Austin Schroderus spent Thursday morning playing a lively game of dodgeball with a handful of other children at the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center.”All you got to do is just make sure that little ball doesn’t hit you,” the 14-year-old Peorian said while waiting on the sidelines, “and if it does, then you got to get off the screen.”
Screen? What screen?

Instead of ducking rubber balls hurled in a gymnasium, Schroderus enjoyed the venerable schoolyard game by dancing along a lit, interactive floor and avoiding a red orb as it slithered across the ground. The video game, called Lightspace Play, was one of several the RiverPlex is hoping will get sedentary kids moving.

The fitness center is betting that activities inspired by video games – known as exergames – are one way to get kids healthy, by offering them an arcade-like atmosphere without the snack bar. The room, which opens to RiverPlex patrons today, uses muscle-power instead of joysticks to earn points and burn calories.

“This is an opportunity to help children be excited about being healthy,” said Chief Operating Officer Sue Wozniak at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, which partnered with the RiverPlex in creating the room. “It’s not just an arcade.”

One game requires players to pedal and steer a stationary bike while their video-game persona plows a motocross bike through a dirt course. In others, participants don boxing gloves for virtual bouts or swing toy baseball bats at digital pitches.

Matt Freeman, general manager at the RiverPlex, said the exergame room cost $100,000 and the facility plans on renting it out occasionally for private parties or events. Freeman said organizers eventually want to involve parents in the fun.

Ed Kasanders, president of the Palatine-based company, Motion Fitness, which sold the equipment to the RiverPlex, said the market for exergames has soared over the past several years. His business use to deal with all types of exercise equipment but switched about four years ago solely to exergames.

“We can’t get away from kids wanting to play games and from technology,” Kasanders said. “What we are doing is we are actively making them play in a fun, exciting, engaging environment.”

Medical studies, however, remained mixed on the benefits reaped from exergames. Most maintain more traditional sports and forms of exercise are still the gold standard for physical activity but find exergames to be a good workout and source of entertainment.

“It’s certainly better than sitting behind a chair in front of a computer screen,” said Blair Gorsuch, director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at Proctor Hospital. “Anything to get the kids up and moving, I’m all for it.”

The real problem, Kasanders said, is keeping the games fresh and entertaining in a world where children are bombarded with new games, distractions and gadgets.

But spending time with his friends in the exergame room, Andrell Taylor said for the time being he would rather be on a robotic climbing wall than on the basketball court.

“I’d rather be here,” Taylor, 11, of Peoria said, “because it’s fun, and I like playing video games, too.”