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Combating Child Obesity: Helping Kids Feel Better by Doing What They Love
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Combating Child Obesity: Helping Kids Feel Better by Doing What They Love

June 10, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

"...Descendant of Erdrick, listen to my words..."

~Dragon Warrior, 1989

For many gamers of the 8-bit generation, this opening line was an introduction to their first experience of the quintessential "hero on a quest" role-playing game (RPG).

For the next few weeks of the player's life, they would venture into dank, unlit dungeons and swamp-infested lands in search of treasure, a mythical Ball of Light, and the villainous Dragonlord.

Dragon Warrior completely immersed the player in a personal journey as they defeated hundreds of green slimes, upgraded magical weapons, and rescued a princess. Throughout all of this, the player witnessed their character physically growing in power.

As their avatar leveled up, many gamers would notice their virtual confidence rise in conjunction... but what did it do for their real world self-esteem?

When all was said and done and the mighty Dragonlord was defeated, the player would return to reality.

While their pixelated hero ran countless miles across countryside and engaged in hundreds of physical battles, the actual body of the gamer just spent dozens of hours doing thumb push-ups with their rear planted firmly to the couch.

Keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with a non-active video game; video games and physical relaxation generally go hand-in-hand.

But isn't it possible that there is an untapped market that would evolve the quest genre by combining it with active play? Could there be a reality that maps the player's actual limbs to the hero's virtual ones?

In the past twenty years, the percentage of overweight adolescents in the United States has more than doubled, resulting in nearly 30% of American children today being considered obese or overweight.

There are numerous reasons for this disturbing fact: an unhealthy diet, decreased interest in customary outdoor play, overuse of the Internet, and the proliferation of television programming. But the aforementioned factor of inactive video games is what our small team at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) is striving to address.

There is an unfortunate correlation between the increase in child obesity and the popularity of video games. In 1999, the average child played video games for 29 minutes a day. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), that number has more than doubled to approximately 63 minutes per day in 2007.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Ian Bogost
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"After extensive research, we couldn't find any other game that re-designed the dance pad to be used for a non-dancing/simulation game."

Athens 2004. And really, you can use the pad with any game, just need to contend with the remappings. There are some interesting, if anecdotal, examples around from the post-PS2/DDR craze.

Stephen Yang
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Again congratulations on such an excellent project. Your statements about dissuading children from going outside echoes my philosophy about exergames. Exergames should not replace regular physical activities, sports and games; however they have the potential to attract the normally sedentary children to engage in a different movement form that they might find enjoyable. Exergames like Orbis really need to be supported at home, school, and community to make a difference in a child’s level of health. However if exergames can get inactive kids to become more active and do it often enough, their new found joy in moving might transfer over to other activities (perhaps non-exergame based). I consider exergames to be potential “Gateway Games”.

For exergames like Orbis to make a make an impact, developers like yourselves must continue to foster a) joyful movement, b) social supportive environments, c) autonomy (aka decision making ability), and d) building their sense of competency. Well done and keep up the great work!

Tom Kammerer
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By "simulation", I'm pretty sure he meant any sports or fitness sim; Athens 2004 is essentially an Olympics simulator, similar to a "fitness game", with a sports skin.

I agree any game can be mapped to a DDR pad, though. Soul Calibur is a great example. To DeAngelis' point though, I think that an open-ended action-adventure world has not yet been done.

Ronald Mexico
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Garth, I enjoyed your article. I think this type of game represents the wave of the future. Quite honestly, I'm very surprised that this usage of the DDR pad has not yet been put to test in the market. I don't think this will have the same cost restraints that virtual reality games experienced in the mid-90s--the tech is there and is accessible. The failures of virtual reality systems are not analogous to the situation you find yourself in. I wonder if any of the major gaming engines or their 3rd party developers have anything in the pipeline. Do you foresee a shooter like GTA being used in your proposed format? How does the popularity of Wii Fit play into all of this? I think you are turning the corner on something. I would buy your game for my kid. He is 10 years old but does not like sports. He only likes fantasy adventure games. And I didn't mention, he's a fatty. I would love to sneak in a work out to make him sweat it out and look less like a human piggy. Keep up the good work.

Ronald Mexico
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I think advances in gaming technology will allow your platform to succeed where the old NES power pad and its progeny failed. I can only venture a guess that there were not too many games other than the track & field sort that were developed to support the power pad. Are you concerned that the games will be too tiring to play? Will the games have an option to play without to pad to support disabled gamers? Just issues to consider. I don't think these should be roadblocks as I believe that this is a cool, cool thing.

Georgina Bensley
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*shudder* I realise it's hardly unusual for gamasutra articles to be full of PR-speak about how great one's project is, but this really comes across as a slimy attempt to try and muscle in on the moral panic over obesity while misrepresenting the facts, which is just as repugnant to me as any "Video Games Make Our Children Into Killers!" nonsense would be.

Why can't you just present your game as a fun way for people to play and be active? A fun, exciting way to be immersed in the game world?

Climbing on the anti-obesity bandwagon opens you up to negative attention from those who feel that any videogame is evil, and discussion of the game risks being buried under hordes rushing in to tout THEIR weight-loss program (diet spam is ridiculously common these days).

You also risk attracting a lot of criticism for misrepresentation of the facts. You write: "There is an unfortunate correlation between the increase in child obesity and the popularity of video games. In 1999, the average child played video games for 29 minutes a day. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), that number has more than doubled to approximately 63 minutes per day in 2007."

Considering that the CDC reports that there has been NO INCREASE in child obesity since 1999, it seems you've just neatly proved that there's no correlation at all.

Anyway. I like the concept of the game. I like the idea of getting kids active and letting them have fun exploring a world. But I deplore your marketing strategy.

Seth Sivak
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I am a member of the project team for this game and we by no means were jumping on a bandwagon or attempting to champion child obesity for our own good. After talking with doctors and other medical professionals they were all interested in using the game specifically to fight obesity, because it will very likely work extremely well. There are no false facts put forth here and you should check the CDC site again about the "no increase since 1999" (

When we pitched this project to the faculty we wanted to explore using active inputs in a new way. We wanted to break out of the conventional sports or dance related game and try something we had all loved as kids: action-adventures.

I hope that our game can make a difference and potentially get kids (and adults) moving because it is more fun to play it on a dancepad than it is with just a controller. Hope this clears some stuff up for you.

Ronald Mexico
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As a parent of an obese child (I was in a bad mood when in my earlier post I referred to my kid as a "fatty"), I am encouraged when I see game developers try to combat obsesity. I would compare it to eco-friendly business practices. Just because it's a corporate move, doesn't mean that it's evil. One could describe this type of game as more than a "fun, simple game", but a socially conscious gaming endeavor.

Maurício Gomes
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As a student of game design in a university, to me this looked like a research project or academic project, not a marketing campaign, and in fact I loved it, I wonder if I can use that ideas with the project that I want research myself (games for blind people), since the curreny solution is REALLY sedentary, a text-only RPG game coupled with a screen reader... I tested it already, and in fact it worked for those that enjoy that type of game, but it also make the blind peope playing it, to play for about 3, 4 hours straight while just sitting and typing, something that does not seem very healthy, altough they enjoied the oportunity... Btw: Noone ever played "short-sessions" since the game is text-based, 15 minute play means seeing "two rooms" and having maybe one single combat... And any attempt to make the game "faster" overhelmed them with information and made them feel frustated and "idiot" since they could not pay attention to it all...

I would love to play that game myself, unfortunaly here in Brazil there are a great problem: Such hardware is really expensive here (a legaly bought Wii console for example is 1200 USD Oo and even if it was 120 USD it is well beyond most people salary, meaning the the majority of the population would never buy one even ilegally and used at same time)

Eric Greenberg
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Very nice job with the article and your team's project. Your work is a positive development for the gaming industry and the health of children. The potential for these "active" games is limitless. I'm looking forward to where the technology takes you guys.

Tom Kammerer
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I believe you have read this back to yourself?

"shudder* I realise it's hardly unusual for gamasutra articles to be full of PR-speak about how great one's project is, but this really comes across as a slimy attempt to try and muscle in on the moral panic over obesity while misrepresenting the facts, which is just as repugnant to me as any "Video Games Make Our Children Into Killers!" nonsense would be."

Make our children into killers?

= Makes our children fat?

please point out anywhere in this amazing project that says video games make children "obese".

I dont understand why you dont see this as a positive thing, every industry is jumping on the "Green earth movement" in terms of reshaping our society into a healthy long living prosperous one. This is when its all starting, and Nintendo KNEW IT (Wii/Wii Fit). In terms of other industrys, take a look at the hospitality industry,

soon hotels everywhere will be dust free. How is that any different from videogames being fun, addicting, and "healthy?".

The way you state that jumping on this wagon attracts flamers and critisism from other industries is almost as if you feel there is no competition with the game industry at all.

Isnt it common sense, that gym's and weight loss programs would do whatever it takes to keep other industries from stealing revenue?

We all know everyone is turning there eye's on the game industry.

Abby Halstead
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It seems mind-boggling to me that anyone would knowingly stand up against anything that has health benefits to it. It baffles me still that Georgina truly believes that the child obesity rate has NOT gone up even though there have been numerous reports all over the news (both paper and TV) stating otherwise. But, in true American fashion, freedom of speech rings on.

In an effort to turn the attention from putting Georgina in her place, I would like to return again to the positive nature of this article.

In this day and age, it has become more the norm to raise a family within city limits rather than uprooting yourself and carting everything off to the suburbs. It is also more common to find that both parents now work, thus leaving no one at home for when kids get out of school. Many parents ask that their children stay indoors until they get home from work. This leaves the kids inside for hours a day, at which time, they can snack unsupervised, watch TV, or play video games. By the time the parents get home, there is still time to play outside, but not much. I love the that more people are seeing the opportunity to create a remedy to this concern that many parents have. If you can find a way to simulate outdoor activity while remaining indoors, why wouldn't you take advantage of this, especially for after school activities and to cure winter boredom. I commend you, Garth, for bringing to view a positive remedy for the video game induced couch potato dilemma. They say that the children of today are our future, so here's to making our future a healthy, happy one!

Georgina Bensley
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Abby, it seems mind-boggling to me that you can intentionally misread very simple facts. I do not oppose the game, I think it's cool. I oppose the cynical marketing exploit.

Have you read the *actual scientific studies* from the official government agencies measuring American health, or are you basing your knowledge of the subject solely on a TV newscaster showing you pictures of fat people?

But don't take my word for it, do a simple websearch for childhood obesity plateau, you'll see dozens of articles talking about it. There has been no increase since 1999.

Since 1999 was the exact year that the article here chose to use as its basis for showing rising use of videogames correlating to a rise in child obesity, it's quite obviously problematic to anyone following the science. Had he chosen a different year, or left this "correlation" part out entirely, it wouldn't be so obvious.

Ronald Mexico
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Regardless of whether there was a plateau, there is still an obseity problem with America's youth. So I still find it a noble effort that developers have this on their minds when developing the next generation of games. My son (who I unfortunately called piggy in an earlier post) would benefit from this new concept in video games. We're making mountains out of mole hills here. I applaud the efforts of this Carnegie team. So will my slightly obese son.


Georgina Bensley
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I do think it's a fun idea, I hope they do well. I've been waiting for my advanced virtual worlds to play in ever since I was a young child myself!

Seth Sivak
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Did you read the article or just the abstract? This is from the editorial the doctors wrote on the study:

"However, it is too early to know whether these data reflect a true plateau or a statistical aberration in an inexorable epidemic, and pre-existing racial/ethnic disparities show no sign of abating. On one point there is no uncertainty: without substantial declines in prevalence, the public health toll of childhood obesity will continue to mount, because it can take many years for an obese child to develop life-threatening complications."

The web search you did likely pointed to a number of news articles all talking about this single study. No plateau has yet been proven, and even if the obesity rate has stopped rising that doesn't mean it is no longer a problem.

If you would like more information on videogames and childhood obesity it can be found here:

(I can keep going....)

Here is some info on how even slightly active games can help improve energy expenditure in children:

Michael Black
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Man, there's just no love for the fatties these days.

John Tam
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Some people forget one of the original PowerPad games.

Dance Aerobics

There was even a sort of dance music note module in there too.

John Giors
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Why limit this to children? Everyone at any age could use exercise-inducing games.

The downside is that someone is going to subvert active input devices with controller remaps.

Have you investigated how to make devices that can't readily be remapped?

mae mace
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Awesome article, but I am a little bit hesitant when it comes to video games, for all of the obvious reasons. I sometimes think that video games can suck up a person's life until there is nothing left.