Our world is becoming an increasingly artificial or semi-synthetic one. Just about everywhere you look you will see examples of applied design. Most successful applied designs are those that help people deal with changes.

The world of sports and physical education is not isolated from these changes. You can find vital improvements in the environment, play equipment, and protective gear for sports players and students in physical education class. Newly processed materials provide more cushioning in playgrounds and consistency in multipurpose athletic turf fields. Natural wooden bats have given way to aluminum alloys. Several synthetic versions of baseballs, footballs and playground ball are available (such as Nerf for example***). Most importantly we can be sure that design practitioners are working on developing safer ‘concussion-proof’ helmets.

Of course the ultimate in participant protection would be to remove people entirely from any chance of physical harm and place them in a completely artificial or virtual environment, right? Whoa! Not so fast we should note just for instance that the popularity of video/virtual games has been associated with a number of negatives. Here are just a few: First people that play video games do not expend as much energy as they would if they played an actual game. Secondly the games can be addictive and deter from other important responsibilities such as homework or household chores. Last but certainly not least some video games are associated with extreme and gratuitous violence.

To the credit of applied design practitioners there are now video gaming consoles that require more movement and energy expenditure from the user/player. A couple that come to mind are the Nintendo Wii balance board and the Kinect motion controller for the Xbox 360. Perhaps the addiction and violence issues could be reduced through choice of gaming content and social settings.

What is it about video games that has attracted so many players and then motivated them to continue playing?  Could characteristics of video games or qualities of virtual play be introduced in an actual physical education situation to get greater student participation in PE? Last year (at the 2013 NJAHPERD Convention in Long Branch, NJ) I tried to address this question through a presentation, “Video Game Inspired Activities.” It was an ambitious undertaking that at the time fell woefully short of its goal.

Maybe my presentation was a little ahead of its time. The following month the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) installed an exhibit of video games on the Architecture and Design floor. Recently I visited this exhibit which included:

1. Pac-Man. Early example of interactive flat landscape – a maze. At the time most popular games involved shooting (Asteroids and Space Invaders). The creator wanted to create a non-violent game for teenagers. A pizza pie missing a slice was the inspiration for the character. The creator got the concept of eating to gain power from Popeye cartoon.

2. Tetris. Two dimensional geometric spatial puzzle. Various four part shapes (Tetriminos) fall in random order down the vertical playing field, known as the Matrix. Player can move and rotate Tetrimino as it falls to complete horizontal line. Completed line disappears. As more lines are completed the speed of Tetriminos increases.

3. Vib-ribbon. Main character is a white line sketched rabbit which vibrates and moves to the player’s choice of music. The character advances on a string like road while encountering obstacles to jump over or roll under. Character is either elevated in form (prince/princess) or devolved (frog/worm) based on success/failure. Vibri sing a congratulatory song at each new level.

4. Passage. Unforgiving game in which player has but one life. Not every pursuit leads to a reward. Players may proceed solo or in tandem. Solo players earn less points than couples but are not slowed by the grief when partner is lost.

5. Canabalt. Run as fast as you can without being crushed or falling to your death. Pixelated figure runs across rooftops in a city, avoid crevasses between building and dangerous obstacles. Design features speed, position, and rhythm of obstacles to auditory experience.

6. Myst. Best selling personal computer game of the 1990s. ‘The Stranger’ travels through enchanted book to the isle of Myst. The sophisticated sense of space and movement, 3D animation, and highly advanced graphics was a breakthrough in interaction design.

7. Another World. A so-called platform game (think Mario Bros.). Lester is a human physicist displaced to alien planet by experiment gone awry. He can move forward, jump, or use laser pistol to shoot, generate force field or penetrate wall. Character communication is all non verbal. via gesture and action.

8. Portal. Puzzle platform game. Chell has a device that creates holes (portals) in walls and floors. The movement is unexpected like an M. C. Escher drawing.

9. flow. Player steers an evolving creature in water through various stages amid special organisms that, when eaten, move the creature to the next level. This game automatically adjusts to a player’s abilities. If the player catches on quickly the game becomes difficult, so boredom won’t set in, while the opposite occurs for a slow learner.

10. SimCity. Players think politically and strategically about how successful cities are run and societies are built. Sims are residents of the virtual city not controlled by the player only influenced by city planning.

11. The Sims. Simulates lives of people in suburban house. Player controls Sim and must respond to its physical needs, emotions, and desires. Different outcomes are possible based on player’s creativity.

12. Katamari Damacy. Player is an extraterrestrial prince sent to earth to gather balls of anything and everything that, when sufficiently big, become new stars that populate the cosmos. The action of rolling up clumps of debris increases to ordinary objects in the built environment into eventually a fantastical in a surreal way.

13. EVE Online. Massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). Half a million people around the globe play in the same online space. It is set twenty thousand years into the future. Humanity had exhausted earth’s resources and laid claim to the remainder of the Milky Way. Players adopt avatars, design and fly spaceships through ‘New Eden.’

One thing I now realize about the evolution of video games is how the virtual play environment has grown in complexity. This gradual complication of the game environment serves as a useful progression in actual games. For example one could imagine starting youngsters with simple maze games in PE and progressing to ones with obstacles, and further to using teams, etc.

I think there are plenty of concepts future PE teachers could mine from video/virtual gaming to increase student participation. Modified games help ensure students experience success. It is exciting to imagine the various possibilities and directions this could take.  What do you think?