Watch out, Wii Fit: you may have competition. A new study published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that video games designed to encourage better health habits “motivated players to substantially improve diet behaviors,” said lead researcher Tom Baranowski in a press release. I’m not so sure.
Childhood obesity is a serious problem, and it’s only getting worse. Despite increased public awareness of the risks of obesity, future generations look like they’ll be larger than ever: over the past 30 years, the number of obese children under age 19 has more than tripled. My first thought is that letting kids sit on the couch moving nothing but their fingers isn’t the best solution, but scientists are known for thinking outside the box.
Researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine gave 103 children ages 10-12 years two games to play. One was “Escape from Diab,” in which an “athletic inner city youth” named Deejay is trapped in a city full of junk-food eaters. To help them escape from their self-made prison of fat, sugar, and sodium, Deejay must teach them proper nutrition and exercise habits. The other game was “Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space,” which touts itself as a “commercial quality” video game, the kind “’tweens buy in stores and play on home PCs and video game consoles. Considering Baylor shelled out $8 million for it, I certainly hope that’s true.
Researchers measured the participants’ height, weight, waist size, triceps skinfold thickness, physical activity over a four-day period, and food consumption over 24 hours. They tested the group at the start of the trial, after the first game (Diab), which takes about six hours of playtime to complete, after the second game (Nanoswarm), which also takes about six hours, and again two months later, and compared the results with those from a control group. They found that the children who had played the video games increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by about two thirds of a serving per day. Their efforts to increase water consumption and exercise were unsuccessful, however. (Apparently video games don’t make you thirsty, or help you get moving.)
Two thirds of a serving seems pretty measly. A full serving size for fruits and vegetables is only about a half cup, and growing kids should be ingesting about four servings of veggies and three servings of fruit a day, so this really isn’t all that much added healthful nutrition. In addition, the researchers didn’t mention how much the kids actually liked playing the games and whether the lessons they learned would stick if they stopped. As exciting as the adventures of Deejay sound, how will they hold up against the fun of role-playing that you’re an assassin armed with an iron and a plastic bag? Anything that helps mitigate the obesity crisis is a step in the right direction, but if I were a parent, I wouldn’t be trading my kid’s soccer ball for a game controller anytime soon.