the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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On My Way to a Better Mii

Back in the summer of 2007, I was doing an okay job of getting back into a decent exercise habit, motivated largely by the impending arrival of our first child--knowing that once she arrived, I was going to have to massively reprioritize my time. Between the day-to-day parenting existence and my wildly see-sawing work schedule, I pretty much haven't worked out at all in almost two years. The effects are written all over my body, and to my chagrin I have to confront them every day. I could really stand to lose 20 (okay, fine, 25) pounds, if only I could figure out how to get off my lazy ass and get moving.

I thought I might break out of my "need to work out/don't want to work out" spiral with the arrival of Wii Fit in our house. Hooray, I thought, this will give us a fun way to get some physical activity throughout the long, dark Cleveland winter! While that was a nice idea, it quickly fizzled out (for reasons I'll rant about in a moment), and the Fit board mostly gathered dust.

What might actually do the trick for me is the new EA Sports Active, which I bought for Liz as a belated Mother's Day present once I realized that enough hints had been dropped about it. After watching her go through her first workout with it, I figured I would give it a try; I'm now three workouts in and am overall much more optimistic about it than I ever was about Wii Fit.

Wii Fit, Wii Fit... Where to begin? It had such noble intentions, but was a dismal failure in our house. Maybe it was the vast array of tedious mini-games that I got worse at the more I tried them (oh boy, I get to pick between so many things I hate to do!). Maybe it's the mini-game structure, where minor slip-ups terminate the game and cut short your physical activity. Maybe it was the physical discomfort of many of the "exercise" mini-games; really, I am a lot happier doing push-ups when my hands aren't pressed into the pointy, textured surface of the Fit board. Maybe it's the unhealthy obsession with BMI, which is surely not a one-size-fits-all metric of health.

More than anything else, though, I think it's Wii Fit's attitude, its saccharine-coated condescension. After inviting you to step on, it emits a gasp of shock and dismay, a cutesy little "oh!" that is silently followed by "my gosh you're uncomfortably heavy." If you play in the evening it'll scold you about your sleep habits. If you don't play for a while, it mockingly chides you for your inattention--or worse, asks other, more regular players if you're still there. And if you do try to get back into the habit after a period of being away, Wii Fit will ask with sneering faux-innocence if maybe you shouldn't "set a goal that's easier to achieve." Fuck you, Wii Fit, I don't need that shit.

EA Sports Active, by stark contrast, is all about blowing sunshine up your ass. It's hard to go more than five seconds without it spouting compliments like "you're showing me great dedication today," "you're grace in motion," and "work it!" I'm trying the 30-day challenge, in which the game crafts workouts of escalating intensity and challenge for me, and during each workout there's already a fixed set of exercises you'll be doing, so there's no wasting time figuring out which mini-game to do next--your virtual trainer is going to give you what it's going to give you, and you'd better learn to like it. (This may also be why the iTunes Genius feature is so appealing to me--I have too many choices in life, so it's nice for something else to make the trivial ones for me.) It's smart about working different parts of your body, so you'll come away from each workout feeling like you've done something. The leg strap for the nunchuck, though not perfect, is a welcome relief from having to just "put the controllers in your pockets" as Wii Fit suggests for many of its exercises. I really like that you can work out with a buddy--an impossibility with Wii Fit. And in the trophy system, EA's done a great job mimicking the Xbox 360's achievements; they're strangely motivating in a way that getting high scores or star ratings on Wii Fit never was.

But EA Sports Active isn't without frustration. The resistance band that comes with the game doesn't offer nearly enough tension for an effective workout, and using a real resistance band (ours have their own rubber handles to grip) means that you'll have a hard time holding on to it and the Wii controllers at the same time. And that effusive praise is quickly replaced with polite but annoying reminders to "slow down and watch how I do it" or concerns that "you don't seem to be doing it right" whenever one of the controllers isn't held exactly right. Tonight it stopped me in mid-curl for two minutes while it lost track of the controllers and kept insisting that I needed to hold the nunchuck perfectly still. Timing in general seems to be a problem--it won't recognize a move until the trainer avatar starts to do it, and then your personal onscreen avatar lags noticeably behind your own motions, never quite exactly matching up with what you're doing. It's like watching yourself on tape delay. These minor timing problems add up too, as the start of your next rep is delayed by your onscreen persona's laggy completion (plus some fudge factor while the game decides if you've actually completed the rep correctly); I got pretty steamed at my virtual trainer when she scolded me for not keeping the correct rhythm, when the game itself was altering that rhythm by taking too long to realize I'd finished a rep. I think most of the blame can be laid on the Wii hardware itself, which for me has always had some severe weakness when it comes to figuring out the controller position and orientation; I think EA Sports Active pushes the envelope a little too far and exposes how imperfect the Wii controls really are. If Microsoft is able to really deliver on the promise of the (admittedly horribly-named, OMG what were they thinking?!) Project Natal, they'll be poised to annihilate the Wii in this space. (Honestly, I'm not sure how much longer I can tolerate that pesky nunchuck cord.)

With only three workouts down, I've got quite a ways to go before I know if this will really get me over my motivation problems and help shrink my "computer science tummy," but so far I'm a lot more optimistic about EA Sports Active than I ever was with Wii Fit. Given my similar lack of blogging motivation over the past 24 months or so, it's probably a good sign that it's prompted over a thousand words here. If only typing burned more calories...

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