Chariots of Fire on the Spot

Had a chance to play Kinect Sports today with some friends and it was great. It’s a really neat application of the Kinect hardware for all sorts of reasons, but the best part for me was the Track & Field stuff. I have an abiding love of the old school Track & Field, hammering away at alternating buttons to spring, so the chance to do it “for real” seemed extra cool. And Kinect Sports didn’t disappoint.

So mechanically it’s rather simple. Your little dude goes to the line, the gun fire, and you run furiously on the spot in order to get him to run down the track. The faster you run on the spot, the faster he goes. It all makes perfect sense, and it’s pretty hilarious to exert so much energy in going absolutely nowhere. It’s like the often reviled pointlessness of a treadmill… on speed (ha!).

But of course you get an important addition when you play Sprinting in Kinect Sports rather than run on a treadmill: there’s a narrative of competition, of a global stage of athletics, and so on. A red track, other sprinters, a screaming crowd. I found the setting and other surrounding hooplah surprising effective, even without trying to throw myself into some kind of playacting state. It’s neat to hear the announcer talking about you as an athlete and so on, it makes things a bit exciting, builds you toward a personal story of the race.

And then there’s the race itself. I was fortunate to end up with a great “story” for a race when we played it. It was the first thing we tried on the day and, for me, was really the highlight. Basically, We got set (I even struck a “sprinter post”, which probably hindered me, funnily enough), and then the gun fired and we were off. Which meant, in the living room, that we were running as fast on the spot as we could, the balls of our feet hammering the wooden floor.

Gordon, my opponent, shot out to a worryingly easy lead. I really felt saddened by how slow my guy/I was going down the track. I was a number of lengths behind, and so I redoubled my efforts… somehow, though I don’t completely “get” the mechanics of it all at this point. Then, amazingly, with Gordon almost all the way to the end and me quite far behind, my little dude suddenly surged forward, gaining, gaining, and somehow, someway edged past at the last possible moment, winning by four hundredths of a second!

Frankly, I was elated. It was the perfect story of a victory (complete with the music after the fact!). The replay was, in some ways, even better, since I could actually see what was happening without the frenzy of foot stamping. It’s just like a heroic, superhuman comeback should be in a sprint. All hope lost, followed by an insane surge through to win with a “World Record” time.

What I love about this is that the game managed to create one of those genuine fantasy moments. I mean, I’m no sprinting fanatic, but I think that many or most of us acknowledge that the whole concept of running impossibly fast, faster than anyone, is an exhilarating thought. And Kinect Sports gave me that story in a way that really felt like it was mine specifically. Of particular importance, I think, is the way the avatar mirrors your general gestures around the race itself, allowing you to raise your arms and get a cheer and so on. That, in particular, gives you ownership over the race in a way that other, controller-based games just can’t.

I ran that race of a lifetime. In my living room. (Dum dumdum dum dum… dum.)

12 December 2010
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