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Not all action is onscreen anymore as devices get players off the couch

Twelve-year-old Taryn Peterson can beat any of the older teens on her street in baseball, admits her 14-year-old neighbor, Kevin Johnson. ”The way she swings causes the ball to go crazy, and she hits home runs all the time,” he says.

Johnson is not describing a game in the neighborhood cul-de-sac, but a game in a playroom, complete with realistic bat and ball that plug directly into the Petersons’ big-screen TV. This is Play TV Baseball by RadicaUSA, which also sells football and snowboarding games complete with leatherlike football and mini-snowboard. They also come with sensing devices that translate player motions into on-screen action.

Radica and Konami, the Japanese company behind Dance Dance Revolution — or DDR, as it’s known to legions of fans ranging from energy-charged young teens to their weight-watching moms — are in the vanguard of a trend coined ”exergaming” and ”exertainment,” active, family-friendly games that combine computer games with human movement, letting users exercise far more than just their thumbs on a game controller. The games make hearts race, not only through imagination but by cardiovascular training. These days the roster of such games includes tennis, bowling, golf, soccer, martial arts, cycling, and more.

With Dance Dance Revolution, one or two players dance to catchy techno tunes, matching the quick-moving arrows on the television screen to the large arrows on game-connected mats under their feet. Staying in sync provides the challenge, and impacts the score. This game involves extreme focus and adept movement. Players pant and sweat after only a few minutes of DDR, which was popular in arcades for years before becoming available for home use on both PlayStation 2 and XBox.

Maddi Stephens, a sixth-grader from North Andover, is a fan, and not because she needs any more exercise: She dances hip hop and jazz at a professional dance studio, and plays tennis and field hockey. ”It really helps me in dance because it helps me move my feet fast,” she says. ”And it helps in tennis, keeping my balance in positions that are not normal for me.”

The newest software the youngster might want in order to improve her tennis is XaviX Tennis, one of five interactive sports games offered by Japanese manufacturer SSD Co. Ltd. To play, users plug a XavixPORT game controller into their television set, insert a cartridge, and let the games begin! The bigger the screen, the more the players feel they’re in the ballpark, at the bowling alley, or on the court, and they say the experience is enhanced by realistic graphics and stereo sound effects.

With tennis, for instance, a player swings a miniature racquet at a simulated tennis ball on the television screen. As the opponent runs to volley it back, the other player sets up for the next shot, and swings again. [Depending upon racquet angle and speed, players ”hit” groundstrokes, lobs, and even serves, while ”playing” on their choice of grass, clay, or hard courts against the system player, or a friend in two-player mode.]

And if tennis isn’t their thing, players can choose XaviX Bowling, Baseball, Golf, and even BassFishing. While the latter may not get the heart going fast, like all the others it involves moving a piece of XaviX-supplied equipment, in this case a fishing rod, to control action.

Emerson college junior Andrea Dempsey and three friends pooled their funds to purchase the bowling version after seeing a few demos. Since then, relatives bought her the tennis and baseball games, which she and friends have enjoyed playing, particularly during this long, cold winter.

”With the snow on the ground you can’t go out much to play, so you can sit inside and actually move around a little bit and not just sit around,” she says.

While tennis is her favorite, she says her boyfriend and her friend’s boyfriend prefer the baseball game. ”It’s probably the most challenging because you have to get the hand-eye coordination down,” she says, adding, ”And the guys think that’s the more masculine sport.”

When Taryn Peterson, the Bedford ace baseballer, switches to snowboarding, she stands on its manufacturer-supplied snowboard and leans left, right, forward, and back to direct herself down the slopes. Her movements determine whether her virtual self glides, jumps, or even flips.

Taryn’s mom, Joan, who purchased Radica’s virtual football and baseball for her active family, says the games are ”good for when you’re trying to find different things to keep kids — especially older kids — busy.” She says the snowboarding game requires ”foot motion, balance, and coordination,” while football requires some physical skills and lots of ”knowledge of football — it has actual downs,” she says.

After a couple of passes and blitzes with Taryn, Mom was peeling off her sweatshirt. Taryn, who plays soccer, softball, and basketball in school, doesn’t call these games a workout, just fun. Still, she and her friends play often, especially ”when we want to do an activity, but it’s raining or something outside.”

Across town, the Wallace family discovered Sony Eye Toy when it was introduced last year. At the time, one of the gaming websites said it was ”one of the weirdest games of the year,” says Mark Wallace, 48, a senior technology director for Qualcomm, whose family enjoys the games. Manya, 12, a seventh-grader and Kenpo karate third-degree junior black belt as well as seasoned soccer player, and Michael, 6, a first-grader who loves just about everything physical, enjoy playing together. His favorite: Kung Fu.

His image appears on the television screen, captured by a tiny motion-sensitive camera resting on top. He chooses his game, his character, and begins. He slashes the air with his arms, jumps and kicks. When his turn is over, his sister adjusts the eye toy beam for her height, chooses her favorite game, Soccer Craze, and begins bouncing the ball off her head. She says she particularly likes the challenges and bonus points. ”It gets harder as you keep moving up, as the points get higher,” she explains.

These games are nothing to sneeze at physically. In one game, called Wishy Washy, users get a hearty upper-arm workout as they ”clear” a foggy window with rapid, circular arm motions. The game allows for two-person competition, too.

The original Eye Toy offers 12 games, including its version of a dancing game, Beat Freak. Sony also sells another version, Groove, and it recently rolled out Eye Toy: AntiGrav, which doesn’t place the player’s image onto the screen but still requires extensive arm movements to manipulate the challenging games.

The Eye Toy camera is now also compatible with DDR Extreme, providing dancers an alternative to the dance pad. With the added dimension of the Eye Toy, DDR involves the arms, not just the feet, and it lets dancers watch themselves on the screen.

Where all these innovations, large and small, will stop is not yet in sight; the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas in January gave plenty of proof that exertainment is just getting started. Just as consumer electronics are blurring the line between computers and home entertainment, they may also be blurring the line between the game room and the gym.


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