MMO Family  Can gaming boost kids' physical activity
One of the main concerns that parents have about their children's video game playtime is that it can correlate with inactivity, obesity, and a lack of interest in getting off the couch and doing things. And with reports coming out that sitting is the new smoking, they have good reason to be worried. As video games get more and more mainstream and the couch gets used more and more, young children could start to look like those passengers on the AXIOM in Wall-E.

But a recent study by Australian researchers featured in the British Medical Journal may shed a ray of optimism that video games can, in fact, offer opportunities for physical activity after all. Is there hope that younger gamers can avoid a sedentary existence as they grow up? Let's take a look in this week's MMO Family.

Let's get physical!

The focus of this study was a look at both traditional gaming consoles and the "newer" generation gaming devices, such as the Sony PlayStation EyeToy and Move, dance mats, and Microsoft Xbox Kinect. The aim of their research was to look at the effects of transitioning to newer devices compared to giving up gaming completely. They sampled 56 children ages 10-12 and had them keep a detailed journal of all of their activity during waking hours. For eight weeks, all video games were banned, and the researchers calculated children's physical activity through the use of a device worn on the hip. Next, the children were given access to traditional gaming devices for another eight weeks. After that, they had access to only the more active devices for yet another eight week period.

Overall, the diaries showed that children in the study spent an average of 1.5 hours on physical activity and 4.5 hours on sedentary activities, of which half was spent on "screen time." They further broke down screen time use and found that more than half was spent watching TV (107 minutes), with video gaming coming in second (44 minutes).

What's interesting is that the levels of physical activity stayed fairly even through each of the eight week sessions. The study focused in on after-school activity and found that when kids didn't have access to any gaming devices, their physical activity increased by 3.8 minutes and sedentary time decreased by 4.7 minutes a day. Meanwhile, when children transitioned from traditional consoles to more active machines, their daily physical activity increased by just over 3 minutes, and their sedentary activity decreased by about 6 minutes.

Starting point

Granted, the study contained a relatively small sample of children, and the increase isn't exactly monumental, but what's notable is that the increase was almost the same regardless of whether children transitioned to more active gaming platforms or gave up gaming completely. For parents struggling to get their kids off the couch more, it seems that the "newer" gaming platforms, which involve more movement, are a good bridge toward a more physically active lifestyle. But it looks as if taking game time away isn't going to automatically entice kids to pick up a baseball and go hit the sandlot for an afternoon, and perhaps that's where parental guidance plays a key role.

MMO Family  Can gaming boost kids' physical activity
A sporting chance

Given the results of the study, I think there could be a good opportunity for video games to play a positive role in helping children develop an active lifestyle. Newer gaming platforms like the Wii and Kinect offer all sorts of sports-themed games, from tennis to baseball to basketball and even skiing. The great thing about that is that these games can introduce various sports to kids and get them interested in taking them further and trying them for real. Dabbling in sports can also be an expensive endeavor because each sport requires gear, and some can be pretty expensive. Kids have a chance to get a taste of a wide variety of sports for a relatively low cost thanks to newer gaming platforms. And even though it's not the real thing, playing sports on a Wii or Kinect does teach children the basics of playing a particular sport, and they not only learn the rules quickly but begin to develop the skills required to participate and play.

What about MMOs?

We've seen MMOs make their way to consoles, but we have yet to see one make use of platforms that are controlled by movement. But there might be a day when we can explore our virtual worlds without the constraints of a keyboard or controller. Those who miss real travel in MMOs could walk or run to their destination (literally!). And our battles would depend on our own physical skill, strength, agility, and stamina, rather than our avatars'. Console games have made great strides in multiplayer gameplay, and as the technology improves, it seems likely that at some point we'll have a game offer a virtual world that makes use of newer platforms that require movement in order to explore and interact with the in-game world.

Sitting around

Another notable point that the study makes is that kids don't just sit around at home. When they're at school, they spend hours each day sitting in a chair at a desk. The researchers suggest looking into ways that children learn without sitting in one spot. "While our study focused on the home setting," they wrote, "school offers another opportunity for more active technologies... such as sit-stand desks or active-input electronic media as part of lessons." We're seeing more and more businesses adding in treadmill desks and including time each day for workers to get some physical activity, but apart from gym and recess, that's not the case with children in school. Technology is (slowly) working its way into the curriculum in many schools, but perhaps educators should be careful not to let it reinforce sedentary habits in children.

Overall, this study doesn't conclude that gaming is as good as going out for a jog. But it does show that turning off the console doesn't guarantee that kids will get off the couch. In fact, the bigger cause of couch potato syndrome is still the television, by a wide margin. The good news is that a switch to gaming platforms like the Wii and Kinect seems to be a good way to slowly wean children from video games and is as effective as pulling the plug completely. But children need a gentle nudge in the right direction if we really want them to get off the couch and get more physically active.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.