Why We All May Be in Better Shape Soon

atlasadI recently spent the weekend in California with my wife, sister-in-law, and niece.  My in-laws have a Wii gaming console, of which I’ve heard but never played.  Suffice it to say that I played more video games during that 24 hour period than during the preceding 24 years.

As most of you know, Nintendo ate away at the bottom of gaming by introducing a controller that allows novice gamers to quickly engage in games.  Very few buttons are used; most of the action is controlled by moving your arm(s) around.  This makes it accessible to millions of Americans (many of them parents of kids who play video games) in short order.

But what I found most interesting about the Wii games we played is that they’re all sports: bowling, tennis, golf, and boxing, plus various exercises from Wii “Fit.”  Unlike every other video game I’ve played, no one was sitting; we were all up and moving around.  (I was moving around a bit too much; during my first go at tennis I landed a nice backhand in my niece’s back.)

I realized that Nintendo (knowingly or not) is leveraging hyperbolic discounting (i.e., our bias toward the present) in a couple of ways.  The first is the most obvious: The upfront learning curve needed to enjoy a video game is drastically flattened.  The second is that because the controller advantages physical movement and the games are fun, exercise becomes attractive in the here and now.

This latter feature is significant.  Most health behaviors involve an upfront cost for a downstream benefit.  Hyperbolic discounting significantly attenuates those benefits, leaving us staring face to face with just the downsides.  Anything that decreases or offsets upfront costs will have an outsized effect.  For some behaviors (e.g., moving from a retail pharmacy to Home Delivery), others can help.  (For example, Express Scripts can help members by contacting their physicians on their behalf to reduce the effort required to move prescriptions to Home Delivery.)

With exercise, however, it’s a real challenge to outsource the sweat.  But technologies like the Wii may change the equation: By making real exercise fun more quickly than “real” life allows, the balance could quickly swing toward greater exercise.  As the technology improves, it’s not hard to imagine faster, more sensitive and discriminating sensors that more closely match the player’s movements.  Novice players’ movements might be “shaped” a bit so that they enjoy rewarding performance quickly but are constantly challenged to improve.

If you think video games are for couch potatoes, think again.  I do about 45 minutes of cardio a day; here’s a clip of my wife and I boxing.  It’s a decent workout… and it will only get better.

(Note: this entry originally appeared at consumerology.com)

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