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Players Break a Sweat With Video Games

If the video game junkie in your life is becoming a full-time couch potato and packing on pounds, have no fear. A new trend has gamers shaping up while they play.

The latest fad combines video game technology with fitness, requiring players to jump around to score points instead of just moving a joystick or pushing a button.

In Dance Dance Revolution (search) (DDR), players get down to the music by following the pattern of arrows that appears on the screen and hopping on the corresponding arrows on a floor pad. A company called Sportwall International has developed games that have kids running back and forth hitting lighted targets. And some arcade games get players to duck and move like their onscreen characters.

“You’re literally controlling the game with your whole body and not just your fingertips,” said Chris Baker, assistant editor at Wired magazine. “It’s definitely a new genre that will probably get bigger.”

DDR, for its part, has developed an almost cult following of fans, many of whom lost a significant amount of weight playing the game.

Mel Baltazar, 27, said he was drawn to DDR because he likes music-based games — but after a while noticed an unexpected side benefit.

"In the first four months or so, I lost around 30 pounds," said Baltazar, of San Jose, Calif. "In about six to eight months, I went from 280 to 230. I play nowadays to keep in shape more than anything."

DDR fan Melody Hawman, 26, also shed pounds while she played, going from about 220 to 143 at her lowest weight.

"I'm significantly lighter than I was when I wasn't playing," she said. "You're not just using your hands — you're actually getting up and doing something."

With the obesity epidemic in America reaching epic proportions and video games, the Internet and television accused of being among the culprits, entertainment that combines physical activity with technology could be the wave of the future.

“We have to give them the computer game packaged with their physical fitness otherwise they’re not going to be interested,” said Sportwall founder and CEO Cathi Lamberti. “Kids have changed. They have been taught how to be entertained and seduced by technology.”

But the interactivity of the Web has left gamers wanting more out of their favorite hobby.

"There's that stigma that people who play video games are slobs who just sit on the couch," said Baltazar. "In DDR, it's more of an interactive experience where you're putting yourself into the game."

To date, Konami Digital Entertainment, which distributes DDR, has sold more than 6.5 million copies worldwide and 1 million in the United States. The Web site www.getupmove.com documents the stories of youths who have lost weight using the game, which retails for $39.99 without the dance pad and $59.99 with it.

“This is a game that defies all the other games out there because the person has to get up and do the work,” said Jason Enos, a product manager for Konami Digital Entertainment - America.

That’s one of the reasons movement-based video games are becoming so popular.

“It’s one thing that parents like,” said Baker. “I’m sure parents would rather have their kids doing that than simply watching TV or playing a [regular] game or surfing the Web.”

The Sportwall systems — which include ScoobieBall for toddlers and small children, SmartBall for school-aged kids and Sports PC for budding young athletes — are popping up in schools, fitness clubs, parks and even fast food restaurants. They are currently not for use in private homes, but the company is developing home systems.

In ScoobieBall, kids play in a portable enclosed playground: both music signals and voice prompts guide them to lighted targets, which they hit with balls to score points. In SmartBall, kids hit targets that light up to show letters, numbers, colors and geometric shapes. And in Sports PC, young athletes hit tennis balls, basketballs and baseballs against a wall, aiming for the circles that light up.

Lamberti said the Sportwall games are in 100 schools and 100 McDonald’s restaurants to date and help to improve kids' physical fitness.

“The lifestyle is fast food and no exercise,” she said. “Technology has bred people to relate to the world in a different way. We have to deliver fitness in that way, or they’re not going to do it. It’s as essential as that.”