Virtual nonsense

Computer-simulated sport is no substitute for reality

It took several centuries for a pig's bladder to evolve into a spherical football. Björn Borg didn't come round to the idea of the metal tennis racket for ten years. By comparison, then, it hasn't taken the rest of us long to accept computers as the ultimate piece of sporting equipment, or to decide that the best way to develop an athlete is by hooking him or her up to as many machines as possible. Whether it's runners covered in skin probes, or football teams whose every moves are captured and analysed by ProZone, we now generally subscribe to the view that the only way for humankind to reach its physical acme is to train as a cyborg.

And now we have the Nintendo Wii, which allows you to cut out the middleman altogether and enjoy the technological advancement without actually doing the sport at all. Some things gain traction so fast that you don't question them until many years later, normally on a retrospective TV programme with talking heads wondering: "What the hell was that?" I suspect this is what has happened with the Wii, which has quickly established itself - at least among many of my friends - as the crack cocaine of the otherwise wholesome family.

Now I'm not going to deny that the Wii can be a lot of fun. Nintendo has created a highly addictive form of entertainment, for which the public has readily forgiven the firm those Redknapp family adverts (I have a sneaking wish they would extend them into a saga, like the BT ads; a guest appearance by Jermain Defoe, perhaps, who pops by for a Sunday afternoon on Super Mario Galaxy). It's the Wii's pretensions I struggle with: the self-congratulating suggestion that it's encouraging people to be more active (I give you the Wii Fit) and not, say, persuading an increasingly obese nation to stay indoors and spend more time in comfortable proximity to the sofa.

Nintendo has pulled off the coup of persuading us that it has somehow blurred the boundaries between actual and virtual sport. I've heard quite a few eulogies, in particular, for its tennis game, which is supposed to be one of the most realistic in the Wii Sports package. But if it's realism you're after, why don't you play an actual game of tennis, I ask.

Because you're lazy, that's why. Look, if you want to play golf, get your clubs out on a course. If you want to play an instrument, go and learn one. Don't try to tell me that pretending to do these things is as satisfying or, even worse, part of the great objective of sport for all. Sport isn't about democratisation, it's the ultimate form of physical elitism. And it's about beating everyone else.

A quick word, if I may, for Sam Davies, currently braving the South Atlantic in the Vendée Globe, the solo round-the-world yacht race. Sam's been on the ocean for two months, her first attempt, in an eight-year-old boat. She told me before she began that her goal would be to beat the rest of the "older" boats that weren't built new for the race. She's doing far better than that - she is fifth in a field of 12 surviving entrants, and ahead of far more experienced sailors including fellow Brit Brian Thompson, whose boat Pindar was one of the original favourites. Few of us will ever experience the physical intensity, the privations or the elation that she's experiencing on the waves right now. I wouldn't bet against Nintendo attempting it with a combination of the balance board and a garden hose sometime soon, though.

Hunter Davies is away

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling