Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Microsoft's "Exergames" Won't Make You Fit

But controller-free games can help depression and replace Phys-Ed teachers.

  • June 15, 2010

To watch a gamer interact with Microsoft’s Kinect system - as project Natal was just christened at the E3 computer gaming conference - is to behold a future in which the videogame controller is relegated to the sweaty palms of aging hard-core gamers.

If we are to believe the hype, this change in how we interact with gaming systems and even computers in general will undo the pernicious, obesogenic effects that all that sitting on the couch has wrought on America’s young people, who are easily the most overweight generation ever to tread the earth.

The problem is, research suggests that while getting up off the couch is preferable to being stuck to it, exergaming is no replacement for real exercise. Even the most intense exergames - think Dance Dance Revolution or a monster session of Wii Boxing - amount to no more activity than moderate-intensity walking, according to a pair of studies published this year in the journal Pediatrics.

Movement has other benefits, of course, and there is a growing consensus that a lot of what ails us is the product of too little of it. The link between exercise and depression seems to be driven in whole or in part by the exercise itself, if recent research on the effects of exergaming on depression is to be believed.

One study suggests that one in five elderly adults suffers from “subsyndromal depression,” which is defined as something less than major depression. Even so, this “minor” depression correlates with a rate of negative health outcomes five times as great as those experienced by patients who aren’t depressed. So we should all be cheered to hear that as few as three months of exergaming appears to alleviate subsyndromal depression in older patients.

Furthermore, because these are videogames - and something like two thirds of Americans appear to like videogames already - the people playing them are more likely to stick with the program. Research on that count has so far been inconclusive, so it’s not clear that exergaming is any more (or less) likely to get you vertical than a gym membership or a new lease on life.

As with all technologies, the simplicity of controller-free exergaming will have its unintended consequences. One of those might be the replacement of your friendly neighborhood P.E. teachers with “semi-literate, non-union workers,” - those are the researcher’s words, not mine.

In a paper on the increasing use of exergaming in school curricula, Carolyn Scheea and Deron Boyles argue that adoption of this technology inevitably leads to a “de-skilling” of the Phys-Ed program.

“PE teachers, in essence, become automatons for automated gaming, that is, replacing PE and PE teaching.”

It sounds a bit histrionic until you witness the black-light and flat-panel LCD funhouse proposed for the gymnasium of the future by industry leader Exergames Fitness, in which the primary function of P.E. teachers of the 21st century would seem to be tech support.

Researchers have predicted that by the end of this year, 1500 schools nationwide will have already installed these systems - a trend which, all other things being equal, seems set to accelerate as maintenance-free controller-less videogame systems become the norm.

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