Vote Wii for Government Run Healthcare?

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Wii Fit

The debate over healthcare just took a surprise turn with Britain's publicly funded, government run National Health Service (NHS) bringing Nintendo's Wii Fit Plus under its Change4Life personal fitness umbrella. Change4Life comprises a public health initiative in the UK launched in January of this year and administered by the British Department of Health. It's basically a campaign designed to encourage healthier living by promoting nutrition and exercise, employing the slogan "eat well, move more, live longer."

According to UK news site Telegraph, Wii Fit will be the first video game to receive the Department of Health's seal of approval, a ringing endorsement that could bolster sales of the system in Britain.

The catch? Two, actually.

First, Nintendo's pledged to draw from its own coffers to promote the NHS by way of the government's Change4Life program, a move that may prove controversial with those critical of the British Department of Health...and government-administered healthcare in general. In this case, the government scratches Nintendo's back, and Nintendo returns the favor. If you live in the UK, you'll actually see the Change4Life logo in TV and store ads, and possibly even spy it on copies of Wii Fit Plus next year, something Telegraph calls "an unprecedented partnership between a video game and the Government."

Second, the debate's still raging over the Wii's physical health benefits. On the one hand, studies suggest that Wii gamers playing physically intensive games tend to burn more calories than traditional console gamers. On the other, the caloric and aerobic benefits fall well short of those realized from classic exercises, like swimming and running, or playing sports like tennis, basketball, and football.

The danger here lies in overdetermination, public or otherwise. Studies suggest the Wii's a complementary exercise platform at best, not an alternative one. It may be a healthier way to play video games (again, depending on the game--the NHS is technically endorsing Wii Fit Plus, not the Wii platform as a whole) but it's not a substitute for traditional exercise. The NHS's endorsement has the potential to exacerbate public misconception devoid of context, and Nintendo isn't known for its sparkling contextualization. The company's done little to discourage suggestions that its Brain Age handheld games stimulate brain health, despite studies that suggest lasting mental benefits are nil.

So yes, it's a victory for Nintendo, as well as a victory for video games, beleaguered in recent years by unstudied bureaucratic punditry charging the hobby with compounding the obesity epidemic by encouraging sedentary activities.

But it raises serious questions, too. Should governments endorse video games any more than criticize them? Should you care what a government official says without credible science to back the endorsement up? Do we want this sort of "mutually beneficial" collusion between government and private industry, where each stands to benefit from the others' patronage? Incidentally, Telegraph says Nintendo isn't the first private company the Department of Health's partnered with. It's also done deals with Cadbury and Pepsi, who've each agreed to fund and promote the Change4Life campaign.

What if an aspect of the US government--say the President's Council on Fitness and Sports--were to endorse Wii Fit Plus? Do you trust the government to advise you on fitness issues? Do you want the government weighing in on the pros and cons--physical or otherwise--of your "arts and entertainment" at all?

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