Wii Fitness: Rocking the Hula Hoops (and the Weight Issues)

By E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman

Seven months ago, I rapturously described my first encounter with the Wii console. Since then, three important events have occurred: Wii Fit was released in the United States, I moved into a ground floor apartment, and I got a second job. I've never been known for having great impulse control, but that last factor did make it easier to convince myself that I could afford a Wii. The release of Wii Fit convinced me that I would actually use the Wii once I bought it, and having a ground floor apartment made it a morally defensible purchase. I finally went through with the purchase about four weeks ago, and I've been playing pretty much non-stop ever since (as my thoroughly stamped Wii Fit calendar can attest) but I'm finding that I have a few major problems with Wii Fit.

My experience trying to purchase a Wii deserves a note, if only for its sad testament to the continued marginalization of female gamers. The GameStop where I made my purchases is located on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin; one imagines that it serves primarily university students, staff, and no doubt some faculty, too. I don't know what the exact gender breakdown of its customers would be, although I did notice that it seemed to have no female employees during the early stages of my Wii Fit decision period, when I was stopping in every other day to gaze adoringly, a la Wayne's World, at their floor model. Anyway, having called on my way to campus and discovered that they had just received a new Wii shipment, I scampered on in and was delighted to find that Wii Fit was in stock, too. I learned that the console sells with only a single Wiimote,[1] and I knew that I needed an extra, and I also impulse-bought a copy of Mario Kart, figuring that some of my more sedentary friends might not be too enthused about Wii Tennis. As one of the clerks was totting up my purchases, another looked at me dubiously and asked, "Do you have a friend to help you carry all that to your car?"

I refrained from pointing out that I don't drive, and simply told him that I am stronger than I apparently look to many people.[2] He launched into a story about a "little lady" (seriously) who came in and bought two consoles of some other sort and how he insisted on carrying them to her car because girls are delicate flowers and can't lift things or something or other, blah blah blah. I smiled at him politely. Then the other clerk, handing me my charge slip, warned me that I should "read the directions very carefully, because the Wii is tricky to set up."

In case you are wondering, this is not true. It is good to glance at the directions in order to know how to sync your Wiimotes and to center the balance strip, but these are not complicated concepts. The Wii is not tricky to set up. I can only assume that many game store employees are still convinced that women don't play games, or only play games because their boyfriends make them, or are afraid to connect their TVs to peripheral devices, or . . . or what? Hooking up a Wii is not in any sense "tricky," and if we're going to talk about gender stereotypes, women are not the ones famed for ignoring instructions. Maybe they think women get hysterical blindness when we touch a gaming console? It's that wandering womb; it throws off the inner ear and Mario falls in a hole. I don't know. Anyway, I took it home and set it up with no problems. I was immediately disappointed by the fact that it's apparently just not possible to make a pink-haired Mii. I ended up making a blonde "Baby Cabell" that's a good approximation of what I looked like twenty years ago, but I'm surprised by the limited range of hair colors. Of course, this is a piddling complaint next to the one voiced by a Chicano student of mine, who pointed out that it was virtually impossible for him to create a Mii that looked anything like himself at any age. Unsurprisingly, the options for Asian Miis seem pretty good, but the system is less supportive of African or Amerindian features; this is an issue I've described with other avatar systems, but it remains deeply problematic—perhaps even more so on a platform that prides itself on first and foremost allowing players to represent themselves, rather than characters they've created.

But I took Blonde White Baby Cabell, a decent cartoon of my childhood, out on the Wii tennis court, and it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered. I jumped all around my living room and managed not to hurt myself. I tried Mario Kart and got slightly less egregiously terrible at racing games, plus I get to play the Princess again, which I always enjoy (although I really hate it that she cries when she loses).[3] Then I hooked up the Wii Fit, and I was both enamored of the breadth and challenge of its offerings and absolutely appalled by its interface.

Let me put it this way: if you are designing a piece of software that people are supposed to use of their own free will for fun, the last thing you want to do is to trap them in their living rooms with Clippy 2.0. Not a Wii Fit session goes by, it seems, that I do not snarl at my TV screen: "Shut UP, BOARDY." I have clicked "NO" over and over and over again as Boardy, the unbelievably obnoxious animated Wii Fit Board, has asked me if I want to hear "a fitness tip," and he still keeps asking me if I want to hear one. If Boardy were a guy you knew from work, you would not answer your phone when he called.

But there is no way to turn him off! You can't even entirely skip through his ponderous dialogue; you have to wait until the text finishes rolling out on the screen before you can hit A to move on. The trainers that model yoga and strength training routines have a similar lag problem, which gets more annoying as you repeat exercises; you really only need an animated trainer telling you that your results indicate reasonably good balance once, twice, or at the outside three times before it's totally unnecessary and boring. They also have a creepy Uncanny Valley thing going on and the gym backgrounds they inhabit are weirdly, colorlessly sterile, as if they're under the rule of the Blue Meanies or something, but the trainers are nowhere near as viscerally repulsive as Boardy. Remember that patch that let you shoot Clippy with an animated revolver when he popped up on your Word document? I've only had my Wii Fit for a month and I wanted one for Boardy after about the first three days, when he ceased to be even ironically entertaining. This is not a good sign, Nintendo.

I have to admit, though, that I hate Boardy for reasons beyond his inherently obnoxious manner and lack of response to basic social cues that he is boring me—and this is where my bigger, ideological problem with the Wii Fit comes in: despite all the lip service to healthy lifestyles and getting more active because it's good to be more active and having fun with physical play, Wii Fit is just as in thrall to the cultural obsession with weight as everything else. Ultimately, Wii Fit makes the same implicit claim of an inexorable correlation between weight and health as so many other media artifacts, made all the more pernicious by the happy-go-lucky low-pressure rhetoric that surrounds it.

When you create a Wii Fit account, the program asks for your height and age, and then it does two things: it tests your balance and it weighs your body. It presents you with a BMI and gives a basic interpretation of that number (healthy, underweight, overweight), though it never warns you of the limitations of that measurement.[4] It then suggests that you should set a goal, and this is the crux of the matter: the only goal you can set is a weight change—a loss, of course; Boardy encourages you to think about how, with a BMI of 22 (right in the middle of normal and least likely to die, according to the somewhat dubious stats that Boardy himself reports), you're okay, but you could be better![5] Despite the fact that the program has all kinds of games and measurements about balance—clearly capitalizing on the strengths of the hardware—despite the fact that every completed "Body Test" yields a "Wii Fit Age" based on weight and balance test performance, the only goal you can set is to change your weight.

It gets worse. Boardy encourages daily "Body Tests," which in their shortest form measure two things: standing balance and weight. While regular weigh-ins are associated with both successful weight loss and weight maintenance, that's generally on a weekly basis rather than a daily one, and of course, to assume that every single Wii Fit user is invested in losing weight is bizarre. Boardy himself cautions me regularly that my weight can fluctuate "up to two pounds in a single day"—and yet he bitches at me if I don't weigh in daily.

And if I gain weight? At that point, the Wii Fit turns into some kind of insane, weight-related Confessional. Yes. If your weight increases by more than a decimal point or so on the BMI scale, Boardy demands that you select one of several possible reasons that you might have gained the weight, including "late dinners" and "snacking too much." "Being a stupid lazy bitch" is just kind of implied. This may seem like hysterical overreaction to some, I'm sure. But the thing is, I really thought that Wii Fit was going to be something fun and not insane, and instead it's hurling the same old discourse about weight as the ultimate barometer of health at me, while pretending that it's all about "improving muscle coordination." Fortunately I am wise to its nasty little tricks, but what about the people who don't realize that they're being baited and switched, or the people who smugly remark on how fat people just really need to "think about their health," as if there were no quality more indicative of health than weight/appearance, who are getting satisfying confirmation from Boardy? If I could stand perfectly still on one leg for 30 seconds, it would be an exponentially stronger indication of improved physical fitness on my part than losing a pound—but I can't make improved balance a Wii Fit goal. The message is clear: only weight matters in the end.

My anger at this glaring fault in Wii Fit is intensified by my overall engagement with the product, of course. I wouldn't get so worked up about it if I didn't have to listen to stupid Boardy almost every single day, telling me whether my weight is okay or not in his pixelated opinion. I'm impressed with the breadth of the Wii Fit offerings, and as someone who started using it in pretty good physical condition, I can attest that it is actually a decent workout. I still need to get my heart rate monitor from the gym to check how many calories I actually burn doing the aerobic activities, but I definitely work up a sweat running in place and hula hooping, and the strength-training exercises have left me sore quite a few times, always a good sign. Obviously there are limitations; never having done yoga before,[6] I'm pretty sure that my form on some of the poses is completely wrong, and the balance board has no way of knowing. On another note, the balance board's ability to measure changes in weight distribution hardly provides a truly comprehensive measure of "fitness"; I think we can generally agree that assigning a Wii Fit age of 41 to a 26-year-old who biked 550 miles in a week this past July is unfair.

And of course, six minutes of Super Hula Hoop, while it does generate points, is not the equivalent of 45 minutes on the elliptical, which is what I tend to do when I actually go to the gym. Given the choice between six minutes of Super Hula Hoop and nothing, however, Super Hula Hoop emerges the clear winner, and the various strength and balance exercises provide exactly what I'd primarily hoped to get out of Wii Fit: improved core strength. It's easy to ignore basic core building when you're focused on bigger athletic endeavours like training for a 550-mile bike trip—and it is then very easy indeed to, say, tear a muscle in your back and spend two months unable to do very much training at all. Wii Fit can fill an important gap for both novices and experts, then, helping the former get the hang of having physical fun and keeping the latter from ignoring the basics. It would just do a better job of filling those gaps if it weren't built around an obnoxious cartoon that harps on weight like the anorexic nightmares of the culture made animated flesh.

[1] And seriously, how lame is this? The Nintendo came with TWO controllers, did it not? Who isn't planning on playing with some friends? [2] Who are apparently blind to my biceps, I guess, or my disproportionately broad shoulders. Is it because I'm short? WOLVERINE is short, okay? RAR. [3] Come on, Peach—there's no CRYING in BASEBALL. Hee. [4] BMI is based solely on height and weight, which means that people with lots of muscle, which is much denser than fat, can have BMIs that indicate "obesity" when in fact they are, say, Olympic athletes. [5] I say "dubious" because Wii Fit sometimes tells bald-faced lies, like when it claims that an "uneven pace" on the run will make you not lose as much fat. Certainly running 10 mph for 10 minutes will burn more calories than alternating between 10 mph and 5 mph, but the alternating rate will still burn more calories than a steady pace of 5mph the whole way. This is what we call "interval training," and studies suggest it's more effective for weight loss, not lessóbut weight loss should obviously not be the only reason anyone exercises anyway. [6] I went to one class with a friend, but I don't really go in for that "the universe is a friendly place" claptrap.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.