realism and accessibility," says In2Games's Holmwood. "When we created 'Real World Golf' - the first motion-sensing golf game in the world - we had to make the gameplay just like real golf for the keen golfers. At the same time, the game needed to be fun for people who can't even hit a ball in real life."
In any case, it's not yet clear whether the physical or visual aspects of sports games make them realistic. Scientists at the René Descartes University, Paris, recently investigated a golf game that involved an accurate visual facsimile of golf, but with no bodily feedback whatsoever. Bizarrely, golfers who tried the computer game improved their control of force when putting on real-life greens. Especially interesting was that those who said they could sense the force of the virtual player's putting swing while playing the game, showed some of the largest improvement in actual putting performance.
The FT3 X-treme Sports Simulator provides a realistic experience and a similar work-out to a treadmill according to Dudgeon, who trains skiers using the machine. But it's the software that constitutes an important part of the experience: "When you go over the jumps on-screen, your brain is tricked - you feel your stomach jumping too even though your skis don't leave the belt," he confirms.
Should computer games ever be considered worthy to join the growing list of recognised Olympic Sports? Vast calorie-burning capacity is not actually a prerequisite - the current lineup includes bridge, chess and boules. As a former Olympian, Dudgeon doesn't see a problem, particularly if we're talking about games that do more than just simulate existing sports. "If computer games become sophisticated enough, I don't see why they can't be played at the Olympics. It could definitely happen."
Holmwood also sees change ahead. "I think we'll see new technologies that will push motion gaming way beyond what we've experienced so far. More realism and accuracy, with people fully motion-captured and immersed in the game world."
And Thin is thinking globally with regard to active gaming. "We could see worldwide competitions with grassroots participation because you don't need multi-million pound facilities or lots of staff. A networked sporting competition would be accessible to anyone with a console and an Internet connection."
Hook that power up to the new generation of active technology, and let the games begin.