New fitness game rewrites the rules on how players think about, and interact with, video games

  • Technical Inadvisory
  • Monday, 13 Jul 2020

Turns out playing a video game can somehow be extremely exhausting. —

Ever since I started working at home, I realised that I needed to stay fit instead of just sitting around playing video game... errr, I meant, working very hard at the computer every day. The logical solution was to get Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo's bizarre hybrid of video game and fitness/exercise machine, because my brain operates entirely in the context of games.

The game was originally released for the Switch back in October 2019 and has been pretty hard to get hold of – possibly owing to the fact that it's one of those rare video games that requires specialised hardware controllers/accessories to play – but fortunately I got my own copy!

By 9pm, I had set up the game, inserting one Joy Con into the specialised yoga ring accessory and another into a strap attached to my left thigh, so my physical movements actually got translated into in-game actions.

By 9.10pm, I was a dehydrated pile of vaguely man-shaped flesh collapsed on the floor, screaming at the heavens, and questioning all my life decisions that led me to this point. Surprise! Turns out playing a video game can somehow be extremely exhausting!

As I was lying on the floor drenched in sweat and regret, I took a moment to appreciate how brave and/or insane Nintendo was to invest in a game that requires such specialised hardware to play, and such strange actions to interact with the game.

I mean, this is a video game where – to move my character in the game – I have to jog in place, with the Joy Con on my thigh detecting the motions. To attack enemies, I have to physically exert myself to squeeze or pull the yoga ring, which appears to have a built-in digital force gauge that measures the strength of my actions.

(Note: a force gauge or force meter is a mechanism that measures mechanical forces. It does not tell you how many midi-chlorians you have.)

Any other video game developer would have made the "sensible" decision to only use the standard interactions that all gamers are familiar with. A joystick to move your character around, and buttons to shoot laser beams or whatever. Or if you're playing on a PC, a mouse to move the camera and keyboard keys to trigger special moves.

This is, after all, the "natural" way that gamers interact with games. Right?

Actually, now that I think of it, maybe squeezing a plastic yoga ring to say "Yes/Confirm/Proceed" is just as equally artificial and weird as pressing the Enter key on a keyboard or the X key on a PlayStation 4 controller to do the same. It's just that in the latter cases, people have already gotten used to the method of interaction.

There's a certain language of actions that we use to interact with our software that's very easy to take for granted: we pinch touchscreens to zoom in and out, we all agree that clicking on the right mouse button should open a context menu, and holding down the power button for more than five seconds should completely switch off a device instead of putting it to sleep.

(For an idea of how complex this can get, check out this documentation from Google's Material Design, which studies the language of gestures on touchscreen devices.

A lot of this language which maps the actions that humans perform (clicking buttons, twiddling joysticks, etc) with the interaction that happens in the software (the webpage scrolls, or Mario does a jump) had to be developed over time.

Sure, some interactions seem intuitive, like swiping your finger to scroll a webpage on an iPhone, but other interactions had to go through several iterations before it became something users accepted. First person shooters, in particular, went from keyboard-only PC games where the arrow keys controlled movement; to WASD keys to move and mouse to aim; to console games where everyone somehow agrees that the left joystick is for moving, the right joystick is for aiming, and the shoulder buttons are for shooting.

(This makes me wonder what'd happen if the language of interaction used in Nintendo's fitness-based games gets adopted as a new standard – we'd lift dumbbells to play/pause videos and perform the crane pose to open the options menu.)

If you're a software designer or developer, one thing to keep in mind is that the hardware always informs users on how they should expect to interact with the software you make, and that comes with a lot of inbuilt expectations.

So if you're planning on creating a website, game, or other piece of software that'll be used on multiple different platforms or device types, you'll need to fully understand the implicit language of interaction for each platform. If you make one your "primary" and expect to easily port your software to the other platforms/devices, you're in for a rude surprise.

You know what's haunting my thoughts right now? Next weekend there's a game jam (it's the GMTK game jam, but it'll be over by the time you're reading this) and I'm kinda stressed about making a web-based game that's compatible on both computers (i.e. with keyboards and mouse) and mobile devices/tablets (i.e. anything with a touchscreen).

You'd think computers and mobile devices are practically the same because you probably use both regularly to browse the Internet, but, alas, no.

Let's say I want to make a web game where you draw lines to match blocks in a puzzle game. On a PC, it's pretty simple to implement the interaction of "draw a line" by listening for the action of "click mouse and move cursor". On a touchscreen device, the equivalent action of "tap and move finger" already means "scroll the webpage". Super! Now I have to sort out this conflict of interactions.

And what if I make a shooty pew pew game where you hold down the mouse button to charge up a plasma cannon? That won't translate to touchscreen devices either, because the equivalent action – tapping on the screen and holding – actually triggers the default "right click"/context menu interaction.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that if you're a developer or designer who wants to build good websites or games or whatever, you need to understand the language of software interaction. It isn't easy, and in fact can be quite exhausting. Almost as exhausting as playing a game that uses a yoga ring.

Alright, I'll come clean: the reason I wrote this whole dang article was because I needed an excuse to put off exercising with Ring Fit Adventure again. I want to stay healthy, sure, but I don't want to die from exhaustion in the process. And I mean, typing furiously on the keyboard must count as some sort of cardiovascular activity, right...?

You know what, I might as well make using computers a formal form of exercise, so check back with me next time as I detail the Twitter Scroll thumb reps and the yoga pose known as Man Lying On Back Watching YouTube On iPad.

Raised by wild Nintendo consoles and trained in the ways of the computer scientist, Shaun A. Noordin tries to use his knowledge of web development, technology and video games for the greater good. Or for entertainment and amusement, whichever is easier. He has a lot of advice to share, but they’re all inadvisable to follow.

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