Exergames: Video Games That Keep Players Fit! Exergame Fitness USA
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Many parents are looking for ways to wean their children from video games and get them interested in pastimes that exercise more than their fingers. But not all video games are created equal. One type of video game that parents may actually encourage their children to play is exergames. These interactive games that get kids moving are already offered at many schools and athletic facilities, as well as at video arcades.
Rashaun Lynch plays Dance Dance Revolution at Suncrest Middle School in Morgan- town, West Virginia. Photo by Tony Tye, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Exergames have burst onto the scene as advances in motion detection technology make increasingly sophisticated interactive video entertainment possible. Some exergames, such as jump rope without the rope, may have limited appeal. Others, such as one in which players walk inside a rotating sphere while maneuvering through a virtual reality game viewed through special goggles, require more space and money than most parents or schools can afford. Fortunately, the vast majority of exergames require nothing more than a video game console and a child willing to play them.
The most established and popular exergame is Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). This game requires a special dance pad on which large arrows point left, right, forward, and back. Arrows that appear on the video screen direct the player in dancing to the beat of the chosen song. The player must step on the appropriate arrows as they are shown on the screen; if the player can follow the arrows, he or she will be able to advance to another song or level of difficulty (i.e., faster tempos and more complex dance combinations).
The appeal of exergames like DDR is unmistakable. Children stand in line at video arcades to play them. But are they really an adequate substitute for traditional athletics and physical education? The West Virginia Department of Education understands both the advantages and limitations of using exergames as part of physical education. The department has made it a formal goal to put DDR in every public school, but its program is designed to get the maximum benefit out of DDR while continuing to encourage traditional physical activities.
The birth of an idea
The exergames program in West Virginia schools started with a trip to the mall. Linda Carson, a professor in the School of Physical Education at West Virginia University and the director of the West Virginia Motor Development Center, was at a local mall one day when she observed kids standing in line to play the arcade version of DDR. The sight intrigued her. She reasoned that if kids would wait in line to play a video game that got them moving, there had to be a way to use the game or the concept of exergames to help kids who were overweight, out of shape, or didn’t like traditional athletics.
Carson and her associates appealed to the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to fund a clinical study of exergames that would target children of PEIA members. Interested in promoting the health of its members and stemming the dramatic increase in childhood obesity, PEIA agreed to help. The study evaluated about 60 children, all of whom used DDR intensively for 12 weeks in their homes. At the end of the study, the children showed significant improvements in a variety of health-related factors: The children exhibited weight loss, better artery function, increased self-esteem, and better physical coordination. After seeing the positive results, PEIA wanted to get more kids involved. In addition, PEIA began promoting the game’s use among teacher members to help them become more active.
How it works in schools
In the spring of 2005, after making sure that the West Virginia physical education content standards contained nothing that prohibited the use of video games and that DDR met the necessary criteria to be part of schools’ physical education lesson plans, the West Virginia Department of Education and West Virginia University launched a pilot DDR physical education program at 20 schools. Each of the schools received DDR, a video game console, and two dance pads.
Once the games were in place, some challenges emerged. First, the demand for the game exceeded the capacity of the single game station and the limited time available during physical education class hours. Therefore, the schools decided to make the game available in settings outside physical education class; they now offer the game in the morning, at lunchtime, and after school. In addition, a number of physical education teachers have purchased additional dance pads and set up practice spots where students can watch the game and play it on pads that are not hooked up to the console.
Another challenge was posed by the pads themselves. Dance pads used in the home are too flimsy to accommodate the high traffic of school use. Schools needed to get industrial-strength dance pads that could withstand the wear and tear of dozens of children playing throughout the day.
With a cost of $1,200 for each DDR setup, the last-and greatest-challenge is finding the funds to get the game into every school. Carson contacted the manufacturer of DDR, Konami Digital Entertainment, Inc., to develop a partnership. The company offered funding to include more schools in the program, as well as to provide a game for the West Virginia University health center to help facilitate the management of the data and the overall program. The manufacturer of the heavy-duty dance pads gave schools a discount to make the program more affordable.
“Because of funding issues, we have targeted middle schools first, then high schools, then elementary schools,” says Melanie Purkey, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools. “The middle school years are when kids start to get into video games and slack off on exercise. West Virginia has approximately 157 middle schools, and we have covered 75 in less than a year.”
In addition, Purkey says, “Many schools that have not yet been on the list [to receive a game setup] are purchasing it themselves. School funds, PTA fundraisers, and other sources are providing the money. Schools that have been part of the project like it so well they are adding on with their own machines.”
Purkey hopes that as more kids play exergames at school, parents will get involved by offering the games at home. “Most kids have an Xbox or a Playstation,” she says. “For $100, kids can do it at home any time they want to, and they’re being physically active.” Purkey notes that these games fit a need in places where there are limited options for outdoor activities for kids.
Meanwhile, the staff of the West Virginia Department of Education have ambitious plans for the exergames program. Staff members hope to be involved in the research and development of other games through their relationship with Konami. They also want to start exergames clubs at schools, have those clubs managed through a website, and possibly even offer statewide DDR competitions. To help achieve these goals, the department may ask the West Virginia Governor’s Office, Mountain State Blue Cross Blue Shield, and other sources for funding.
Purkey is proud of West Virginia’s exergames program: It’s providing kids with clear health benefits, and kids love it. She also is impressed with the way many groups banded together to make the program a success. “It’s a true partnership-a successful collaborative effort with business, higher education, and the public school system,” says Purkey.
Marilyn Ferdinand is writer/editor for the national PTA organization.