Matt (not his real name) swivels his hips from side to side furiously. At first, he kept missing the hula-hoops being thrown at him, but now that he has the hang of it, he's keeping 15 rings going at once. Pretty awesome, one of us shouts -- and then time's up, Matt's showered with confetti and jumps up and down. Well, virtual Matt is. The real Matt hops of the plastic Wii Fit board, grabs a Red Bull and vodka and asks, Who's next?
Welcome to Wii Fit Fun Night. For those of you still living in the 20th Century, the Wii is the Device That Changed Video Games Forever. Before the Wii, it was totally acceptable -- and justified -- to consider each successive generation of game consoles, jam-packed with faster processors and acronym-festooned technologies, as the exclusive domain of the Mountain Dew-fueled geek set. The games that ruled these consoles catered to digital wrench monkeys with ultra-violence in sci-fi or porno wrappers, or in fantastical worlds filled with maddening logical puzzles.
And then along came Wii, the most diminutive of third generation systems. It's the first video game for the rest of us. The graphics aren't the best, the processor not the fastest, but it wiped the floor with the PS3 and to a lesser extent, the Xbox 360, becoming the fastest-selling console on the market. Its secret weapon, the Wiimote, is a Bluetooth controller that looks more like a channel-changer than a joystick, and its most exciting use is with the packaged game called Wii Sports. You use the Wiimote as a golf club or a fishing pole, not by pressing buttons but by swinging and casting. At first, players got so into it that there were reports of Wiimotes smashing through TVs, not to mention puff pieces about senior centers holding virtual shuffleboard tourneys. Once the dust cleared, The Financial Times reported that Wii had, at last count, earned an impressive $190 million for Nintendo.
As follow-up, the company released the Wii Fit this spring, a kind of virtual exercise trainer. At its heart is the Balance Board, a plastic device that communicates your weight and balance wirelessly back to command central. The game sold out on Amazon.com before its release and like with the Wii, stores like Best Buy sold out of their shipments a day or two after they arrived, partly because Nintendo shipped most units to Europe to take advantage of the stronger currency.
Our premise at Wii Fit Fun Night is simple: Take five gay guys, put them in a room with a Nintendo Wii Fit and see what happens. This is one of those pseudo-behavioral science experiments that's supposed to tell you something about modern queer life: Do gay men interact the same way as straight men when it comes to sports? Does the Wii Fit serve as mediation between traditional macho behavior and the sometimes-recalcitrant attitude gays have towards athletics? That is, does a video game provide a safe way for gays to engage in team athletics? Will the result be Monday Night Football or Sex in the City?
Let me spoil the ending for you: The guys wind up getting stoned and playing Boggle.
Another disclaimer: Though it's my assignment to talk about men and team sports and athletics in a general way -- to extrapolate from one night of semi-drunken video game playing greater truths about gay men and competition -- there are several problems in doing so. The first is that shit like this makes me feel like a jackass poseur journalist. Christopher Hitchens might think he's justified speaking on behalf of Guantanamo detainees because Vanity Fair hired some redneck ex-soldiers to waterboard him, but I think it's dishonest to portray the guys of Wii Fit Fun Night as stand-ins for gay men everywhere. Secondly, gay guys are stereotyped to death (literally) already, and I'd be deluding myself pretending to be B.F. Skinner when I know full well that I'm just another lab rat myself.
But the unvarnished truth is that Wii Fit Fun Night turned out to be pretty fucking gay. So gay, in fact, that I'm going to offend just about everyone in its retelling.
To begin with, I solicited participants by Facebook and Craigslist M4M ads. The Craigslist replies were great, but mostly unprintable. Here's an example:
Sound fucking hot bro. Love seeing a guy get sweaty. 5'10, 145 pounds, green eyes, defined abs, 8 cut thick piece. Vers/top. You gotta pic?
Given that I'm writing for Out and not Honcho (or trying to skew the data that much), I stick with the Facebook replies, which mostly center around curiosity about the Wii Fit. I make a token stab at ensuring diversity, at least as much as you can find when seeking out young gay guys around West Hollywood, and assemble my crew: Jason is a lawyer who plays Dungeons and Dragons and tennis. Peter says his sport is Marco Polo. Juan is a film director and gym buddy of mine. Brad's first email to me reads: Is it okay if overweight people join in? For moral support he brings along his friend and recent Chicago transplant, Matt (the aforementioned hula-hoop star).
The day of Wii Fit Fun Night comes around and, thanks to miscommunication, the Wii Fit Board arrives without the actual Wii console, making it impossible to play. I call around and the Wii is sold out everywhere. Nintendo playing hard to get was cute when it was launched, but two years later it's just lame. Defeated, I send a mass email canceling the event.
Brad replies first: But I am wearing my Prada sport shorts! Oh well, back to the booze.
Then Peter: Bummer...I'll just keep practicing my fake ski jump dismount. 'Til next time.
Then Jason responds, I have a Wii. Brad writes back, I'm drunk, as of [the] cancellation email. At this point, I am only interested in nude Wii. I just got groped by a drunk tranny train wreck, and that didn't quite do the trick. Juan's suggestion: Strip Wii depending if you make it past each yoga level? Happy baby pose for the loser? Jason replies, Um....happy baby pose for the WINNER!
Which is how we wind up at Jason's house around 10 p.m. -- and if it sounds like I've lost all control of the experiment already, it's because I have. The assembled group hikes up the hill to Sunset Boulevard and purchases snacks, which means vodka and Red Bull, plus a package of Soft Stuff Chocolate Chip cookies that Jason hoards for himself. Peter says that his expectations for the night were stiff drinks and partial nudity. I later look up my original invitation just to be sure -- there's no mention of alcohol or nudity, but everyone jumped at using the stipend Out gave me for refreshments to buy booze. Strangely, it's also the very thing they complained the most about afterwards. I didn't learn anything new, Jason groaned, but I was reminded that when you get a bunch of gay men together, you are sure to get the following: drinking, flirting, drama.
And drama there was, even before firing up the Fit. Brad asks if he can invite a couple more people over and, desperate for extra data points, I agree. Twenty minutes later, 10 people show up. This isn't the first party they've been to. I explain to Brad that a couple means two, and he collapses into a beanbag chair and studiously puts all his attention on his Blackberry. Jason, who graciously offered up his apartment at the last minute, is repeating, There's too many people. As at least in theory I'm still in charge, it's left to me to explain to the barbarian horde of gay men that this isn't actually a party, rather a carefully controlled experiment about video games and athletics. Understandably, they're confused, seeing only a bunch of gays hanging out with drinks in their hands. I look to Brad for support, but he's too busy helping a Nigerian transfer funds by email to help. On my fifth attempt, the horde wanders out, off to conquer other house parties.
The upshot of the invasion is that it spurs the Wii Fit Team into action and soon, the console is set up.
The Wii Fit Balance Board looks like your typical gym balance board, but it's tricked out with sensors. We immediately hit a snag. The first thing you have to do is run through a body assessment tutorial that determines your Real Age. This is a glorified BMI calculator coupled with a balance test, accompanied by instructions from a voice that sounds like -- well, a 12-year-old Japanese cheerleader. But as bubbly schoolgirls go, the Wii Fit personality is a bit of a bitch. She mocks our inability to balance, calling us clumsy.
To make matters worse, Brad -- who's got the most readily apparent self-image issues -- goes first. When the test is complete, his real age is determined to be 65. And, as Jason explains so succinctly, If someone is overweight, his or her Mii character suddenly plumps up and looks sad. The real life Brad deflates and turns back to his drink. We all make noises about how we're not going to do much better, but it's been obvious from the start that Brad's the most anxious about the night (brand new Prada shorts and all), and it sucks that the Wii just told him that he's ready for his AARP card.
Then we find out that we're all the Golden Girls, relatively speaking. Though we range in age from 23 to 29 years old, everyone's fit age is in their late 40s to mid-50s. Except for Peter -- Peter is 26 in both worlds. (Whether this is because the Japanese Wii-God spares Peter because he is also Asian is unclear.)
Then the real, uh, fun begins. The Wii Fit offers up a variety of fitness games and we all take a stab at them. I do push-ups. Peter does yoga and, of course, is brilliant at it. He's one of those guys who's deceptively agreeable and the fact that he kicks ass at the Wii is something he wears lightly, whereas I get all Hemingway on everyone when the device marvels at the strength of my push-ups. Juan does some leg thing and it becomes obvious we're not exercising so much as performing for each other's amusement.
I come back from the Jason's bathroom (with one sink labeled tops and the other bottoms) and find out that Matt's discovered the hula-hoop game. We all love the hula-hoop game, with its cartoon colors and goofiness, and everyone takes a stab at it -- in between smoking and drinking, that is. You could argue that this is proof that gays are unathletic or fitness challenged -- but the reality is, as physical exercise goes, the Wii Fit blows. We would have been bored out of our minds but for the cocktails, Jason says. He quickly adds, Not because we're gay, but because the Wii Fit is a poor source of entertainment. (Gays aren't alone in that assessment. IT Media surveyed Japanese owners of the game and 64% admitted that after six months, they stopped playing the game altogether.)
We fall into a pattern where one or two of us stay by the couch playing at a time. Another two stand by the kitchen table, drinking, and then on the balcony, another couple smoke and talk. After a disastrous attempt at trying the Wii Fit's running program, nearly running into the TV, Brad decides he wants to leave. We only make it worse by trying to explain the correct way to run (that is, in place), and he takes off with Matt. Can we shut this thing off now? Peter asks. Out come the board games, and the discussion turns guiltily to whether we could have done anything to make Brad feel more comfortable. Jason doesn't care, annoyed at Brad's loudness and drunkenness. Juan feels bad, but thinks Brad's awkwardness was his own. Peter sums it up this way: For me personally, gay awkwardness transcends athletic activity; it's, like, all the time. I feel like the social climate and activity would have been the same in a mixed or straight room, only there wouldn't have been as much shrieking over being called old and fat.
Every time I start asking some sort of What's the greater meaning about how gay men interact via athletics or video games or whatever? question to the guys, they start mocking me. I think your basic premise, typical gay awkwardness about team sports/athletics, is faulty, Jason says. Maybe gays who spend all their time socializing in bars aren't athletic or sportive, but anyone who spends all his or her time in a bar won't be athletic or sportive, gay or straight.
That said, actions speak louder than words. When I check back in with the guys two weeks later, Brad says he's lost 8 pounds and Peter's Facebook status update reads, Peter is no longer frightened by the weight machines. Now, it's just pure resentment. Maybe it's not the machismo of athletics that seems to intimidate us, it's just plain old body image issues. And in that sense, gays are no different than any metrosexual American man. The truth is sports is no longer the heterosexual mainstay it used to be, nor as limited to team events. Being athletic used to mean playing football or basketball. For some it still is, but for most of us, athletics is something divorced of its machismo heritage; it's there for health, well-being, vanity and sexual attraction. The difference has more to do with what generation you belong to, not what gender you're attracted to.
If you really need to, the best comparison for Wii Fit Fun Night is probably the straight stereotype of the dudes who get together and watch football every week. The game is there as an excuse for a bunch of heterosexual men to socialize together. It's the thing they can bond over -- and for some guys, it's one of the few spaces they can express affection and camaraderie with other men. Gay men, for obvious reasons, don't have the same hang-ups, but neither do most straight guys under 30.
Which is why I think Wii Fit Fun Night was such a disaster from a sociological perspective. The Wii Fit reflects the modern attitude towards fitness -- it's all about personal self-improvement, which is fine, but essentially an individual pursuit. The guys took it and found ways to make it a social activity -- and for the most part, everyone was supportive of each other, finding delicate ways to explain to whoever was on the balance board at the moment that the best way to balance is maybe not to stick out your pelvis as far as you can and lean back at a 45 degree angle. Ultimately, the only real value the Wii could serve was as a very expensive social lubricant -- and, once it served its purpose, it was discarded for, well, stoned Boggle and a rousing talk about national healthcare.