Forget Weight Watchers or the stacks of self-improvement books hitting stores this month to bolster New Year's resolutions. Savvy women are turning in droves to digital coaches to lose weight, master cooking and learn new languages - and finding themselves the new object of tech companies' affections.
"I hate [video games]with a passion. I'm not a gamer," says Danielle Fraser of Toronto, who nevertheless takes her white Nintendo DS hand-held "gizmo" almost everywhere.
The 59-year-old retired advertising executive has dropped 12 pounds since September using My Weight Loss Coach, a digital pedometer-based personal-trainer program that retails for about $40. Having previously joined Weight Watchers, Fraser knows all about portion size and foods to avoid. But being accountable to a personal trainer every day - even if it's a sprightly stick figure on a two-by-2.5-inch LCD screen - gives her the motivation she needs to "be conscious of my intake versus my outtake."
Fraser has upped her pace from 4,000 to between 10,000 and 15,000 steps a day. During the Toronto International Film Festival, she hiked from theatre to theatre instead of hopping into taxicabs. "I was almost walking across town. I just got into the rhythm of doing it - and I don't like walking."
Nintendo Canada estimates that women make up almost 50 per cent of the users of its $140 DS portable gaming system (the update of the Gameboy that used to be the exclusive territory of kids).
"That is a percentage that years ago was unheard of," Nintendo spokesman Matt Ryan says. "Titles have been made more accessible, more relevant to women. And it's proof that the market is expanding and the stigma that video games are just for teenagers and boys is kind of being tossed out the window."
In step with its new customers, the company has dressed up the gadgets in fashionable coral pink and metallic rose options. But the new software category is still so new, even industry insiders don't have a standard name for it.
Is it self-improvement programming? Lifestyle gaming? With titles like Personal Trainer: Cooking and Quick Yoga Training, the portable programs are digital extensions of activities that adults, notably women, already enjoy doing. According to Toronto-based technology research firm NPD Group, the new category sold almost 50,000 units in Canada from January to November, 2008, worth about $1.4-million. While that number isn't huge, almost $500,000 of it was in sales of My Weight Loss Coach, and, according to NPD spokesman Matthew Tattle, it shows "that these type of titles are gaining some steam."
Created by Canadian gamemaker Ubisoft with Montreal nutritionist Marie Marquis, My Weight Loss Coach tracks users' eating and exercise habits, while dishing out healthy tips. Users pop their pedometer into their DS to download daily step totals and take on healthy living challenges, such as drinking a glass of water whenever the urge to snack hits. With an iPhone 2.0 software update, the program can also be used on an iPhone or iPod touch.
While an advantage of the DS is its portability, it appeals to the same tech-friendly audience that has latched onto Nintendo's Wii Fit (according to NPD, 326,000 copies of Wii Fit were sold in Canada in the six months after being launched last May).
Technology journalist Vanessa Ho has lost 14 pounds since November, using the Wii Fit at home and regular workout equipment at her local Vancouver community centre gym. With nine pounds to go to reach her goal, she says she can't afford to hire a personal trainer. Instead, the virtual-reality fitness program pushes her to complete gruelling abdominal exercises and tells her when to inhale and exhale during yoga.
"I wouldn't call myself a gamer," Ho says. "I'm playing these games because I want to be active, not just sit in front of the TV."
Dr. Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and author of the soon-to-be-released Connecting Social Problems in Popular Culture: Why the Media is Not the Answer (Westview Press), says the gaming market has long ignored girls and women.
Traditional video games have served as a socialization tool for many males, she says, whereas the new titles for women tend to be more solitary and needs-based. "[Society]makes it hard for men to talk to each other, so in many instances, [a video game]becomes something to talk about. It becomes something to relate to one another with.
"Women don't have those same needs," she says. "It's a practical thing rather than a social connection."
Mark Federman, a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, calls the self-improvement games "a throwback to the Jane Fonda workout tapes we saw when VCRs became popular in home in the 1980s." Digitally speaking, they are light-years ahead, allowing users to communicate verbally, visually and using text - and, in the case of DS, interact with others within a short range via Wi-Fi.
But Federman says the real excitement will be when the users can leverage the Internet to "engage and learn from each other in a way that's fun and interactive" like cooking or exercising with your sister in another city. (More traditional gaming platforms like Xbox and PlayStation enable users to play against others online, as do some Wii titles.) Federman says these new types of interactive, social life experiences won't be limited to women, if the explosion of social networking sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, is any indication. "People are constructing themselves in relation and in context to their social network, irrespective of gender."
But while Nintendo's Ryan won't comment on what's coming (other than putting digital cameras, a music player and larger screen on its next-generation DS, called DSi, due this spring), he notes that Japanese stores carry "walls and walls" of self-improvement software.
"There are even things that go as far as etiquette, like how to get in a cab properly when you're with your boss," he says. "That culture thrives on that idea of self-improvement. And what we're starting to see as a trend in North America is that we're making this happen here as well."
Sheryl Steinberg's tech-inspired novel Opportunity Rings will be published in April by Key Porter Books.
A sampling of self-improvement titles for the handheld Nintendo DS system
Personal Trainer: Cooking
A new Nintendo program that helps build grocery lists and choose recipes based on calories or the ingredients on hand. Walks and talks users through recipes from Japan's Tsuji Cooking Academy and adjusts ingredient quantities based on number of servings selected. $19.95.
My Chinese Coach
A Ubisoft title that offers basic instruction in Mandarin. Users listen, repeat and record words to measure their pronunciations against the Coach. Also shows how to write Chinese Kanji characters and tests knowledge using games. Language coaching titles also available in French, Japanese and Spanish. $29.99.
Quick Yoga Training
Ubisoft's customizable yoga program offers 3-D instruction on almost 200 poses, based on user's age, weight, skill level. Microphone capabilities help users gauge their breathing. Games improve yoga knowledge. $19.99.