Video games are making children fat.
No, it’s not necessarily true but it’s the sort of soundbite that the papers will lap up. It’s a snappy, headline-friendly argument. There’s a moderate logic to the statement. It attacks a popular genre. It gives parents a scapegoat. The fact that it seems to contradict previous knee-jerk reactions to gaming – they’re making us violent which, er, surely involves some fairly lively activity? – isn’t important right now.
Just last week, First Lady Michelle Obama joined the debate as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign, an initiative to reduce child obesity across the US. The “Apps for Healthy Kids Challenge” is challenging software developers to create active games or games that help educate children about what foods are good for them and which are likely to make them lardy. There are thousands of dollars of prize money available for this new challenge, not to mention, one assumes, the revenue coming from game sales.
On the plus side, Michelle Obama does acknowledge that her entire campaign will only work if parents get involved. Parents, she explained, have “to live in a way that gives [children] a model to follow”. On the downside, she appears to be finding a scapegoat for the USA’s obesity problem in a sector that doesn’t have as powerful a lobby as, ooh, for example, McDonalds. Purveyors of insanely cheap, farmer-screwing, lard based products are, one assumes, too powerful for even the First Lady to go after but games companies? Oh yes, they’re fair game.
But are they? Let’s be brutally honest here, Michelle. If you go after games as a cause of obesity, then surely you have to go after every other sedentary activity. Reading, for example: hey, that’s been around a lot longer than video games, maybe THAT’S the real issue? What about TV? Cinema? Painting? Drawing? And swings? Kids just sit in those and their parents get to push. What benefit are they?
It’s doubtful, of course, that such activities will face the wrath of angry First Ladies which is odd, when you think about it. Books and TV can certainly inspire activity and provide information on what foods are good for children and which should be best avoided. And they have. For years. Without really having an impact. Hmm, does that suggest to anyone else that perhaps – and call me a nasty old cynic because I really am – it’s the availability of lard-rich fast food that’s more of an issue?
The other irony, of course, is that video games are already becoming more active. You only have to look at our recent features on Microsoft’s Project Natal to see what’s coming and Nintendo have been doing such things for years.
Cleverly – or perhaps cynically – Nintendo have made no great health claims about the Wii: the official corporate line is that the company hopes “that it encourages users to be more physically active” but stresses that “as with any other exercise, the effect has many variables depending on the person who is working out." However, their latest development is a little more boastful about its health benefits. Ladies and gentlemen – and probably mostly gentlemen – I give you the Pokéwalker.
The Pokéwalker arrives later this month as an accessory to Pokémon: Heartgold. It is, in short, a device designed to get children more interested in exercise, a special pedometer that communicates with the DS. You store your Pokémon in the Pokéwalker, attach it to your belt. The more you walk / exercise, the more Experience points that particular Pokémon earns, and the friendlier it becomes.
It’s a great idea. From a marketing perspective, it’s easy to see this being snapped up by parents hoping to shave a few pounds off their brood. From a health perspective, it’s got more chance of success than some educational game involving shooting lettuces and carrots at invading burgers and fried chickens. Probably. It’s easy to see certain kids really getting into this. It’s doubtful they’ll be running marathons anytime soon – unless you get LOADS of experience points for that and can turn your Pokémon into some hulking, unbeatable Godzilla-type creation – but it’s a step (ho ho) in the right direction
Unfortunately, it’s also easy to see kids finding ways around it. Kids, you see, are smart. You’ve only got to play an eight-year old at Wii Tennis to see how they’ve found the short cuts and sweet spots. Two minutes into a game with my nephews and I’m a sweaty mess with pulled arm muscles while they’ve moved the controller no more than three inches at a time. Chances are dogs all around the world will be finding Pokéwalkers clipped to their collars, while a generation gets larger. Unless, of course, parents make sure the device is used properly, encourage their offspring to walk a bit and play outside and maybe feed them a bit of salad to give them some more energy and avoid warm lard on a toasted sesame bun.
Hmm. Actually, anyone would think that perhaps is more of a recipe for success than pinning the blame on video games again?