Dance Games and Other Exergames:
What the Research Says
Debra A. Lieberman, April, 2006
University of California, Santa Barbara
Video game playing used to be a sedentary pastime, but now a growing
number of games are compelling us to get up and move. These games
– sometimes called “exergames” or “exertainment”
– involve the player in dance, aerobics, kick-boxing, sports
moves, martial arts, virtual window washing, or other forms of physical
activity and exertion as the way to interact within the game.
Exergaming is popular in the US and research is finding that it
can improve players’ stress levels, weight management, fitness,
and health. Some play exergames to get a good workout, and others
play mainly for entertainment and social interaction but they enjoy
the health benefits as an added bonus. There are players who were
not very active in the past and have found that playing exergames
is a manageable and acceptable way to get regular exercise. Following
are some key research findings about uses and effects of exergames.
Exergames are fun and engaging
The most researched exergames are dance video games, such as Dance
Dance Revolution (DDR), by Konami, and In the Groove, by RedOctane,
which have sold millions of console copies in the US and are also
popular in video game arcades. Dance video game players span a wide
demographic range, across age, gender, weight level, and fitness
level. The interface to these games is a dance pad on the floor,
so that lower body movement and coordinated footwork are the skills
needed to win the game. A few games also incorporate upper body
movements, where players must touch the dance pad with their hands
as well as with their feet. In other games that require only footwork,
players sometimes decide to use their hands on the dance pad when
they want to get creative or change the level of challenge.
DDR and In the Groove can both be played in arcades, on video game
consoles, and on home computers with single player and two-player
options, and there are online multiplayer versions. Online forums,
chat rooms, and fan web sites, and online and face-to-face tournaments,
provide venues where players can meet, play together, compete, give
dance performances, and show off their knowledge and skills. Both
dance game series offer a workout mode (or fitness mode) that shows
players how many calories they have burned based on their weight,
the time spent playing, and the exertion required for each song.
A study of young adults who play DDR, ages 18 to 27, found that
they played for the following reasons, in descending order of importance
to them, on average: to have fun, play with other people, work out,
dance, meet other people who play DDR, enjoy the challenge of the
game, and be admired by others for their skill (Lieberman, in preparation).
Study participants who said they played DDR to stay fit reported
the highest enjoyment of the game, compared to other players, and
they developed more friendships with other DDR players.
Study participants who played only the arcade version of DDR reported
playing 4 hours per week, on average, and those who played both
the console and arcade versions of DDR said they played an average
of 7.4 hours per week (5.6 hours with the console version and 1.8
hours with the arcade version). Arcade players reported spending
$22.00 per week, on average. None of the participants said they
played the console version exclusively. They either played the arcade
version exclusively or they played both the console and arcade versions.
Some lively communities have formed around dance video games, supported
by message boards and fan web sites (Vicchrilli, 2005). For example,
the DDR fan site DDR Freak offers online forums (http://www.ddrfreak.com/phpBB2/)
and chat. Konami’s message boards (http://www.konami.com/main/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi)
and RedOctane’s message boards (http://www.inthegroove.com/page/Community)
are also very active. High schools are forming DDR clubs and college
students are holding DDR meet-ups and tournaments.
Exergame formats that do not use a dance pad are gaining popularity,
most notably the EyeToy, which has a workout game called EyeToy:
Kinetic. EyeToy games use a camera pointed at the player, which
inserts the player’s image into the screen and into a virtual
game environment. The interface is the player’s physical movement,
which is sensed by the game via the camera. A full-vision lens captures
the player’s image from head to toe, so that all body movements
are detected. EyeToy: Kinetic offers a variety of workouts, ranging
from combat, in which players kick and punch images of falling objects;
to active cardio exercises, gym workouts, and karate moves; to toning
exercises, yoga, and tai-chi. A virtual trainer moves the player
through a 12-week fitness program that becomes increasingly challenging
over time, and the player’s progress can be saved and reviewed.
Yourself!Fitness is a console-based exercise program that uses
a social interface – a virtual trainer named Maya –
to guide the user in daily workouts, and it keeps a record of the
user’s progress. The user can customize the workouts based
on individual abilities and interests, and the system adjusts the
content and difficulty of each workout depending on the mood and
energy level reported by the user each day. A few elements of video-game
play have been used in Yourself!Fitness, where the program sets
goals for the user and then provides rewards. For example, after
reaching a specific fitness goal the player is allowed to add new
background music as a reward. However, this program is not a game,
primarily; it is a fitness tool.
Aerobic workout and weight loss effects
A study with 22 overweight and normal weight children ages 11-17
found that DDR increases players’ heart rates so that they
obtain an aerobic workout and gain cardio-physiological benefits,
even at the easiest levels of the game (Unnithan et al., 2005).
The study used a console version of DDR and found that all children
in the study raised their heart rate within the range for developing
and maintaining cardio-respiratory fitness. The overweight children
expended more energy to play than did normal weight children, but
all raised their heart rate enough to reach an effective aerobic
workout level. Another study looked at the exercise intensity of
playing DDR at a medium level of difficulty and found that it met
official standards for developing and maintaining cardio-respiratory
fitness in an active and aerobically fit population (Tan et al.
2002). A third study, with 35 adolescents in Pennsylvania, found
that DDR raised participants’ heart rates to double their
resting level during a 45-minute period, on average, and this is
evidence that playing DDR playing can achieve and sustain an aerobic
exercise effect throughout a workout period (Hindery, 2005).
The benefits of physical activity are well documented, and include
cardio-vascular health, better weight management, reduction of anxiety
and stress, improved sensory-motor learning, and improved cognitive
alertness and performance (Shasek, 2005).
There is growing evidence that frequent exergame use helps people
stay fit and manage their weight. For the most part, the evidence
is anecdotal, but clinical studies are underway across the US to
identify fitness and weight management benefits over time (see Barker,
2005; Konami press release, 2006) and some studies have reported
results (see studies, discussed in the next section below). Many
fan web sites provide personal testimonials from players who have
lost weight. For example, see Barker, 2005, Hindery, 2005; Kresge,
2005, and testimonials on http://www.getupmove.com/,
where people say they have lost weight, even as much as 50 to 100
pounds, with the help of exergames. Some overweight youngsters and
adults claim that they were not able to exercise regularly or sustain
their motivation to exercise until they started using exergames.
Implementation in healthcare, schools, workplaces, and fitness
A few health plans are making exergames available to their members
in clinical settings, and feasibility studies have been done with
various target groups. For example, EyeToy games were tested with
healthy young adults, healthy older adults, and adult stroke patients
(Rand et al., 2004). All three groups reported ease of use and enjoyment
of the games, and expressed interest in playing again in the future.
The stroke patients were frustrated when they were unable to interact
with the games’ images with their weaker hand or when they
could not reach out far enough to interact with the entire screen
and needed help from a physical therapist; however they still expressed
interest in playing again and they saw that the games could make
a positive contribution to their therapy. The EyeToy was fun and
beneficial for all participants in the study except for the most
acute stroke patients who were too severely disabled to play. The
authors hope that simplified versions of EyeToy and other virtual
environment exergames will be produced especially for low functioning
patients to use in physical therapy.
The West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency funded research
to determine whether use of DDR will reduce healthcare insurance
costs for its 215,000 members. Other funders of the research include
the West Virginia Department of Education, Konami Digital Entertainment,
Mountaineer Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Accordia Insurance Company.
One of the studies they funded investigated the health and fitness
outcomes of young people who played DDR at home for six months.
Another study identified the impacts of the game on students in
20 West Virginia schools that used DDR in physical education and
health classes, and found that some of the youngsters lost five
to ten pounds after playing the game every day during the first
few weeks (Barker, 2005; Konami press release, 2006). A third study
with 35 overweight children ages 7 to 12 found that playing DDR
at least five times a week led to the children feeling more coordinated,
less winded, and less self-conscious. They developed stronger self-esteem,
on average, improved their aerobic fitness, and reduced their chances
for developing diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes
and heart disease. Study participants’ parents reported that
most of the children stopped gaining their typical three or four
pounds a month and, with increased self-confidence, started exercising
and playing sports regularly in daily life (Brubaker, 2006). Based
on the positive results of these studies, the state of West Virginia
now plans to use DDR in all of its 765 public schools and is developing
a school-based DDR curriculum.
DDR and In the Groove are being used during physical education
classes, recess, lunchtimes, and after school in many other school
districts in the US, and students, teachers, and parents are very
pleased with the results (Barker, 2005; Hindery, 2005; Shasek, 2004).
Teachers report that a single gaming unit in the classroom can benefit
the entire class, because students are happy to follow the footwork
on dance pads that are not connected to the console, while they
watch a student play the game.
A five-month study in an Oregon elementary school found that 120
third- and fourth-graders who played In The Groove improved in self
concepts, social success, and academic performance (Sashek, 2004).
At-risk students were selected to be mentors who taught their peers
how to play the game. Throughout the school day, time was scheduled
for groups of students to play the game together, with a mentor
available to help. This extra physical activity during the school
day led to improvements in self-image, classroom behavior, social
skills, leadership skills, and teamwork; reduced student absenteeism
by more than 50 percent; and improved students’ mile run times
by an average of about 14 percent. Students reported more enthusiasm
for sports, fitness, dance, and PE class than they did before the
program began. The study’s author points to the beneficial
effects of exercise on children’s school achievement, in areas
such as sensory awareness, eye-hand coordination, attention focus,
self-esteem, social integration of children with special needs,
language development, and reading skills, and cites studies demonstrating
these effects (such as Sallis et al., 1999; Tremblay et al., 2000).
In the Groove is being used in a workplace fitness program called
Revive! The Workplace Break. It requires a video game DVD connected
to a dance pad and a TV set, and there is no need for staffing,
exercise equipment, or workout clothing. Employees can play In the
Groove and use an optional system of journaling, time-keeping, wellness
awareness, team competitions, and recognition of the highest scorers.
These tools are designed to build wellness awareness among employees
and to foster communication and collaboration. A report from RedOctane,
producer of In the Groove, cites research on the benefits of employee
fitness programs, including improvements in self-esteem, stress
reduction, energy level, and wellness; reduced absenteeism; and
increased concentration, memory, creativity, and productivity at
work (Shasek, 2005), and they expect to see similar outcomes when
employees have In the Groove available to them at work.
Several major health club chains are field testing, or are about
to install, DDR in workout rooms and aerobics classes, and hotel
chains, cruise lines, and airports have expressed interest in installing
DDR in their fitness centers and public waiting areas. In aerobics
classes the instructor dances on a pad to demonstrate the legwork.
DDR has been installed in the Kids Club area in a few of the 24
Hour Fitness health clubs in the US.
New exergames, using new styles of exertion interfaces, are in
the early stages of R&D or implementation. A few examples include
a gesture-based game called Qui Qui’s Giant Bounce (Höysniemi
et al., 2003), a virtual fitness center called Virku (Mokka et al.,
2004), a networked virtual sports game called Breakout for Two (Mueller
& Agamanolis, 2005), and other sports interfaces involving virtual
kick-boxing, hang gliding, water skiing, surfing, golf, and arm
wrestling; augmented table games of ping pong, foosball, and air
hockey; and bicycling interfaces, such as Cyclescore, Cateye Interactive
Bike, Bikeovision, and Kilowatt Neoracer.
Research is finding that exergames are highly appealing, motivating,
and fun, and they offer compelling game challenges, a chance to
perform athletically or expressively for others, and a way to meet
and interact with others in friendships and in communities. Dance
pad video games, extremely popular in homes and arcades, are the
most widely researched exergames so far and they are gaining widespread
acceptance in schools, the workplace, health clubs, and other non-recreational
settings because studies are showing that they make a very positive
contribution to players’ stress management, weight management,
fitness, and health.
Barker, A. (2005). Kids in study try to dance away weight.
Brubaker, B. (2006). Teachers join the Dance Dance Revolution:
Educators begin training to use the exercise video game. The
Dominion Post, Morgantown, West Virginia.
Hindery, R. (2005). Japanese video game helps people stay fit
and lose weight. Associated Press Worldstream.
Höysniemi, J., Hämäläinen, P., and Turkki,
L. (2003). Using peer tutoring in evaluating the usability of a
physically interactive computer game with children. Interacting
with Computers, 15(2), 141-188.
Konami press release about DDR in West Virginia Schools (2006).
DDR to Become Featured Program in All 765 West Virginia Public
Schools. http://www.konami.com/gs/newsarticle.php?id=726, accessed
Konami press release about DDR in fitness clubs (2005). DDR
To Become Featured Activity In 24 Hour Fitness Kids Clubs. http://www.konami.com/gs/newsarticle.php?id=617,
Kresge, N. (2005). Video games: The newest way to get kids moving
and dancing to their health. Riverside Press Enterprise, Riverside,
Lieberman, D.A. (in preparation). Uses, gratifications, and
health impacts of dance video games and other exergames: Fun, competition,
dance performance, social interaction, and physical activity.
Mokka, S., Vaatanen, A., Heinila, J., & Valkkynen, P. (2004).
Fitness computer game with a bodily user interface. Report
from VTT Information Technology, Tampere, Finland.
Mueller, F. & Agamanolis, S. (2005). Pervasive gaming: Sports
over a distance. Computers in Entertainment, 3(3), 1-11.
Rand, D., Kizony, R., & Weiss, P.L. (2004). Virtual reality
rehabilitation for all: Vivid GX versus Sony PlayStation II EyeToy.
Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Disability,
Virtual Reality, and Associated Technologies, Oxford, UK.
Sallis, J. F., McKenzie, T. L., Kolody, B., Lewis, M., Marshall,
S., & Rosengard, P. (1999). Effects of health-related physical
education on academic achievement: Project SPARK. Research Quarterly
for Exercise and Sport, 70, 127-134.
Sashek, J. (2004). Exerlearning: Movement, fitness, dance, and
learning. Unpublished report, RedOctane, Inc., Sunnyvale, CA.
Shasek, J. (2005). Revive! The Workplace-Break. Unpublished
report, RedOctane, Inc., Sunnyvale, CA.
Tan, B., Aziz, A.R., Chua, K., & The, K.C. (2002). Aerobic
demands of the dance simulation game. International Journal of
Sports Medicine, 23, 125-129.
Tremblay, M. S., Inman, J. W., & Willms, J. D. (2000). The
Relationship Between Physical Activity, Self-Esteem, and Academic
Achievement in 12-Year-Old Children. Pediatric Exercise Science,
Unnithan, V. B.; Houser, W.; Fernhall, B. (2005). Evaluation of
the energy cost of playing a dance simulation video game in overweight
and non-overweight children and adolescents. International Journal
of Sports Medicine, 26. 1-11.
Vicchrilli, S. (2005). Hop, jump, connect with friends: DDR:
The revolution that kept gamers on their toes is now a thriving
online community. Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City.