Dance Games and Other Exergames:
What the Research Says

Debra A. Lieberman, April, 2006

University of California, Santa Barbara
http://www.comm.ucsb.edu/lieberman_flash.htm

 

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 clubs

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.


Future directions

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.


References

Barker, A. (2005). Kids in study try to dance away weight. Associated Press.

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 4-7-06.

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, accessed 4-7-06.

Kresge, N. (2005). Video games: The newest way to get kids moving and dancing to their health. Riverside Press Enterprise, Riverside, CA.

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, 12, 312-324.

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.