What if you could turn video games, criticized for everything from their obsessive hold on users to their purported role in childhood obesity to their misogynist elements, into something, well, healthy? That’s the idea behind “exergaming”: physically interactive video games, controllers, and systems that aim to get your heart rate up without making you feel like you’re doing penance. This whole emerging discipline is about to get a big bump with the release next week of Nintendo’s Wii Fit, which is already flying off the shelves in Asia and Europe and is likely to be in short supply here, too.
Gaming sites and reviewers are weighing in; here’s what the New York Times testers had to say, here’s how the Wall Street Journal liked the system, and here’s how CNET reviewed the game. (Another blogger has a review based on a month of use in Japan.)
Wii Fit consists of a $90 balance board that’s combined with the original Wii console to let users progress through a series of activities that include simple yoga positions, hula-hooping, and ski-jumping. The original Wii wasn’t specifically intended to give users a good workout, but some people have reported sore muscles and joints, and at least one doctor has self-diagnosed a condition he dubbed Wiitis. Regular old Wii involves movement to play virtual sports like bowling and tennis, but technique often triumphs over physical effort.
Wii Fit is not the first exergame; EyeToy, a camera add-on to the PlayStation 2, has a series of fitness-oriented games. And before that, there was Dance Dance Revolution, the game that got kids hopping enthusiastically in the arcade and then in front of their home TV sets—and even, in some places, in P.E. class. But DDR was created as an entertaining game. Then people noticed it also worked up a sweat. Now, interest in exergaming is growing, given the potential to get both kids and adults off their ever-expanding butts. It was one of four major trends discussed at the national Games for Health conference, held in Baltimore earlier this month, and researchers are trying to figure out how best to assess and design these games.
Academics have already studied some of the older games. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic concluded in 2006 that kids who traded passive video games for EyeToy games and Dance Dance Revolution became three times as active. Another study, published last year in Pediatric Exercise Science, found that in kids, the exertion from playing the more active games is comparable to skipping, jogging, brisk walking, and climbing stairs. (It’s unclear whether users will burn off less energy as they get better, and more efficient, at the games.) Earlier this year, researchers reported in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity that a group of 10 kids randomly assigned to get an active video game setup added to their PlayStation 2 spent less time on all kinds of video games and more time being physically active than a control group that had only the conventional console.
The games that are more likely to burn calories involve the larger muscle groups in the legs, not just arm movements, says Alasdair Thin, a physiology researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh who looks at exergames. That’s likely why Dance Dance Revolution has come out ahead in studies comparing it with the EyeToy, which doesn’t involve vigorous leg movements in many of its games (one exception: EyeToy Kinetic, a personal-training program).
In the future, we need to “tease out what aspects of the games are beneficial,” says Stephen Yang, co-director of the Physical Activity Research Laboratory at the State University of New York -Cortland. (He also has an exergaming blog.) The more chances players have to make changes and decisions—to customize the game, to some extent—the more likely people are to stick with it, says Yang. Increased feedback from a game system, in the form of tips or heart rate information, helps keep users hooked, he adds. So does a system that allows players to compete or collaborate with others.
Researchers say the games aren’t likely to be suited to everyone, or to replace other sports or activities. But they may be a gateway for people who aren’t already moving on a regular basis, especially exercise novices who are more comfortable being active at home than in a more public place like a gym. Users of Dance Dance Revolution say their primary reason for playing is for fun, says Debra Lieberman, director of Health Games Research, a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that examines how active games can improve health. People find it easier to stick to an exercise program when doesn’t feel like work.
When you look at the stats on obesity and nutrition, especially among kids and teens, “obviously, we’ve failed,” says Yang. “We’ve got to right the ship, to bring back play, free time, and games.”
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