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Soapbox: Warning - Playing Video Games May Pose a Serious Risk to Your Health


February 11, 2005
 

Child Obesity - Who's To Blame?

As a clinical associate professor and preventive care doctor, I’ve worked with overweight and obese adults and kids for the past 12 years. Whenever I read about the problem of pediatric obesity in my journals (or even local newspaper) or hear about it in my conferences, video games are always listed as one of the main reasons contributing to this growing epidemic. You may not agree, but the general perception in the healthcare field is that video games are part of the problem.

The rate of obesity over the past 30 years has more than doubled for kids ages 2 to 5 and 12 to 19, and more than tripled for kids ages 6 to 11. Last month at a recent pediatric obesity conference, a speaker made the sobering statement: “This is the first generation of kids who are more likely to die before their parents due to obesity and it’s related diseases.”

In response to this epidemic, Congress and the Institute of Medicine recently put out a report stating that we will have to mount an assault on pediatric obesity like we did against the tobacco industry. They also recommended that kids limit their TV and video game playing to less than two hours a day.


Illustration by Erin Mehlos

Is that what you, as someone who makes their living in the electronic entertainment industry, want to hear? Being compared to the tobacco industry and told to limit use of your product? Not exactly what companies like Sony, EA, EB Games, and Konami want to hear.

And yet, when I’ve gone to E3 over the past few years or when I’ve e-mailed and written letters to various companies to try and increase their awareness to how their industry is being maligned in the healthcare industry, I get no response.

That’s too bad, because I believe that the very technology that is being blamed for the pediatric obesity epidemic is also the very technology that can eradicate it!

Not only that, but I believe that the company or companies who wake up and seize the opportunity to address this will be able to reach a target niche that is being told to play less video games. Beyond that, you will have a sales force like no other – made up of doctors, nurses, exercise and fitness trainers - promoting your games and hardware! Talk about influential sales reps to a captive and compliant audience.

The Advantages Of Exertainment

At the last CES in Las Vegas, you may have visited a tent outside the main hall called the “Cardio Zone”. This was a collection of games and hardware where to play the game, you had to move your whole body to play. This is also known as the “human joystick” or “exertainment”.

The most popular game to represent this genre is Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). Other notables are the EyeToy, Powergrid (the first to provide an isometric workout), and the Cateye Bike (a stationary bike attached to a game console where pedaling and steering controls a racing game).

ResponDesign is a company that has made a virtual trainer called Yourself!Fitness (which premiered at E3 last year) that can be played on the PS2, Xbox, and the PC. Virtual workout avatar Maya provides over 500 types of exercises, all interactive, catering to your fitness level and ability. If you tell Maya you’re working out too hard, she will slow the exercise down. Try telling Billy Blanks to slow down his videotaped Tae Bo workout. Maya also provides some nutritional instruction as well, with menus available on its website (www.yourselffitness.com).

Studies are now being done that will validate what we already know: these types of games can overcome the obstacles we face trying to get kids to be more physically active. Once we get this quantifiable data, maybe the healthcare industry will view video games more seriously as an intervention.

Why do I believe exertainment games can do the impossible and get obese kids to be more physically active? Because they're more fun, these kids are usually very good at video games already, and aren’t usually the type to join the soccer team given that they are usually ostracized or self-conscious when it comes to traditional sports.

Think of all the new game console attachments that could be developed to play games in a new way while getting a workout. What about if someone made games that tied in nutrition education as well? Instead of destroying asteroids, they could destroy or dodge junk food and grab healthy foods. What is being done for edutainment can also be done for exertainment.

Can The Game Industry Help?

These children are our future teachers, policeman, doctors, social workers, and computer programmers. But who will do these occupations if they are getting fatter, sicker, and dying sooner? Who will support you and I as we get into our retirement years?

I’m not saying you should stop making the usual games; what I’m saying is that if this multi-billion dollar industry woke up and devoted some resources to providing a solution to this problem, you could be the ones credited with saving our future. Wouldn’t that be nicer than being blamed for its demise?

It boils down to this win-win situation: save lives, get great PR, and make a lot of money in the process. No matter what your position in this industry, find a way to get exertainment on the agenda and make something happen. Don’t wait for Company Z to do it first; be a leader in this charge to literally save the world!

The warning has been sounded - this worldwide epidemic has just begun and will go on for decades impacting several generations of kids. I hope this industry will not miss the golden opportunity to stop this obesity juggernaut in its tracks before it’s too late.


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