Making Exercising Part of the Game
By Anne-Marie Hickey
Young people who play online role-playing video games are often stereotyped as anti-social geeks who need more exercise and sunlight in their lives.
“You’ve got your hardcore gamers that almost take pride in the fact that they are sitting and not being physically active,” says University of Saskatchewan computer science graduate student Ian Livingston.
“This is echoed in some blogs and by game reporters that denounce physical activity games. They play games to not be active.”
Adding to the problem is that fact that studies shows a huge drop in physical activity once young people hit university.
But would gamers aged 18 to 24 increase their daily physical activity level if doing so resulted in better performance in role-playing games? Livingston spent much of his summer trying to find out.
He is part of a research team that has developed a game that is fun to play and increases physical activity of players without alienating them. The game is called Gemini because there’s a digital twin who represents the player’s real-life physical activity.
The team is led by computer science assistant professors Regan Mandryk and Kevin Stanley and funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
“This study is the first of its kind,” said Mandryk. “There have been simple studies, but none that incorporate a player’s real-world activities—such as walking, running or riding a bicycle—into a role-playing computer game.”
The team built the game using Neverwinter Nights 2, a role-playing computer game based on the popular game Dungeons & Dragons.
Participants were fitted with a sensor the size of a cell phone which they wore every day for a week to collect data about their exercise activities, such as how much time they spent outside or how far they walked.
The device sends data to a file on the team’s computer server and the information is fed into the computer game. If the player engaged in physical activity while wearing the sensor on the previous day, points are awarded to the player’s character.
Findings to date, based on eight research participants who were already familiar with massive, multi-player online games, show that the concept can be successfully incorporated into a game and there was greater user awareness of physical activity. But larger-scale experiments are needed to verify that the game can actually increase physical activity levels, said Mandryk.
“Our goal was to see if you could make a game compelling enough to change the real-world activity of players,” said Livingston. “We didn’t want to make them run laps or anything. It was about making small decisions, such as choosing the stairs instead of the elevator in order to advance your character in the game.
“So far, we are seeing players make subtle changes in their lifestyles, such as exercising outdoors or walking with a friend.”
The team hopes the research will lead to new gaming technology that would increase physical activity in otherwise sedentary people, bringing down health care bills and improving quality of life of those who are inactive.
The project could also lead to new design strategies by video game companies that spend millions of dollars on research and development.
The game was meant to be different from other exercise games such as Wii Fit. “Our goal was to make the activity in this game less obvious and in your face,” said Livingston. “We didn’t want players to feel forced to be physically active to take part, but we did want them to think about the decisions they make and perhaps modify their behaviour.”
There is no doubt that players found the game fun and engaging.
“We made the design decisions without sacrificing the fantasy that people experience when they play these games,” said Mandryk. “They can still be intense gamers.”
Livingston helped design and implement the game. Fellow student Alan Bandurka did a lot of the programming and Mohammad Hashemian programmed the sensors that collect the user activity data.
The team has already presented its research at several conferences, and hopes to publish a paper this fall. They are also working on developing an iPhone game aimed at getting kids aged eight to 12 and their families to exercise together.
Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research. for more stories of student research.
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