Nintendo’s report today of falling sales for its Wii console brought back memories of the first time I played the game.
It was five years ago, and we’d gotten one to test in Spectrum's editorial offices, here in Manhattan. The console came loaded with a boxing game, which I wasn’t great at, so I got only a mild workout. However, a more adept colleague fought so hard that he collapsed in a sweaty heap. I remember thinking that this could be big: At last, kids will exercise more than just their thumbs.
And in fact, the Wii was a hit from the start, with annual sales in the millions of consoles. The current version is getting old, though. Probably that’s why only 710,000 consoles were sold in the second quarter, versus 1.56 million in the same period last year. Nintendo hopes to get back on track with next year’s launch of the Wii U game pad.
But no matter how the new Wii works out, it’s becoming clear that such games aren’t prying kids from their couches. Whatever exercise they encourage seems to come at the expense of other exercise.
In a study published in February in the journal Pediatrics, kids given a Wii loaded with active games burned no more calories than those whose Wii came with quieter fare. “…they either did not elect to play the provided games at that [high] level of intensity, or compensated for the increased intensity by being less active at other times in the day,” concluded the authors, from the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, and the Institute of Human Performance, in Hong Kong.
It is yet another case of When Things Bite Back, the title of a famous book by technology journalist Edward Tenner. The book presents a fascinating collection of technologies that had unintended consequences, even some that undo precisely what those technologies were meant to foster.
The Wii is just the latest example. My favorite one, though, comes from the automotive sector.
Back in the 1980s, my then boss at the Detroit bureau of the New York Times came back all enthused from a demo of a car with automatic braking on all four wheels. He drove on a track soaped only on the right side, slammed on the ABS, and watched in awe as the system stopped the car perfectly.
“I’m buying this as soon as it comes out in a car I can afford,” he told me. Indeed, the market demand ABS was so strong that the U.S. government safety people didn’t have a chance to require it as a safety feature, and insurance companies subsidized it from the start.
But the insurers were soon embarrassed. The accident rate hardly budged. Instead, drivers were going a little faster, taking turns a little tighter, and tailgating a little closer than in pre-ABS days. “The overall, net effect of ABS on fatal crashes was close to zero,” concluded a report by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. They chose to trade one thing for another, just as kids are doing with Wii-orchestrated exercise.
Kids these days! Same as ever.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.