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By Joel Klebanoff

Virtually Playing

I have a confession to make. I've never been much of a fan of either spectator or participatory sports, but particularly not the latter. That's probably a result of my being totally uncoordinated and, in my youth, being chosen for pick-up street hockey teams only after the other neighborhood kids found that they weren't strong enough to recruit a tree stump as the goalie. It didn't stop with street hockey — or ice hockey for that matter. When it came to baseball, I might have been chosen much more often if only I had been able to throw, catch, hit, run, or spit (hey, the pros did it), none of which was I able to do with the least bit of proficiency.

Fortunately, things have changed since then. I'm no longer shunned in sports. Of course, the only reason for that is that I never put myself into a situation where anybody would have any reason to consider picking or not picking me for a sports team. Participatory sports just aren't on my agenda these days.

My distaste for playing sports in my youth — an aversion that has persisted into adulthood — might also have had something to do with the fact that I was somewhat weak and was what was politely referred to as "chubby," "chunky," "hefty" or, more respectfully, "a big, fat, ugly slob." Kids say the darnedest things.

That aside, when it comes to which one I think is more beneficial, clearly I give the higher score to participatory rather than spectator sports. The reason is obvious. We need the exercise. At least, I do.

Unlike our ancestors — who forged iron with hammers, tongs, and anvils; shod horses; tilled fields; shoveled coal into steam engines; or, further back, hunted and gathered — most of us today have fairly sedentary jobs. Obviously, there are a few exceptions, such as firefighters, letter carriers, construction workers, some factory workers, and the guy that I frequently see vigorously but aimlessly marching along the sidewalks of downtown Toronto, flailing his arms, foaming at the mouth, and screaming obscenities at nobody in particular whenever he's not begging for quarters, although I'm not certain that his activities count as a job. Those exceptions notwithstanding, I don't know about you, but I sit in front of my computer screen much of the day. I occasionally even read or type something, but I don't think that shifting my eyeballs and tapping my fingers builds many muscles or burns off many calories. During my working hours, the most strenuous exercise that I usually do is to get up and make myself a cup of coffee or go out for lunch. The upside is that I prefer both of those activities over typing.

In addition to our sedentary jobs, our home lives now involve much less exercise than those of our ancestors. Thanks to remote controls, we don't even have to get up to change television channels. Then again, there's nothing worth watching on any of them, so why bother.

Furthermore, these days, the most exercise that we get when doing a household chore like the laundry is to load our clothes into and out of the machine. It's not like in the days before washing machines when wives had to do the laundry by hand using a washboard. (Note to the political correctness squad: Hold back the invectives concerning my use of the word "wives." I'm not condoning the viewpoint but, with the exception of poor, pitiable bachelors, the cultural stereotype back then was of laundry as "women's work.") Now, many people don't even know what a washboard is. They think it has something to do with rippled abdominal muscles, but they couldn't tell you the origin of the term. (Note: I know that I joke a lot about my being post-middle-aged, but washboards were before my time. That's not at all germane to this discussion, but I'm single, and I don't want to appear older than I am in case there are any eligible young women reading this.)

Just as an aside, I think that there's a lot of money to be made by bringing back washboards. Because of all the innovative, new materials available today, washboards don't have to be built in the same way as in days of yore. Instead of a rigid, ribbed construction, I'd build them using a very loose, bulging, rubbery material, which would make it a lot easier for guys like me to develop washboard abs. That sounds like a big seller to me, but I digress.

The point is that there are a lot of benefits to exercise. It can help to maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your heart, increase flexibility, build muscle mass, improve endurance, slow the progression of osteoporosis, and reduce the risk of some other serious diseases, not to mention getting all of those damned arrogant, self-righteous fitness nuts to stop ridiculing you about your sedentary ways.

Since the mandatory chores in our work and home lives no longer force us to do much exercise, we need to get it in other ways. (I know where your filthy mind is going, but don't go there. The publisher doesn't like it when I mention that in a column that might be read by children or computer programmers.) To that end, most participatory sports, when played enthusiastically, seem to be good ways to get a fine workout. And, just to be clear, in the context of a discussion about the value of getting a little exercise, I don't think that a video game simulation of a sport counts as "participatory" no matter how interactive the game may be.

Wow. That was certainly a long, meandering path to tread just to introduce a discussion about sports video games, which is the subject of this week's tirade.

A June 21 New York Times article quotes a 16-year-old who usually plays video games at least six hours a day as saying, "I love sports, but why would you rather just watch it on TV when the video game lets you control it?" Hey, you're playing in a virtual world of someone else's design. If you want control, why not walk away from the game console for just one of those six hours and go out and play a little real-world sports? I seriously doubt that there is all that much physiological benefit to be gained from moving a joystick around and clicking a few buttons, no matter how aggressive you might get. I'm not suggesting going cold turkey, just trading one of your six daily video game playing hours for a little fresh air and exercise. I don't think that should be too difficult for even the most addicted of video game junkies.

In one or two of my past tirades, I've expressed concerns about the effect that particularly violent video games might have on society. That's not the case here. I don't have any such societal qualms about professional sports video games, unless, of course, there's a boxing or "professional" wrestling game. If it comes down to a choice between having your kids play a basketball video game or having them play something that desensitizes them to violence, treats war as an amusement, and turns killing into a valued objective, then I say plug in the basketball game and lash your kids to the game console 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, those aren't the only choices.

I checked. At time of writing, a Wilson NCAA Final 4 Edition Basketball — a real one, not a virtual one — would have set you back $18.88 at The ESPN NBA Basketball PS2 video game would have cost you $19.82, although it was out of stock when I checked. At a price that is 94 cents lower, the real basketball, which was readily available, seems like the better value than the virtual one that was not. And it provides an almost infinitely greater opportunity to get a little, dare I say it, exercise.

This growing love of the video game versions of professional sports also has implications for the leagues. The New York Times article notes that, since 2000, television viewing of professional sports has fallen for males between the ages of 12 and 34 — a prime sports demographic — while the sales of sports video games has increased by about 34% over the same period.

What consequences do the leagues face if this trend continues? Think about it. What will happen if viewers tune out professional sports on television entirely and just play the video games instead? Advertising revenues, and consequently the fees that the networks are willing to pay the leagues, will drop to nothing when advertisers realize that nobody is watching. What will happen if fans also choose the video game versions over getting off their butts and going down to the stadium or arena? Box office revenues will also disappear. Sure, the leagues can earn some revenue by selling the rights to use their names on video games, but how much money will that bring in when video game makers' brands become much more well-known and loved than the names of the sports leagues?

Unbelievable as it may seem, if that should ever come to pass, we might ... just might, mind you ... I don't want to sound unduly alarmist ... even see the day when the average professional sports player actually earns less money than the top neurosurgeon. Perish the thought. What would that say about our society's priorities? Oh, wait. That would be a positive message. Never mind.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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