The Microsoft Kinect is available today, and with it come innumerable reviews of its successes and flaws (find a summary of them at Gamasutra). A common property of many negative reviews is the enormous amount of living room space Kinect requires, far more than most people will have in a sizable home let alone a modest apartment.
Re-reading it now, a few things have changed (LCD TVs are even more inexpensive than I thought they would be when I wrote this in 2006), but many have only amplified (the entire U.S. housing market collapsed, drawing more attention to the space we think we need to live).
A wide variety of exergames use gameplay and input devices to motivate physical activity. An analysis would be incomplete without considering the environment in which these games are played in the first place. Today, the majority of games sold are played on videogame consoles (as opposed to personal computers). Consoles need to be connected to televisions, and televisions are generally large, immobile appliances that an entire household shares. The TV is usually is positioned in a living room or den surrounded by couches and chairs; many such rooms also house a coffee table or other large furniture between the couches and the television. It is common to eat or drink while watching TV, and coffee tables support the coffee, beer, soda, and other sundries to be eaten while watching primetime comedies, weekend sports events, or the nightly news. The living room is generally an inactive, static space with large, heavy furniture dividing a large, open space into many smaller, closed spaces.
Each and every one of the exergames discussed here [in the book, this excerpt follows a lengthy discussion of numerous exergames] requires considerable physical space for successful, safe play. All but the Eye Toy and Nintendo bongo require something to be physically placed on the floor under the player. And all save the bongo demand considerable freedom of movement around the player, including open space on all sides to avoid injury in the case of a misstep. As the popular press has discussed extensively, the Nintendo Wii also requires considerable freedom of movement for many of its games, including the most novel concepts that map gross motor gestures to in-game actions like swinging a tennis racket or a sword.
Catalogs and home furnishing displays idealize the living room or den as a place of inactivity, with substrates for food and drink flanked by plush seating, eyes oriented toward a television. Given the average American living room or den, it seems that many families would need to move furniture—especially coffee tables—out of the way to facilitate successful exergaming. A device like the Powergrid Kilowatt is heavy, difficult to move, and takes up as much room as a large exercise bike or home weight machine. The infeasibility of such devices cannot be taken for granted in an analysis of exergaming. Even DDR dance pads are bulky devices that must be stashed under furniture or stored awkwardly in closets. And bulky plastic peripherals like bongo drums and Joyboards hardly make for aesthetically pleasing display decor. Advertisements and media images of these devices typically depict them in an empty space, a white room like a gallery where no activity takes place save exergaming. Such environments go beyond even the idealized spaces of home furnishings catalogs. They apparently exist in a void.
Logistical and technical limitations also stand in the way of exergame play. In general, people place living room seating at an ideal position and distance to facilitate comfortable television watching from a seated or reclined position on a chair or couch. Even if no coffee table or other impediment stands in the way of the would-be exergamer, the player will likely stand three or more feet closer to the television, possibly compromising a clear view of the screen. As high definition TV (HDTV) adoption grows—especially given Microsoft's and Sony's aggressive push for HD on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—more potential exergamers will upgrade their conventional sets for plasma, liquid crystal display (LCD), or rear-projection HDTVs. These appliances are expensive and often come with furniture designed specifically for them. Audiovisual experts recommend that HDTV monitors be positioned so a viewer's eyes are in line with the center of the image when seated before it. These new sets—especially the lower-priced rear-projection LCD and digital light processing (DLP) units—often suffer from greatly reduced vertical viewing angles, making the screen dim or even unviewable to an upright player on a DDR dance pad or facing an Eye Toy camera.
Play on a personal computer is possible, but fraught with equal if not greater challenges. Yourself! Fitness was released for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2. Since the game targets a non-traditional demographic for videogame consoles, the PC version was probably released to accommodate players who don't have a console or don't want one. Yet, most families do not enjoy neat and tidy offices with space for physical activity, and furthermore most don't have a computer monitor as large as their television to facilitate proper visual feedback from a safe distance.
But the technological limits of exergame feasibility do not occur in a vacuum. In U.S. homes of the last sixty years, living room designs have assumed certain lifestyle considerations. One or more adults are expected to rise early in the morning, shower, shave, eat, and commute to work. Kids leave even earlier for school, keeping the house unoccupied for much of the day. Upon return from work or school, those households lucky enough not to be dysfunctional might enjoy a meal together before relaxing—not working up a sweat—in front of the television. As telecommuting and home offices become more common, many professional struggle already to find proper space to devote to work at home, even further reducing the space available for avocational activities like television, pleasure reading, and videogaming let alone health-conscious activities like aerobics, workout devices, or exergaming. For better or worse, the large majority of suburban U.S. homes with the time and money to afford videogame consoles and exergaming software and hardware are simply not designed to support it; physical exertion is something relegated to the neighborhood sidewalk, the local gym or, more commonly, nowhere at all.
When combined with easy access to long-term credit, the postwar work ethic we short handedly call "The American Dream" encourages families to buy homes that they can only afford by spending increasingly longer hours at work. Larger homes require us to move deeper into the suburbs, requiring ever-longer commutes across increasingly crowded urban sprawl. Working and commuting for longer hours reduces the time we have with our families and ourselves, leading to a downward spiral of less and less physical activity of any kind. Thus, no matter the efficacy of any of the rhetorics of exergaming, the most important one may reside in the complex social, political, and material structures that determine the spaces we occupy. Exergames reveal the incongruence of work and exercise or leisure, and the prevalence of the ideological structures that push us to work more and move less.