Does This Controller Make Me Look Fat?

Change 4 Life may have changed it's tune on the heavy effects of gaming for kids.

You could stop playing any time you want, right? You could just put down the controller and walk away now…if you wanted to. YOU get plenty of exercise.

Who are they to tell you that you’re fat and play too many video games?

The past year or so has seen an increasingly heated exchange between the UK government and game developers trade association Tiga over the 'Change 4 Life' initiative. The initiative featured ads depicting stop motion figures of children playing Space Invader type games, and a boy holding what looks like a Playstation controller. They give grim warnings of premature death due to heart disease and obesity and the need to find a more active lifestyle. Obviously game developers and gamers alike were not pleased; recently Tiga has even filed a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority over the Ads.

It looks like the UK government’s chief medical officer Liam Donaldson has conceded to a degree and admitted that "stopping children playing video games is unlikely” and has gone on to actually recommend that children be given game systems as a way to counter the sedentary lifestyle. While he does specify that traditional games can lead to obesity in children, he admits that interactive systems like the Wii and the Eyetoy can increase heart rate and burn more calories.

To look further into the matter he supported a study which began in Feb 2008 carried out by Game City, the Department of Health, and clinicians from Nottingham University Hospital. The study compared the energy expenditures of 15 children. At rest, playing sedentary traditional games, and playing interactive motion based games like Eyetoy and Wii Sports. Their heart rates were then monitored throughout a 10 minute sampling period to find that energy expenditure was about 42% higher with active gameplay over sedentary gameplay. Isn’t Science incredible? This is only the first phase.

Phase two has 20 children with weight problems introduced to dynamic interactive game systems as well as healthy eating advice and allows them to operate freely over a 12 week period with the help of parents to measure success within the comfort of the home environment. Results will be completed later this spring.

A little more than a year ago now, Chief Executive of McDonalds UK in a Times interview spoke defensively of Fast foods’ role in the Obesity epidemic saying "kids are sat home playing computer games on the TV when in the past they’d have been burning off energy outside.” Later that month the UK’s Dept of Health launched it’s £372 million strategy to battle obesity which included the £75 mil ad campaign that seemed to focus on gaming as a key cause and started the uproar.

I’d say the backlash from Game developers and fans has had an impact. It’s a question as old as time itself…or at least around 1980. Does gaming make for fat, lazy kids? In and of itself probably not. Sitting still doing anything for long periods probably doesn’t help, though. But then twiddling your thumbs in an empty room probably does more to promote getting you outside to play than any Tetris or Mario game ever will. I’m going to make a bold editorial stab here and say that video games are just fun. It’s just what kids do now in addition to some sports and junk food and if we’re lucky a little reading.

Until only recently technology and circumstance dictated that video games were designed to be played sitting down operating buttons with a couple fingers much like the internet and television. But unlike other forms of visual entertainment they inherently are meant as interactive pursuits.

The games industry is changing with some of these new technologies that allow for more interactive motion in games so why not move with the times, rather than fight them? It’s an important step for governments that really want to make a leap forward for public health to recognize this shift and foster a healthy relationship with these companies if they want to influence active, healthy lifestyles in children. This also means recognizing game design as an art, a form of free speech, and trusting professionals to do what they do best without undue heavy scrutiny.

The real challenge is to convince developers to actually make the active games worth playing. It’s amazing how people can fall 50 times over on a rocky path while the smooth one is right there next to them. The Wii has been out for over 2 years now and yet to tap into the exercise potential of traditional, butt-kicking games with a story. Oh yeah, exercise is for “exercise games”, running and fighting crazy people and then running some more is for “regular” video games, I almost forgot.

The interesting part is that Nintendo is making so much money from the new market they’ve attracted in "casual" or non-gamers, that they don’t need to cater the exercise games to the gaming crowd that arguably needs it most. So is Liam Donaldson that forward thinking as to promote or subsidize the development of some cooler games that get us doing more than Yoga with motion tracking? Probably not, sorry.


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