Thursday, April 24, 2014

Gaming and Exercise: A Marraige We Should Insist Upon

I'm not much of a gamer.  As a child I never owned an Atari, but I did own a Nintendo Entertainment System and played Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt quite regularly.  Yet, when I hit that magical age of puberty I didn't seem to follow most of my friends' on their paths into video game-world.  I'd play Mortal Kombat with a friend, but I'd just sit and mash buttons hoping against hope I could defend myself against the hours he spent learning button combinations for super moves.

I could never get into the first-person shooters like Duke Nukem or Quake like other friends.  They enjoyed the community aspect of the online-play Quake had to offer, and the ability to mod the games to start fights within said community.  Instead, my game of choice typically seemed to be simulation games (e.g. Sim City).

When I hit college, I found that I could spend a good deal of time playing games like Age of Empires or The Sims.  However, I never actually played these games.  I had more fun creating the characters in The Sims and then using cheat codes and mods to create fantastic houses for those characters, but I never actually played the game as it was intended.  It simply couldn't hold my interest.

Sometime back then a friend recommended to me that I purchase The Elder Scrolls III:  Morrowind.  I did.  I installed it and started playing and lost interest in the first four hours.  Having an open world like that with very little in the way of "structured play" left me to wander into places my character was not ready for.  I was attempting to take on creatures that would kill me with a breath instead of following the prescribed storyline.  That seems to be my nature.  I don't like to color inside the lines.

So, I put Morrowind away, along with the rest of my games.

Sometime later I found myself diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotheraphy and radiation treatments.  About that same time, Assassin's Creed was released for PlayStation 3.  I spent much of my down time from my disease playing the game, and I actually enjoyed it.  I liked the "structured freedom" of the game play.  I could go to any of the areas within the game and do things, but there was also an obvious story to follow along with.

During my time with cancer, however, both my medical doctor and my acupuncturist were hounding me about needing to get more exercise.  They weren't telling me I needed to run a 5k or anything, but they did want me to be out walking, at the very least, to help keep my immune system up and keep my muscles from atrophying.

So, I divided my time between playing my game and walking around town, and when I was through with treatments (and was able to get back to work) the gaming went by the wayside and I took up exercise in earnest.   I went through three rounds of P90X, two rounds of Insanity, and then started developing my own exercise routing based on the guidelines of the phenomenal Mike Matthews.

I felt great.  I looked great.  I started running five miles every day and mixing that in with my weight training.  It was awesome!

And then I moved.  I started working twelve to sixteen hour days the summer after my move, and my exercise routine fell by the wayside as well.  Summer flew past in a whirlwind of activity and when autumn finally came I was ready to start working out again.  I ran a little bit, pulled some weight, but simply didn't have the focus or ambition to continue.

I was laid off all winter, which afforded me plenty of time to finish my novel (of which you can read more about here), but because winter can be mind-numbingly boring around here a friend and colleague lent me The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim for PS3.

I was leery at first because of my experience with Morrowind, and my overall attitude toward video games (they can be fun, but typically don't hold my interest).  It sat on the entertainment stand for most of the winter.  I didn't actually put it into the PlayStation until late February or early March.  I almost wish I hadn't tried it at all.

I didn't do anything else for two months.

I felt like a lazy bum, sitting on my ass all day long staring at the television, playing some (albeit awesome) video game.  The drive to get back to exercise was still in me, but my focus had shifted from novel-writing to game-playing and I still couldn't concentrate on the weights.  I was cooped up inside with three feet of snow on the ground, so I could go running, and every time I picked up the weights, my brain would flash images of Draugrs and Dragons, and before I even knew I had started the game up, I was playing and the weights were sitting in the middle of the floor.

Needless to say, I was addicted.

Then, sometime in late March I had a thought.  I'm one of those "complete everything" kind of game players, so I was looking to finish every single possible quest and build my character's level up to the 252 minimum needed to fulfill all of the skill perk points.  To that end, I decided that I would no longer quick travel anywhere.  I was going to go over land to increase my experience points, and as I did this my own feet started moving on their own.

As my character walked or ran along the roads of Skyrim, so too did my own feet walk and run in place in the middle of my living room.  Before long I was moving my Six Axis controller with every sword swing just to get my arms moving as well.

And that's when I was struck with (what I think is) the greatest idea since the Atari.

We all know about the Wii Fit.  We know there are pads out there one can purchase to play Dance Dance Revolution.  We also know that the Wii and the PlayStation (and probably xBox, though I'm less familiar with that console) have the ability for motion controlled gaming through infrared sensor technology.

Why can't we develop a gaming system that utilizes a floor mat and a motion sensitive controller that requires the player to physically move his or her body in space in order to control the character he or she is playing?

Could you imagine playing Skyrim, and in order to move your character you have to walk or run in place on this mat?  In order to swing a sword, you'd have to swing your controller?

Of course, doing this would probably require some sort of virtual reality head gear (otherwise how could you turn your character's body).  But that technology already exists, and has been extensively redesigned and redeveloped into something awesome.

I don't know.  Perhaps there are already people working on this.  It seems like the next step - not just for immersive gaming, but also for exercise.  Many people exercise in front of the television.  P90X and Insanity are both home exercise programs.  And many more people lose interest in that kind of exercise because it's always the same - always repetitive.

With America's seemingly steady rise of obesity (though there are studies that would argue this is a problem), wouldn't it be great if everyone would want to exercise, could have fun exercising while doing something they would probably do anyway?  Halo of Call of Duty would be perfect platforms for this type of system simply because of the physical nature of the characters.

Needless to say, now that spring has finally arrived and the snow is melted, my time running in place while playing Skyrim has prepared me to get back into my exercise routine.  The game has been put away - sadly unfinished - but the weights are out, the pavement is dry, and the air is crisp and cool.

I might go back to Skyrim one day, but for now I'm content to be in my own forested area, running through the trees in this world.  Maybe by the time I get around to picking up the next Elder Scrolls (not that online version though - I don't do online gaming) there will be a console system that works like I've envisioned.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Empty Calories

I live on a lake in the woods in the middle of nowhere.  It isn't often that I leave the property - maybe weekly during the summer months, perhaps monthly (at best) during the winter months.  Today I agreed to accompany my wife into town.  "Town" is not large, but it's not small either; it has a population of close to 3500 people.  It has three gas station convenience stores (that I'm aware of), a McDonald's, a Burger King, Pizza Hut, Walgreens.  You get the picture.

We decided to stop at Pizza Hut for lunch.  They have a buffet, and it was the quickest available option for a salad (I had a craving).  As we were sat and munched our food, Emily (my wife) pointed out that it was odd that Pizza Hut had four televisions mounted to the walls all around the restaurant.  A brief glance confirmed her statement.  Indeed four televisions hung on the walls in each of the four corners, and each television was set to a different station, playing a different program...with no sound.

What was the point?  Is Pizza Hut attempting to compete with sports bars, hoping to attract the Monday Night Football fans for wings and football?  Perhaps.

For the most part I didn't think much about it.  So, there are TVs in Pizza Hut.  Big deal.  Yet, something Emily had said stuck with me.  "Why does there need to be a television everywhere?" she asked.  Why, indeed?

We stopped at one of the gas station convenience stores later that day to fill up the car and purchase a car wash (one of those automatic drive-thru washes) and as I pumped my fuel I was assaulted by a television...not just on my pump, but on every single pump on the property...blaring and echo of advertising from products like the new Dodge Ram to some synthetic oil that was supposed to make my car run smoother...more efficiently.

The cacophonous sound was overwhelming.  Why was there a television at the gas pump?  Are manufacturers and marketers so afraid of losing sales that they feel the need to intrude upon every conceivable space to pump us full of the need to buy?

It was the television on the gas pump that made me question the relevance of the television.  What was it's purpose?  Clearly to advertise to a 'supposed' captive audience.  What else are you doing while you're pumping your gas?  (One would hope you're checking your oil level and washing your windshield, but we know that doesn't often happen.)

Recalling my previous visits to town away from our property I realized there are televisions everywhere...most of which aren't even offering real content.  For example:  The local Hardee's has two televisions hanging in their lobby.  (I don't know why, but just follow me on this journey.)  Before we had internet in our cabin, I would have to drive to town and sit at Hardee's (where there's free WiFi) to check my email or use Facebook.  When I first started doing this, the noise from the television was mind-numbing.  Couldn't I just sit in peace and quiet?

However, at least they were showing somewhat descent content...both stations were set to CNN or some other 24-hour news outlet.  At least it was news, current events, something worth watching.  However, one day when I arrived for my weekly email session, I was shocked to see the television programing had been replaced by [what I can only describe as] Musak for television.

This new "programming" was filled with advertisements for partner companies, music videos for teeny-boppers, and other nauseating content.

The programming was almost as devoid of enrichment as the food Hardee's serves.

So here's where I am.  I don't understand why there needs to be televisions in restaurants and retail stores.  Shouldn't we be able to provide our own entertainment by speaking to one another, or at the very least shouldn't we be more focused on spending our hard earned dollar on what we came to purchase instead of having paid-for advertising crammed down our throats at every corner?

Think of it this way:  If I'm sitting at a restaurant, the last thing I want to do is watch television.  I should be able to carry on a conversation with the people I came with.  However, if I have to watch television, does it need to be so filtered that it might as well not even exist because it offers nothing of substance?

Thanks, Corporate America, for giving us two ways to dumb ourselves down and turn us into mindless sheep:  by first sticking a loud, flashy object in our face and basically forcing our attention toward anything other than the friends and family we should be spending time with, and then for filling that flashing idiot-box with content that can do nothing for us but demand we buy things.

No education.  No current events.  No talking points.  Just mindless chatter to fill the background and draw our attentions away from the relationships we should be cultivating.