With diminishing school budgets and the ever-present threat that childhood obesity could blossom into a full-grown epidemic, the heat is on for educators to find innovative and inexpensive ways to interest their students in physical education. And at least one savvy interactive studio is betting that its video games could meet that need – and gain some valuable in-school ground and gatekeeper approval in the process.
That studio is Konami. At an April 2005 conference for physical educators, the Redwood City, California-based company introduced the idea that its Dance Dance Revolution franchise (sales of which reached 1.2 million units in North America last year) could offer an affordable and fun way to get kids up and moving in the classroom. DDR is based on dance mimicry, so players must imitate a series of moves to music in order to rack up points. The level of difficulty increases as they progress through the game’s levels.
Besides the obvious benefits of exercise and improved hand-eye coordination, Konami pointed out that DDR could be a relatively cheap addition to any phys-ed program. As opposed to shelling out a small fortune for 25 basketballs or 25 baseball gloves, schools can use their existing TV sets, and then purchase an Xbox or PlayStation console for roughly US$149 and the game software for US$60.
Before the confab and unbeknownst to Konami, a handful of schools in West Virginia and Hawaii had started using the games to help kids come closer to reaching the 60 minutes of moderate physical activity the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends they get each day. Jason Enos, a product manager for action games at Konami, first caught wind of this development from Dr. Linda Carson, a professor at University of West Virginia’s physical education program. She’s studying the positive effects the games have on 85 obese children ages seven through 12 in her area on behalf of the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Although the study is ongoing, Dr. Carson says some early trends she’s already seeing include loss of body weight and inches, and increased blood flow through the arteries. But even more impressive is the fact that most kids who have participated so far, many of whom may have had trouble sticking to exercise programs in the past, seem to take to working out with DDR for 20 minutes five days a week quite happily.
Dr. Carson has become such a believer in the DDR program that she teamed up with Konami this April to proselytize the games’ health benefits at the American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) conference in Chicago.
Konami has also joined forces with the Kinesiology department of Pennsylvania State University to hold a forum on ‘exergaming’ – fusing physical activity with video gaming. In Penn State’s study of 30 teens ages 12 to 18, researchers found that DDR not only elevated heart rates from 100 to 160 beats per minute, but more importantly, all but two of the subjects chose to play DDR for a full 45 minutes.
Konami is now working to get the game into more schools and hopes to develop promotional partnerships to help offset the financial burden on schools that buy consoles and software. Enos is also developing a curriculum and teacher’s guide, but since this is new and potentially touchy territory for a video game company, he plans to enlist the help of educators and work closely with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. ‘Before a school greenlights appropriating funds, many of them look to NASPE to determine whether the activity has their seal of approval,’ Enos explains. He’s unsure when the curriculum will launch, but in the meantime, Konami is sending out suggestions on how to use the games in school to its contacts in time for September.