Video games have long endured a reputation for being too violent and offering little more than mindless entertainment while fostering a couch-potato mentality. As an avid gamer myself, I have to admit this reputation is somewhat deserved, but recently another side of the game industry has been thinking outside the box, offering health-minded options for gamers of all ages. With premises that promote getting your body moving, learning, and creativity, the picks below offer a rewarding experience for you or your children.
The Nintendo Wii and its motion-sensitive controllers pushed the idea of combining exercise and video games into the mainstream. With games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit, the company started a trend of physically intensive (at least compared to sitting on the couch) games, creating a new genre of fitness games. With the Xbox 360 Kinect and Playstation Move from Nintendo's competitors, there are options available for every console as well, though you might have to make a bit of an investment in additional controllers (and plenty of living room space). These games aren't really meant to replace normal exercise or sports, but they can provide a fun supplement for a fitness routine, or inspire someone interested in becoming more active.
MUST-TRY: EA Sports Active 2 (pictured, above) (All Major Consoles : $39.99; Rating: Everyone) This popular game uses the Wii remote and balance board, and the Xbox 360 Kinect. The Playstation 3 version uses its own motion controllers and heart rate monitor provided in the box. It has 70 games and activities that players can customize to different skill levels, even down to what percentage focuses on which area of fitness. Designed with input from personal trainers, it also lets you enroll in different multi-week exercise programs. Some players have complained that the game moves at too slow a pace and has some problems recognizing movements, but overall a well-rounded package for fitness-minded players.
Another type of active video game, this genre kicked off with the Dance Dance Revolution series, which challenged players to perform moves on a directional floor-pad in time with directions on screen. Modern variations utilize motion controls to make it a full body experience and can be a fun party activity for kids and adults.
MUST-TRY: Dance Central 2 (pictured, above) (Xbox 360 Kinect: $49.99; Rating: Teen) Probably the top game in the genre right now, the Dance Central series makes use of the Kinect camera-controller on the Xbox 360 to recognize your arm and leg movements as you dance to a number of popular songs. The newest version includes support for two players simultaneously, making it a good choice for parties or family activities. The accuracy of the controller should help you learn (or show off) actual dance moves and promises to provide as good a workout as any dance session. One thing to keep in mind though is that some of the songs aren't very kid-friendly, so if you plan to have children play, you might want to go with the Just Dance series, which has a child-oriented version (Just Dance Kids).
CHILDREN’S LEARNING GAMES
Educational video games for kids are nothing new. Some of you may have memories of trips to the computer lab in elementary school to play Math Blaster or similar games. The challenge with these games is making them entertaining or interesting enough to hold a young player's attention. The familiar math and reading games are still widespread, but a few modern variations add a new focus on creativity and social skills and also include motion controls for an extra dose of exercise.
MUST-TRY: Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster (pictured above) (Xbox 360 Kinect: $19.99; Rating: Everyone) The developer of this game, Double Fine, is an industry veteran known for making engaging game worlds and crafting intelligent and entertaining dialogue—their shot at the Sesame Street franchise is no exception. With a multi-chapter storybook setup, players are tasked with helping different muppet monsters with their problems, such as cheering up Marko the monster after no one shows up to his birthday party. These tasks are completed using a motion sensitive controller to run obstacles, collect items, and dance along with character on screen. The controls are very simple and forgiving as well. Aimed at preschool-age kids, the game focuses less on teaching things like numbers and the alphabet, and more on fostering emotional development and social skills. Parents who play along with their kids should find the experience entertaining as well, as recognizable characters like Cookie Monster and Grover have a number of witty and humorous lines.
ADULT EDUCATION GAMES
These kind of games tend to be designed by non-profit organizations with the intent of educating adult players and raising awareness of serious topics. Like the successful Darfur is Dying (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darfur_is_Dying), these games tend to be overt in promoting their message and will sometimes sacrifice the entertainment factor for this purpose. If you're interested in learning more about an important issue in an engaging way, these "serious games" might help.
MUST-TRY: Fate of the World (PC and Mac: $9.99; Rating: Not Rated) As a game designed to educate players on the complex issues of global climate change, Fate of the World places players in charge of a fictional international organization managing a number of social, environmental, and economic policies with the goal of balancing the world's problems to prevent catastrophe. The turn-based game has you implementing policies in the form of cards which cost money provided by the economies of 12 different regions. Based on scientific research, the game promises to provide an accurate portrait of the challenges and possible solutions to the climate change issue. Some critics have alleged that the game doesn't explain clearly enough the effects of the player's actions, and that many of the scenarios are too hard (or too realistic) and thus can be a bit depressing. If you're willing to put in the time, your experience should be enlightening, if a bit frustrating.
These games place a heavy value on aesthetics and attempt to use the video game medium to carry an artistic (if esoteric) message, or at least provide a Zen-like relaxing experience. Art games tend to be geared toward those already familiar with traditional video games, but many also eschew conventional design and are simple and engaging for anyone who takes the time to play. The benefit of these types of games is more subtle than the other categories mentioned above, and may require a bit of an open mind if video games aren't your thing.
MUST-TRY: Flower (pictured, above) (Playstation 3: $9.99; Rating: Everyone) A visually striking game that doesn't follow many video game conventions, Flower focuses on a city-dweller's daydreams of flowers and fields. You control a winding stream of flower petals by tilting the controller and pressing a button to create a gust of wind to propel it forward. The different levels have various objectives, but they generally revolve around causing groups of flowers to bloom and collecting more petals, thereby transforming and beautifying the landscape. The game provided a unique experience for every player who controls the colorful petals as they blend with the different lights of the environment, triggering subtle musical notes along the way. In the end the relaxing experience celebrates the beauty of nature and muses on its place in modern, urban society. Reviewers have likened it to a Zen poem transformed into a game.