I Bought a Wii and I'm Still Fat: Why games need to be vehicles for social change

To the average medical professional or established journalist, the temptation to dismiss games as vehicles for positive change must be pretty potent.

Imagine you’re not the kind of person who’d read the stuff I write: you’re not a gamer, you don’t follow trends in the games industry and you couldn’t name a single game developer to save your life.

If that’s your perspective, you could be forgiven for assuming that games are nothing more than the violent, hyperstimulating morass that you see in TV ads and in articles with sensationalistic headlines. From that point of view, it’s difficult to imagine the gamer as anything but a 25-year-old guy in a state of arrested development downing Funyuns by the fistful and spitting shit-talk at anyone who comes under his crosshairs.

So yeah, I can understand where Randall Stross was coming from with this article he wrote for the New York Times recently. Titled “‘Exergames’ Don’t Cure Young Couch Potatoes,” it covers a study that finds that “active” games don’t result in an increase in physical activity in the children who play them. The study isn’t entirely without merit, but it’s fundamentally flawed in its methodology.

The participants in this study were children 9 to 12 years old who had a body mass index above the median and whose households did not already have a video game console. Each was given a Wii. Half were randomly assigned to a group that could choose two among the five most physically demanding games that could be found: Active Life: Extreme Challenge; EA Sports Active; Dance Dance Revolution; Wii Fit Plus; and Wii Sports. The other half could choose among the most popular games that are played passively, like Disney Sing It: Pop Hits and Madden NFL 10.

This is all well and good up until the game choices are laid out. Only two of the five “physically demanding” titles mentioned could realistically be considered games. EA Sports Active, Active Life and Wii Fit Plus are all fitness tools, not actual games. What’s left are Wii Sports, a game that’s effectively a Wii Remote tech demo, and Dance Dance Revolution, the decade-old rhythm game that ships with a shoddy, soft dance mat that’s not exactly conducive to active play.[1]

The study’s limited by its use of Wii hardware. While it was the first to market with motion-driven controls, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 also sport their own motion controllers in the Kinect and Move, respectively. And while both systems still have major motion-controlled games coming down the pipeline, the Wii’s lineup is all but nonexistent at this point. Kinect games like Dance Central (released in 2010) show that it’s possible to develop an accessible, well-made and engaging active game; unfortunately, the Wii-only focus of the study all but ruled out high-quality, motion-gaming experiences.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this study is that “active” Wii shovelware and “passive” Wii shovelware are equally uninspiring experiences.

But Stross goes further by ruling out games altogether: “For physical activity that brings measurable health benefits, kids need things like real balls, real rackets and real courts.” While there’s some truth to this statement, I think it’s short-sighted and damaging.

Why? Most consumers, including parents, are just as ignorant about worthwhile games as the average New York Times writer. By studying games that are banal, outdated and uninspiring, you’re basically telling your readers that the sky’s still blue and rain is still wet. But unfortunately, “Shitty Games Do Very Little for People” isn’t much of a headline. Using a bleak selection of games to pan an entire medium’s ability to effect positive change in people is a bold move, to say the least. I’d call it shortsighted and overzealous.

I’d argue there’s a much more valuable approach to be taken, and it comes from doing some research of your own as a writer. Covering a study is fine, but offering it as undisputed fact isn’t right.

Games are, by definition, vehicles for change. As a result, game design is essentially just creating a handful of systems and variables and giving the player license to interact and rewards for doing so. So why is an article in the middle of 2012 comparing 2006’s Wii Sports and Madden NFL 2010 when we’ve got fitness-driven game design powering experiences like Nike+ and location-based games just beginning to tap into the potential of turning the real world into a playing field?

I don’t think the right thing to do here is to admonish Stross for writing a mediocre article. If anything, I think it’s on the game development community to think hard about how they can use games as vehicles for social change. Humans are fundamentally linked by their love for games and a need to interact with other people. Combining human nature with the fact that millions of us are now constantly wired into the internet and carrying geolocation devices at all times means that the canvas for crafting interactive experiences has already begun a radical transformation.

  1. A legitimate Dance Dance Revolution setup, like an actual arcade machine or the equipment used in West Virginia schools, is way more responsive and doesn’t slide around on you once songs start to get more active than just lifting one foot up at a time. When you’re tackling more complex step patterns like gallops and turns (confession: I used to compete in DDR tournaments), the game becomes unplayable on a slippery, unresponsive soft plastic game mat. Even if kids wanted to break a sweat playing the home version, they’d have a damn hard time doing so once they hit the ceiling of progression caused by bad hardware.  ↩