Could a better cycling video game save US couch potatoes?

Gamers need exercise and cyclists need a video game, or do they?

As I noted in a past blog post, the annual video game trade show – the Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3 – is much like Interbike. The attitude is relaxed and a bit more laid back than serious “work” trade shows. Many of the attendees are in shorts, and I’ll say it again, there is a certain smell in the air.

There are notable differences between gamers and cyclists, the biggest may be their size.  Many video gamers are big and frankly out of shape. This isn’t to say that there aren’t gamers who like to cycle, as well as cyclists who like to play video games. There is no doubt an overlap.

As a long time cyclist and long time video gamer I see a missed opportunity here. A few years ago two interesting things happened in the world of video games. The first were music games; they hit it big, allowing players to live out their rock and roll fantasies in the living room. The other 'big' thing was “motion control” became integrated into games; first with the Nintendo Wii and more recently with the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360. This coincided with a new genre of games built around fitness.

The truth is that the games have been only marginally successful. Much of this is because they’re just not that compelling, and you really can’t get all that fit with games. I think I’m as close to an authority on this as anyone.

Then a strange thing happened at his year’s E3. I ran into an old friend, Andy McNamara, editor in chief of Game Informer. Andy looked… well surprising fit, and a bit tan. The latter was surprising because I usually expect to see Andy have a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and he’s based in Minneapolis and is editor in chief of the biggest gaming magazine on the planet.

In other words, Andy was a hardcore gamer.

So I asked what the heck he'd been doing. His response, “what drives a man who lives, eats, and sleeps video games to wake up one day and turn his life around and get fit? Hell of a question.”

He explained that his wife and he had cruisers that they used in Minneapolis to get around town. The result was that he soon quit smoking, cut back on the drinking and even put down the controller. “We love the mobility and scenery of getting out and about, but we soon discovered that we needed more fire power to explore all the nooks and crannies of the Minneapolis bike ‘highway’ as I like to call it,” says McNamara.

“After we moved up to road bikes, I was instantly hooked. And the thing that hooked me was the challenge to myself," he said. "As a longtime game player, I appreciated the internal struggle to try and get better. I think of it as trying to beat that really hard last level in your favorite game. And of course, the nerd in me fell in love with bike computers too. Tracking and comparing data online, was like playing an RPG with me as the star.”

Andy says he’ll never win a race, but that the competition to get better, faster, and stronger is one of the biggest games he has played in his life. “As I approach 40, this game rewards me with a heaping helping of ‘extra lives,” he said.

So the question is why can’t other games experience this desire to get fit. You can now learn to play a real guitar via a video game – and while you probably won’t get good enough to go on tour, no one is expecting the games to do the same thing with fitness.

The truth is that there have been interactive programs built around exercise bikes, but Andy agrees that part of the problem with these is that they aren’t that compelling or interesting. “About the closest thing to a bicycling video game in my opinion are trainers like [Computrainer] or Tacx that offer simple virtual rides," he said. "Could there be a really great video game trainer game? Without a doubt, but I think we are still a number of years away from that reality.”

Currently, companies such as Saris and Elite have trainers that are linked to video and vary resistance based on the terrain shown in a video. But that’s not really a game.  These come up short because they are too much like simulations – not that simulations can’t be popular. But what is missing is the challenge.

Of course there is one issue of cost, but with a trainer type of device any bike could suddenly be used in a virtual Tour de France. Imagine how much fun it would be to try to challenges such as climbing Mont Ventoux, or sprinting to the finish against Mark Cavendish.  

But maybe I’m just fantasizing. Even Andy, a fellow gamer/cyclist says it will be a long time. “As a biker and a gamer, I can't think how even a multi-million dollar game design could compare with the simple fun of any bike and the open road - a game can just never compete with that,” he said.

And I agree, so instead of creating a better video game, maybe more gamers should put down the controllers and give the open road a try.

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