Here's a question you should ask before you even switch the DS on: are we here to be entertained or are we here to get healthy? Because My Health Coach: Weight Management is the latest in a recent run of Nintendo DS titles to blur the lines between video game and health product.
While other titles in this fast-expanding new genre emphasise the 'game' element of their experience as much as the supposed fitness benefits, My Health Coach focuses almost entirely on the latter. Bundled with a bulky but consistent pedometer (used for recording the number of real-life steps you take), this is an experience aimed almost solely at helping players to make small but beneficial lifestyle changes. 'Play this game and get healthier': the message, like the functional, monochrome presentation, is simple and clear, even if developer Ubisoft is careful not to claim it will help players lose weight, only 'manage' it.
In fact, for a product that's so wholly based on the modern theory and implementation of exercise and healthy lifestyle, it comes with a worrying amount of caveats. "The views and statements expressed in this software represent the opinions of the authors and should not be considered scientific conclusions," states the game each and every time you switch it on. Hardly a message to inspire confidence in the content…
Nevertheless, once you make it past the reams of start-up text ("not suitable for pregnant women, or children", bizarrely), the experience is not an unpleasant one. You're addressed via a cutesy, crayon-like stickman. He smiles and waves and cleanly introduces each of the four core elements to the experience: the Pedometer, Challenges, Physical Activity and Food Balance.
The Pedometer, bundled with the software, must be worn during the day and records each and every step you take. It's accurate but very bulky (like, 'Is that a PSP in your pocket or are you just pleased to me?' bulky) so it's doubtful whether many players will want to wear it over extended periods of time. But for those who do, it can be plugged into the handheld's GBA slot each time you check in and the cumulative distance you've walked is recorded.
Challenges are small, short-term targets that are set by the crayon man on a daily basis. You can choose up to six challenges a day and they range in style and complexity from 'Put a pitcher of water on the table before eating' to 'Make a lunch and bring it to work'. When you've completed a challenge you must check in and mark it complete with a Brain Training-esque stamper.
With no way for the 'product' to actually check whether you've completed these tasks in real life, there's a heavy emphasis on layer trust. If you want to cheat (although, you are literally only cheating yourself if you do – there are no in-game benefits from taking short-cuts) there's nothing to stop you accepting a challenge and pretending to have cleared it moments later by ticking the appropriate box.
This sense of player trust extends to the 'Physical Activities' and 'Food Balance' sections of the product. In the former you must perform the push-up and sit-up exercises and, for the latter, you enter your daily food intake and My Health Coach: Weight Management will let you know if you're eating the right amounts of food for the amount of exercise you're doing. As such, the emphasis is always on what you're doing outside of the actual software.
The strength of video games is that they offer measurable challenges to players. Want to get a high-score on Space Invaders Extreme and you'll need to put the hours in, developing the appropriate muscle memory, honing reactions, learning the boundaries and rules of the experience as you clamber up the leaderboards. In My Health Coach there is no game to be mastered, no skill set to be learned and then tested. It is, in a very real sense, an interactive health manual. You read the tips, choose which, if any, you want to incorporate into your lifestyle and tick them off when complete.
As a fill-in-your-own-data health product, My Health Coach: Weight Management is as good as your commitment to following its (non-scientifically proven) advice. But make no mistake, despite the two simple Quizzes included, this is anything but a game and no amount of tick charts and charming presentation can make it so.