Note to video gamers: get moving

Games that rely on joysticks and buttons are facing competition from aerobic, activity-based titles such as 'Guitar Hero' and 'Wii Sports.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Want to be a rock star but can't play a lick? The video-game industry has just the virtual guitar for you. Increasingly, the same kids who usually kill time – and virtual enemies – playing war games are now hefting electronic golf clubs, bowling balls, and musical instruments alongside the simulated AK-47s and hand grenades.

In a marked departure from popular and violent M-rated (for mature) epics, gamers are turning toward intuitive, aerobic, activity-based games such as "Guitar Hero II" for Xbox 360, and "Wii Sports" for Nintendo's new Wii platform, which has sold 6 million units in six months.

Fueling this liftoff from the sofa is what some analysts call a "perfect storm" of trends in the technology and culture of the video-game world: a desire for something new combined with a technology that has come of age.

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"There's a sense of shooter fatigue amongst the gaming community right now," says Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies, a Washington-based trend research firm.

After years of increasingly violent games, players are looking for a change of pace, he adds. Even though E-rated (for everyone) games such as the karaoke game "SingStar" have been around forever – and represent more than half the number of console and PC video games sold in an average year – the Nintendo Wii has "helped make them cool," says Mr. Snyder. The simplicity of these pick-up-and-play games, which are motion-based, appeals to a generation weaned on the iPod.

"These kids expect easy," he adds. "Steve Jobs has ruined it for everyone else."

Beyond that, kids want – and expect – a bigger experience from games these days, says Dustin Hesley, who works at Toy Mandala, a video-game shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks.

"They want to feel like they're actually doing something, not just laying around on the couch," he says.

The store regularly sells out games such as "Guitar Hero II" or titles for the Nintendo Wii. "These are the games everyone wants when they come in," says Mr. Hesley, who is an avid gamer himself.

A desire to engage in such activity is typical of the YouTube/Facebook generation, says Gloria Barczak, marketing professor at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration in Boston.

"If you look at these people who are making their own videos, these are folks who want to be involved in creating an experience for themselves," says Professor Barczak, whose MBA class is currently profiling the video-game industry. "They are not passive consumers anymore."

It's not just the traditional teenage boys riding the wave of hot, E-rated games. Virtual bowling leagues are popping up in senior centers across the country and 30-somethings are throwing neighborhood tennis parties in their living rooms.

While the popular movement game "Dance Dance Revolution" is almost a decade old, the fact that school systems in 10 states nationwide have recently adopted DDR for PE class is evidence that adults both understand and appreciate the value and ease of the technology.

"The technology on intuitive user interfaces has developed so much that anyone, any age, can now simply pick these things up and get involved without much trouble," says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

So-called "intuitive user interfaces" – also known in the industry as "peripherals" – include any tool that allows players to simulate a real-world activity, such as a fishing rod, a steering wheel, or a musical instrument. The Wii makes things even simpler with a single, white plastic rod that uses motion-sensing technology to simulate game actions.

Sophisticated, yet extremely simple, electronic-user interfaces are important to the burgeoning niche that has been dubbed "physutainment." It includes anything that delivers a workout in the guise of entertainment, from golf simulators to electronic bikes in high-tech sports centers.

Serious cyclists, for instance, can now race against other competitors via a personal, networked screen mounted on a stationary bike.

Senior game analyst Ted Pollak of Jon Peddie Research expects the physutainment field, which currently encompasses just 1 percent of the overall $30 billion video-game market, to grow some 300 percent by the end of the year. [Editor's Note: The original version misstated the value of the video-game market.]

"The world of peripherals has become a gateway to a new world of activity or identity immersion," says Mr. Pollak. "That's the goal of this generation of games: to immerse people in a virtual environment where they feel they are the star, or the hero, or the athlete and just part of a community of players."

Video games have come full circle in that respect, adds Barczak. From the dawn of time, the idea of play has included simple games enjoyed by entire communities.

Now that the electronic counterparts have become so easy to navigate that virtually anyone can do it, she says that "the technology has finally begun to live up to its promise."

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