In a couple of previous posts, I had linked to articles documenting the use of the Wii for improved fitness and physical rehabilitation. Here is a linkto an article in Slate that sums up Wii's latest effort to mix fun and exercise, Wii Fit. The author discusses the main areas of fitness covered, and describes the "personal trainer" elements that will likely be motivating to the user to continue to practice, improve, etc. Intellectually, similar items such as Brain Age are blurring the lines between fun and intellectual development (Wired has a blurb about this in the most recent issue).
I recently had the opportunity to sample the Wii for the first time. My sense of the technology was that one would not develop fine motor skills compatible with those necessary to perform better at a sport in vivo (i.e. improving your bowling on Wii won't make you a better bowler), but I did sense that, like other games,people would become hooked on the reinforcement schedule. The benefit to this, on Wii, is that you are moving. Do I think that playing tennis on the Wii is as healthy as playing tennis on the court? Not even close. However, this is just the beginning of this sort of technology - as it improves, the physical benefits will likely develop right along with the realism. In addition, the movement required for many of these activites is certainly better than simply sitting and using a joystick all day - if someone is going to play these games for significant periods of time, or for whatever other reason may be limited by when or where they can exercise, using a Wii is certainly better than doing nothing.
What will be interesting to see is just how this technology expands, and in what directions. According to the Slate article, Wii Fit is already obtaining certain personal characteristics of the user (weight, BMI, etc.) in order to chart progress. I've often imagined that one day, one's personal characteristics could be utilized in the formation of characters for activities such as role-playing games. Rather than rolling dice, or randomly generating numbers, for the attributes of player characters, an individual's actual ratings could be used in the game. These could be raw attributes, such as strength, as well as skill sets developed over time (such as sword wielding). How a game system would measure all of these attributes remains to be seen, but certain ones, such as strength, dexterity, and IQ would seem to relatively easy, at least. Who knows, maybe in ten years, your constitution would be measured by linking your system to your medical records via Google, and your physical appearance could be rated by getting votes from a social networking site. Some areas would be more easily improved than others, though some people would always be at an advantage.
Of course, the problem with this type of set up would be the inevitable whining that would accompany the rating system. Cries of bias would likely come from all corners, regardless of how objective the measures. I've thought about several short story ideas chronicling the development of this sort of system, and the sociological impact thereof. One would be a gaming company's efforts to account for differences in things such as strength, based on age, gender, etc. Would the game's difficulty shift depending on age, for example, or would the player be expected to simply take longer to develop the strength necessary to complete the task (or find an alternative, if the strength required proved impossible for that particular individual)? Perhaps, given the progress of this technology, we'll find out the answer sooner than I had expected.