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Social Distancing and Exercise: Are Active Video Games The Solution?


By Nathan Sandhu Leeds Beckett University | UPDATED: 08:28, 19 May 2020

Leeds Beckett University academics have found active video games don’t provide enough of a workout to improve people’s physical fitness – as the nation looks for ways to exercise at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The research shows that active video games (AVGs) just “keep people ticking over” but are only good for those who have a low level of fitness.

For frequent gym goers and fit individuals, users would need to play the video games for two or three hour stretches before feeling any benefits, if at all.

Sam Kirk, PhD Researcher and Associate Lecturer in the Carnegie School of Sport at LBU, collected data from six video games to explore why AVGs are not performing well in the market and how they compared to non-active video games when measured on gameplay experience.

As part of the research, Sam recruited participants online to help him analyse Just Dance, Pokemon Go, Wii Fit and Wii Sports, Kung Fu Live, and Beatsplosion using a numerical review, as well as semi-structured interviews.

The findings show that AVGS are good at reducing sedentary time but don’t provide a way to carry out sustained periods of moderate-vigorous physical activity as most only tend to be light physical activity such as walking and on the spot limb movements.

They also don’t target muscle strengthening as games cannot introduce additional load. Generally, progress and difficulty in AVGs are delivered by increasing time spent or reps performed, which is veering into endurance or aerobic training.

The research suggests that AVGS are wedged between traditional video games and traditional sports and exercise – and are often outperformed by both in terms of quality, variety, and engagement.

Since Sam carried out the research, Ring Fit Adventure has been released which is now considered the gold standard of AVGs – but it still has limitations and is dependent on current fitness levels.

In response to this, Sam has included Ring Fit Adventure in the next phase of the research, which is still ongoing, in addition to 13 other AVGs.

He said: “As a genre, active video games are failing. They either fail as a game, as a health building tool, or as a business. It is a rare event when an AVG succeeds as all three.

“During lockdown, if you are already physically fit or experienced in cardiovascular or strength-based training, AVGS will only keep you ticking over, keep you being physically active.

“Frequent gym goers are unlikely to find the games provide the challenge they need so it wouldn’t be much of a replacement while stuck in the house.

“But if you are brand-new to exercise then Ring Fit Adventure is going to be exceptional to build a basic level of fitness and understanding of fundamental movement patterns.

“All this suggests that most of the current crop of AVGs don’t do enough to improve people’s physical fitness to make that a real selling point of the games. As a genre, there are a lot more examples where this doesn’t work than where it does.”

Further evidence from other studies show that AVGs do not drive progress and energy output is only equivalent to that of walking on a treadmill at 3Km/Hour – slower than the average walking pace.

Before lockdown, the UK government advised people should undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, as well as at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises.

Ring Fit is considered the best in terms of meeting fitness demands during the coronavirus lockdown, and Pokemon Go is of value due to its social element that encourages people to play together but AVGs in general still have some way to go.

“The challenge for the video game industry is to make AVGs as effective as sport, exercise or other physical activity, but also so engaging, accessible and varied that people choose to play them over traditional video games,” he added.

“If AVGs tick both these boxes, we might just have the future of exercise right in our front rooms or on our mobile devices.

“Without this, even an enforced period of quarantine is unlikely to make most people AVG enthusiasts.

“Active video games are the underdog every gamer can support. For one day, hopefully soon, they can be better than video games for engagement, and better than sport/exercise for fitness and health. That is the dream.”

The future of exercise may be in our front rooms or on mobile devices, but the industry needs to up its game if it wants to make AVGs a success, according to Sam’s research.