OMG Exergames Aren’t a Miraculous Cure-All?!!1!11?!!

I thought just having some golf clubs in my office would make me good at golf, but for some reason I still suck.

Over the past week, several major media outlets have reported on a recent study in which researchers took a close look at the way that children were affected by the presence in their homes of video games that emphasize physical activity. Not surprisingly, this is another case of an experiment with a rather narrow scope being reported and headlined in such a way that suggests more far-reaching conclusions than the study itself can draw.

A review of the headlines in the articles I’ve linked above demonstrate this trend. The New York Times reports that “‘Exergames’ Don’t Cure Young Couch Potatoes”; Forbes somewhat puckishly notes that “Science Says: ‘Active’ Video Games Do Not Magically Turn Junior Coach Potatoes Into Exercise Buffs”; and The Sydney Morning Herald rather blandly writes “No physical benefit from ‘exergames’: study”. Here’s what the study’s abstract concludes: The “results provide no reason to believe that simply acquiring an active video game under naturalistic circumstances provides a public health benefit to children” (e636).

Why is this news absolutely unsurprising? Because the study essentially found that simply placing an active video game like Wii Sports into the homes of children is not going to make them overall more physically active. An analogous situation would be to place treadmills in the homes of overweight adults and discovering (gasp!) that the mere presence of exercise equipment doesn’t necessarily create physical activity. The author of The New York Times article, Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, claims that “‘active’ video games [...] do not produce the increase in physical activity that naive parents (like me) expected.” The kind of naivety that Stross admits to in his article is troubling, as it suggests that there are a number of parents out there who did believe that simply putting some active video game equipment in the vicinity of their children would create a dramatic change in their children’s behavior.

Now, my daughter and I have often enjoyed playing Wii Sports Resort together. Rose is particularly fond of Table Tennis and Speed Slice, but I would never have assumed that our Wii games were a suitable substitute for, you know, running and jumping and splashing through a water-sprinkler. I wish that the researchers had looked at whether sustained use of something like Wii Fit Plus can have a measurable health benefit, because otherwise the findings hardly seem noteworthy. Indeed, the original journal article was published in March, but it wasn’t until two months later that the general media picked up on it, suggesting that its content needed to be properly finessed before being seen as worthy of being reported.

At its heart, the study undermined the very nature of the Wii’s success and its value. By translating video games into a language that many could understand, Nintendo’s unique control scheme allowed for much greater interaction between parents and children through video games. Yet this study’s entire approach necessitated its abandoning of the Wii’s core identity. As with any move to exercise and physical activity, encouragement from an outside source can be key. Without parents or friends to stoke the desire to play, children might have little reason to initiate play on their own, especially since the Wii has been around for a while now, and its novelty factor has diminished considerably.

So why has this study been reported on in the way that these news outlets have done? The reality is that science is not particularly amenable to the current news culture, which needs to frame their stories in such a way as to suggest controversy or conflict. As such, it should come as no surprise that a study like this one generates such misleading and downright ridiculous headlines, which, as you can see from my totally serious and not at all ironic headline, is something that I have (ahem) always avoided.

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2 Comments

  1. Congratualtions, Jonah, on being the only journalist who took the time to understand the Baranowski study for what it truly said. When this paper was first covered in the media I was appalled and contacted Dr. Baranoski, an Associate Editor of my Games for Health Journal.
    I gave him the opportunity to clear up the media misconception and, to that end, he wrote an excellent article in issue three of the Journal (http://online.liebertpub.com/toc/g4h/1/3) and followed it up with a press release hoping the community would acknowledge and correct their errors of interprestation of Tom’s work (http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/g4h.2012.0018). I was not surprised but still disappointed that not a single publication that reported the erroneous interpretations (especially the the formidable NY Times), had the character to publicly correct them.

    Bill Ferguson, PhD
    Editor-in-Chief
    Games for Health Journal
    Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers

    Reply
  2. Anybody who believes that the Wii doesn’t help weight loss hasn’t seen me play any game with sword (or lightsaber) battles. That stuff tires me out hardcore! Then again, I have to have somebody to be ridiculous with when playing it. And I’ve never gotten winded on the Fit. But that may have been because I wasn’t playing Punch Out.

    Reply

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