Nintendo wants to make exercise easy and fun. At least, that’s the message the company tries to broadcast through health-conscientious developments like step counters and memory games. The Wii, which got people off the couch and moving, was the perfect encapsulation of that ongoing concern with wellness. And Wii Fit, a video game ostensibly about health, was a logical progression of Nintendo’s fitness games. But sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough.
[Content warning: The following story contains discussions of eating disorders.]
Even now, in 2021, Wii Fit players are still dealing with the consequences of a Nintendo game that harmed their self-esteem back when they were children. Tinisha Osu, a 21-year-old student, told Polygon over Instagram messages that she was only 8 when Wii Fit made her feel ashamed of her weight.
“It caused me to want to hide things from my friends out of fear of judgment, which has stuck with me almost 14 years later,” she said. Based on dozens of testimonials on TikTok that were reviewed by Polygon, she’s not alone in that.
Released in 2007, Wii Fit offered a suite of sporty minigames played with a balance board peripheral that you stood on like a weight scale. The minigames had you doing silly antics, such as leaning on the balance board to control a soccer player or jumping on it to mimic a ski jump. The aim wasn’t to transform you into an athlete, but to help you hone your inner balance. A message in Wii Fit warned, “A particularly unbalanced lifestyle could lead to fat accumulation… and even trigger a condition known as metabolic syndrome,” a group of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. The game also suggested that players could maintain “wonderful posture” by checking in with Wii Fit every day.
The inherent Zen ideal of balance is aspirational, but the issue is that Wii Fit locks these minigames behind a “Body Test.” During this segment, the game asks you for personal information like height and age, weighs you, and gives you a small balance test meant to assess your starting point. Once all that is done, Wii Fit displays your body mass index (BMI), a flawed measurement that uses your height-to-weight ratio to classify people as obese, overweight, ideal, or underweight. Then the game crunches all the numbers and calculates a “Wii Fit Age,” which is a single number meant to quantify your fitness level. Each person starting out the game got assigned a Wii Fit Age. Sure, there were some workarounds to avoid this segment, but they required knowledge the average person might not have.
This was the first complication with Wii Fit’s treatment of health: it used an imprecise measurement of health. Rebecca Puhl, a psychologist who specializes in weight stigma, told Polygon over email that “there are limitations in the use of BMI and it should not be used alone to classify an individual’s health status.” Her statement is echoed by dozens of articles examining the potential limitations of BMI in recent years. Experts also say that the index does not take into account muscle mass, and can’t determine your actual health. Although BMI remains in use by some health and medical professionals, the relationship between health and weight is complicated, and being classified as “overweight” does not inherently mean someone is unhealthy.
Wii Fit took none of these nuances into account. It might be easy to just write Wii Fit off as a well-intentioned game that used a common index for its time, but even then, the game was inconsistent with what it considered to be a good and bad BMI. Polygon reviewed one play through where the player had a “healthy” BMI of 22.97 by the game’s and medical standards, but the game still suggested that the person try to lower it.
The result of these design choices brought a lot of stigma to those who played it. On TikTok, there’s been an outpouring of people within the last year joking about how deeply the game impacted them. The discourse started after the theme song, a minigame, became popular on the platform, leading fans to reflect back on their experiences with the Nintendo product. The bright and cheery song contrasts with the somber sentiments expressed in the videos. One TikTok video, which has over 1.8 million views, is captioned, “POV: 2007 you Saturday morning at 9am because Wii Fit said you were obese,” shows someone maneuvering on the Wii balance board to the beat of the music. Many of the videos are jokes with funny face filters, but they’re also really sad.
“When it comes to talking to people about weight, the words we use matter,” Dr. Puhl said. During research, she found that in both adolescence and adults, words like obese or fat can lead to feelings of shame. Rather than labeling a patient as obese, her team of researchers recommend that doctors default to using neutral words that don’t suggest a moral judgement or failing.
The blunt wording of Wii Fit stood out to Osu. She told Polygon, “I was never an overweight child, like it was obvious I wasn’t overweight, yet the Wii Fit literally said I was obese.” It didn’t help that the game changed how big your game character looked based on your height and weight, and didn’t let players adjust it. Many Wii games of the time that utilized Mii characters allowed you to pick characteristics like body size, making this Wii Fit feature feel jarring.
This frustrated Osu, because the Wii Fit avatars weren’t very accurate. “Body types are so different,” she said, noting that “just because you got a certain score doesn’t mean you look a certain way, yanno?”
Part of the issue is that Wii Fit would display those body test results every single time you logged into the game. Worse, if you happened to share your Wii with anyone, they’d be able to see those BMI numbers — unless you decided to password lock your account, thereby hiding your Wii Fit profile from view. But if you wanted to play with friends, this could lead to added stress over the label and its public perception.
As one video on TikTok put it, “I was so worried that my parents would find out it thought I was overweight, I password protected it.” Appropriately, the video caption reads, “Wii Fit traumatized everyone.” The video has roughly 325,000 views with the comment section filled with responses like, “this was def the start of my body dysmorphia” and “ME TOO OMG.”
At the time, the Wii was Nintendo’s flagship console. Unlike its competitors, its games didn’t require mastery of buttons or controllers, and could be played by nearly anyone due to its intuitive motion controls. This, along with the general popularity of the console, made Wii games the go-to game for many social gatherings. By extension, Wii Fit’s profiles were more visible than perhaps Nintendo anticipated.
According to Puhl, kids are especially vulnerable when it comes to weight. “We know from research that weight is one of the most prevalent reasons that kids are teased or bullied,” she said.
That danger is reflected in testimonies from Osu and others online. “When friends would come round to play, I would tell them that the Wii Fit board was broken because I didn’t want them to see what it said,” Osu told Polygon.
Christopher Sharratt, a 21-year-old who first played Wii Fit with his two siblings, told Polygon that initially, he was excited to play. But once his profile was set up, the game then informed him that he was “underweight,” a prognosis that came with a sad-looking character, Sharratt said over Instagram. It made him feel like he was “the odd one out.” From then on, he became concerned about his weight.
Although Wii Fit came and went as many fads do, the emotional consequences of the game stuck with Osu. Three years later, she developed an eating disorder that she still struggles with to this day. She often gets comments about how she eats, she told Polygon, a direct result of being self-conscious while eating in public.
“I do think that the Wii Fit was the start to this,” Osu said.
Wii Fit does not exist in a vacuum, of course. Though things like pernicious diet and exercise ads, lifestyle influencers, or fellow peers, the average person might feel pressure to look or dress according to what society deems beautiful. Osu doesn’t blame Wii Fit completely on developing an eating disorder, but it was “a big thing at a time when I was developing my own identity,” she explained, something that “added significantly to my self-esteem and how I felt about myself.”
The future of Nintendo’s fitness video games
It’s been nearly 13 years since the release of Wii Fit and, during this time, it seems that Nintendo has reassessed its vision of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Ring Fit Adventure, a fantasy RPG for the Nintendo Switch, asks players to vanquish monsters through exercise. Instead of entering fight commands like you would in a Pokémon game, you do physical moves in real life. Each exercise has specific strength or stretching benefits, like overhead presses that chip away at enemies’ health.
Ring Fit does ask for your weight at the start of the experience, but it’s not necessary when you boot up the game. Weight never comes up again beyond that initial moment. The game doesn’t suggest that you lose weight, and instead tries to promote a more active and fun lifestyle. Ideally, you’re having such a good time that you don’t even notice you’ve spent the entire time exercising. Rather than focusing on body metrics, the game encourages you to become stronger while exploring its unique world.
Fitness, in this instance, isn’t a harsh reality, full of punitive measures. Ring Fit Adventure poses being active as an expression of joy.
“None of the health tips have anything to do with how you look, or even how much you weigh,” Sam Greszes, a Ring Fit speedrunner and occasional Polygon freelancer, told me over Twitter. “It’s all based on how good you feel and how much more you can do. Even if you don’t notice, it’s a very key subliminal trick that slowly teaches your brain to focus on functional fitness and being kind to your own body.”
But damage done is hard to undo. Osu still struggles with her eating disorder, noting that she still doesn’t have a “completely healthy” relationship with food. Some days are good, some days are bad. She’s working on it, though.
“I still may feel a little anxious about certain things but definitely in a better place than I was as a young teen,” she said.