Real quick: what does control look like these days?
I’m asking honestly, because I feel out of control right now. Money’s perpetually tight and I don’t know what else I can do on top of four part-time jobs. Dissertation writing is at an ominous standstill, though I make a cursory point of opening my drafts each week to scowl. Don’t even get me started on any other kinds of adulting I’ve forgotten.
Even so, I’m one of the lucky ones—overwhelmingly so. I haven’t gotten sick, haven’t attended a funeral, haven’t had a rent check bounce. But control is in short supply.
I’m sure it’s not just me. I think most of us feel like we have a lot less control over our lives right now. The pandemic is a big factor, sure, but it’s more than that. Covid kills, but it also reveals. It reveals structural inequalities that predate quarantine: unequal access to health care for racialized and disabled communities, the prioritizing of wage labour over worker safety, and the opportunistic scheming by authoritarian politicians to make voting inaccessible, to name a few. And of course there’s the albatross—climate catastrophe—ever-looming, with coordination to fight it in woefully short supply.
What, then, does control look like, when you’re stuck at home, on a planet that feels like it’s spinning off its axis?
Well, I thought, soberly considering these global challenges as it became clear that I was going to be working in my kitchen over Microsoft Teams and Google Drive for a while, perhaps now I can catch up on my gaming backlog.
But it wasn’t to be so. Sure, I had more time in absolute terms to catch up on games, but the cost of extended quarantine reveals itself in ironic ways. For me, that cost came in my ability to focus. As a lover of large-scale, open world RPGs with endless objectives to complete, trinkets to collect, and bars to fill, this was a disaster. Before I was content to linger in these worlds for a while without necessarily ever getting to the end, but now the mere thought of entering these worlds was overwhelming. They were too much, in a time when everything had become too much.
Then there was the physical cost. Turns out that sitting hunched over a laptop in my kitchen to toil for hours at a stretch was not sustainable—I was developing knee and back pain, and it was quickly becoming chronic, following me around my apartment on and off the clock, into bed, out for walks, unheeding of my posture or activity. Even now, as I scrutinize my keyboard, searching for the right words, the ache, the twinge is there, a reminder that I’m a little different now.
After seven months of March (my conversion to real-time puts it somewhere in mid-October), I’d had enough. After balking at the sticker price a few times before, I finally caught Ring Fit Adventure during a rare window where it was actually in stock through online retailers, and ordered myself a copy. I’d thought about getting it before, but desperation and a desire to do something finally forced my hand. Two days later, there it was in front of my door: the yoga ring that launched a thousand scalper bots.
By all accounts this should have been a bad idea. Remember the Wii Fit craze? How many people, I wonder, stuck with a routine in that game, keeping their Balance Board charged with fresh batteries while its on-screen avatar cheerfully fat-shamed them day-in, day-out? I didn’t, and that’s not a surprise to me: I don’t think I’ve ever kept up any kind of exercise routine for more than two weeks, whether by myself, with a partner, at a gym, or at home.
But hey, I had the world’s most wanted joy-con shell now, and a game that promised to take me on an adventure—a fitness adventure! So what the heck? I tightened the leg strap, picked up the ring-con, and assumed control.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how this game changed my life, gave me superpowers, and ended Late-Capitalism. Well… not quite. I’m sorry to report that on Day One of Ring Fit Adventure, the game was in control, not me. I had underestimated the physical rigour the game expected of me, and thus it proceeded to beat me up behind the monkey bars, take my lunch money, and tell me that my sweat is “so shiny and beautiful!” No, seriously, it tells you that, and I hate it every time.
Day Two was arguably worse, because I had, for the first time in years, activated muscle groups I didn’t know I had, nor cared to know I had. Getting out of bed was labour enough. There was a bleak moment that morning where I wasn’t sure I had the lower body strength to stand up from the toilet. In that moment, I did not feel very in control.
I had not miraculously developed a newfound sense of control by later that day, either, when I stood—shakily—in front of the television and booted up the game once more. But perhaps you’ve already noticed something interesting: that there was a Day Two at all. Surely my body had earned itself a break, right?
Probably, yes, it had. A few times a week is plenty to maintain a healthy fitness routine. But something funny had happened here, between this game and my brain: Ring Fit Adventure was actually fulfilling two needs for me at once: the need for exercise, as well as the need for manageable portions of RPG gaming.
If you haven’t played it yourself, Ring Fit Adventure is structured like an RPG: different exercises comprise your attacks and abilities, and completing sets of them with good form allows you to vanquish colourful exercise-themed monsters for money and experience points. Exercises that target different muscle groups are colour-coded, inviting the player to strategize and use different groups to do critical damage to correspondingly-coloured monsters. Leveling up increases your attack and defense stats, as well as unlocking new exercises with higher attack values. There’s a simple story to string it all together, albeit one with mostly body-positive writing, a feel-good theme about friendship and self-acceptance, and an exceptionally well-written antagonist—Dragaux—who serves as relatable foil for my own physical insecurities as a player. There are occasional branches here and there, but it’s a pretty linear track, and the way forward is always clear.
This, it turns out, is precisely the structure I needed—the structure I wasn’t getting from anything else. It’s a structure I can still follow on the worst days, when I have no will to think or make choices or really be in my head in any capacity. Go here. Do this. Work these muscles. You don’t have to overthink it this time. You will get there. Survive.
And survived I have—for 150 days now without ever missing a daily session with the game.
I think a comparison with Wii Fit is revealing here. In addition to being more open-ended and less rigorously structured, Wii Fit evaluates your fitness using a “Fitness Age” system. Similar to the earlier “Brain Age” scale popularized by the DS game, Wii Fit rates you on a scale from 20-80, with 20 being the “best”, most youthful score. The problem is that if you achieve 20, you’re balancing on the peak of the mountain from then on, with nowhere left to go but down as you inevitably falter, or take time off, or get bored. It doesn’t feel good.
The leveling system in Ring Fit Adventure is much more straightforward—the numbers only ever go up. After 150 consecutive days, I’ve reached the bonus worlds and hit a character level of 249. Even if I walk away from the game tomorrow, however, the game doesn’t take that accomplishment from me. I keep my character levels, and when I come back, it doesn’t reset the counter, but instead welcomes me to Day 151. Go here. Do this. Survive.
So even in the early, agonizing days, where a light workout sent me to the brink of nausea, and where I didn’t feel at all in control, the sense of personal progress kept bringing me back, and it did so each and every day. Over time, I more than doubled the difficulty rating I was playing at (a value which determines the number of reps in each exercise set) and nearly tripled the overall active time I was putting in each day. There came a point, somewhere along the line, where I was choosing how many levels to complete each day—whether I felt like taking it a little easier, or pushing myself to complete a boss fight with Dragaux. I felt, at last, like I had achieved a semblance of control.
I’ve begun to notice knock-on effects beyond the game, too. First and foremost, Ring Fit Adventure has become an excellent pain management tool. I still have to be careful not to sit for too long in front of the computer, but keeping up the routine is keeping me flexible and mobile.
To my surprise, I think having the routine has also helped me with focus. Instead of just staring at my dissertation drafts in despair, I’ve now graduated to adding a few more paragraphs each week. I’ve also started reading for my own fulfillment again—not every day, but for the first time in a long time. I’ve even found the wherewithal to delve back into RPGs again, and this time I’m doing so with friends, by way of MMOs.
But there’s something else on top of that. I’ve realized, 150 days later, that I have a bit more time and energy for other people than I did at the start. Something I’ve noticed about quarantine life is that it isn’t just physical—people have withdrawn emotionally and mentally too, myself included. Everyone is wrapped up in their own struggles right now, and nobody wants to reach out when they know that the other person is already suffering too.
It’s difficult to draw a direct connection to the game here, but with a healthier body and a clearer mind, I’m beginning to push back on those walls we’ve all thrown up. I have a little more energy to check in with people, send them stupid memes, ask them how they’re doing. That, more than anything, in a time of nothing, feels like something. It feels—if only a little—like taking back control.
I don’t want to oversell things here; gods forbid I come off like either a Nintendo or a fitness evangelist. Every day is on some level still a challenge of survival. I’m still poor, academic progress is still slow, and the realm of adulting remains largely beyond my ken. I have a very real fear of spending the rest of my young life alone.
But after 150 days of Ring Fit Adventure, I have found, above all else, that I am a little more myself. I have a semblance of control. So for today, I’ll go here. Do this. Survive.
(Editor’s note: Chris Lawrence is the current Senior Curator of Critical Distance, where Into The Spine has been featured in the past.)