Videogames, it is often said, are a “lean-forward” medium compared to other screen-based activities. Like music, games inspire movement and a kinesthetic attentiveness you don’t usually experience during the latest episode of Downton Abbey. And keeping your hands busy leaves less of an opportunity to keep reaching for that bag of chips. Wii games in particular have been heralded as a new frontier for exercise that will also bring gamers out of their basement lairs into a visceral and rewarding form of gaming. But a new study reported in Reuters doubts the efficacy of such “exercise games”:
Some public health researchers have hoped that active video games might be an alternative to outdoor play and sports for at least some of the physical activity kids need — especially for those who live in unsafe neighborhoods where playing outside isn’t always an option.
To try to see if that’s the case, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, designed every kid’s dream study: they passed out Wii consoles to 78 kids who didn’t already have one, and gave half the kids their choice of active game — such as Wii Sports or Dance Dance Revolution-Hottest Party 3 — and the other half their choice of inactive game, such as Disney Sing-It Pop Hits or Super Mario Galaxy.
The data collected from the accelerometer logs ultimately showed that “throughout the study period, kids with the active games didn’t get any more exercise than those given inactive video games.” Tom Baranowski of the research group Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, that lead the study said that the team was “frankly…shocked by the complete lack of difference.” The sameness here led him to conclude “that there’s no public health benefit from having those active video games.”
This does not necessarily imply that active games do not boast a cardiovascular improvement compared with other forms of games themselves or sedentary media in general (another researcher admits that “The Wii could serve as a potential replacement for sedentary screen time.”), but that still cannot compare to physical activity in the real world. So despite the increasing digitization of everything, institutions like playgrounds, public parks, and youth sports leagues still provide a necessary form of social and physical play that games can only approximate. As one researcher noted, “just because you can play soccer on the Wii, doesn’t mean you should stop playing it outside.”