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Will Exercise Video Games Get Kids Off the Couch?

New Nintendo Wii sports and fitness games fuel a fervid debate

Email icon  sarah.jacobsson@nyu.edu

Kaitlin O’Bryant, a 20-year-old junior at Brigham Young University, takes her stance—legs apart, fists up, guarding her face. The crowd screams. The announcer bellows: “Round one! Three, two, one…!” And the fight is on. Sweat drips down her forehead as she jabs. The opponent is down…then up again. More jabs, more ducks. Then our heroine, heart racing, hits pause and falls back onto the couch.

O’Bryant is playing Nintendo’s Wii (say “we”) Boxing, part of the Wii Sports package, operated with a controller in each hand that wirelessly signals her movements to the console. Wii games have been bestsellers since they debuted in 2006. They’re $200 cheaper than rival Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony Playstation 3 games. But young gamers interviewed said they also love how Wii boxing, tennis, baseball, and a version of the popular arcade game, Dance Dance Revolution, get them moving.

“It’s a great workout if you’re not doing anything else—if I wasn’t playing, I’d probably just be sitting around,” says New York University junior Nicole Arroyo, a communications studies major from Chicago.

In Nintendo’s new Wii Fit, gamers sit or stand on a balance board as the console directs them through yoga poses, step aerobics, strength training and balance games. Its introduction in the United States this spring will no doubt fuel the ongoing debate over the Wii. Critics, from health professionals to childhood development experts, say young gamers don’t just belong off the couch—they ought to get out of the house. Some point to a 2007 British study by professors in exercise physiology and pediatric exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University that found Wii users expend only 2% more energy than those playing on conventional gaming consoles.

“More screen time for kids is not the answer—and could be a distraction from real exercise,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a Boston-based national coalition to counter marketing toward children. “It will make us think we don’t need those outside places for kids to play — and we do.”

Elisa Zied, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees. “While you can burn some calories, this should not be seen as the answer to the obesity crisis among children and adults,” she said. While even Zied acknowledges that “the boxing is pretty intense” she calls video games a major factor in rising obesity levels. New game introductions, she adds, are likely “to lead to unhealthy weight gain.”

Some critics argue that such games can also contribute to emotional or developmental problems. “The problem with games like the Nintendo Wii is that they escalate a dependence on screens that foster a disconnect with our own creativity,” said Susan Linn, the author of The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.

Nintendo has sidestepped the debate. The Japanese firm makes no promises about weight loss and no health claims for Wii Fit. But it hardly has to: Young people are going Wii crazy. Take Mickey DeLorenzo, a 25-year-old Wii-playing blogger. In a six-week experiment he blogged about, he said he used the Wii for 30 minutes daily and lost 10 pounds, and that his body mass index fell from 25.2 to 24.

Other gamers interviewed say they don’t rely on Wii for exercise, but that it’s a good complement to a real workout. “I get a workout in the sports-oriented games, but not as much as traditional exercise,” said William Fairless, 25, of Nashville, Tennessee.

Other users interviewed point out that it’s hard to snack on anything when you’re trying to take down your opponent in the boxing match of the century.

These young enthusiasts are also finding some support from academia. Video games help kids think, manipulate facts and devise strategies, in ways that may be more intellectually stimulating than school, according to James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. “Good video games,” he wrote in Wired magazine recently, “encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.”

O’Bryant isn’t sure—right now she’s too busy to care. Jab, jab, jab—duck! Duck, duck, jab! Her heart is racing. She moves like a professional boxer. She knows her arms will ache tomorrow—though she won’t have a black eye or a bloody nose. “This is pretty fun,” she says. “Maybe I’ll sign up for a kickboxing class at my gym.”

Wii Boxing, in which a gamer spars with a virtual opponent, is part of Nintendo’s controversial new series oriented toward sports and fitness.
Photo by Sarah Jacobsson