Exergaming Enters a New Realm
Finding inspirationEvery artist needs a muse, and while every exergaming tournament doesn't need inspiration, it sure helps. The Olympics inspired XRtainment Zone's, Redmond, Calif., annual XRGames Olympics. It attracted more than 60 kids to compete in events like GameBike races, virtual snowboarding, a Dance Dance Revolution dance off, and the SuperXRGame "pentathlon," comprised of five exergaming events. Winners in each event received trophies and all participants were entered in a raffle for prizes.
"In the few tournaments we've seen here, we've noticed a very interesting phenomena with those who enter," says Ernie Medina Jr., CEO and co-founder of XRtainment Zone. "Whenever we announce a tournament, the kids now have a new and exciting goal to train for. And train they do, just like any other kid in a traditional sport." Of course, the key to exergaming's success is that it attracts people who aren't necessarily good at traditional sports. Technology attracts a different demographic — one that typically avoids athletics and any form of competition that doesn't involve their thumbs.
Tournaments keep interest highTechnology may be the path to reaching this new market, but, like every other fitness tool, it's not a silver bullet. It may be the most exciting trend to hit fitness facilities in years, but even exergaming gets old. "This may come as a shock to those who aren't doing exergaming on a day-to-day basis, but the newness of exergaming actually does wear off," says Medina.
"It seems to be common knowledge that children do get bored regardless of an activity if it is just the same thing day after day," agrees Lisa Hansen, co-director, XRKade Research Lab at the University of South Florida, Tampa. "We all get bored, yet adults can persevere through things based on the outcomes they know they need or want to receive. Children play games or play in general because it is enjoyable and intrinsically motivating — not because they will lose weight or improve health status. Therefore, when a game gets boring, they stop playing. That is why the video game industry is booming — they play, play, play and then buy, buy, buy more games."
Medina agrees: "Unless you get new games in, kids can actually get bored." That approach to buoying interest in exergaming can get expensive, and it's doubtful that it would be a long-term solution to the inevitable boredom. "The challenge is this: How do we keep our members engaged, since they aren't going to reach their health outcome by playing on the GameBike for a month or two?" says Medina.
Hansen believes the answer lies in careful application of two factors: competition and education. "Knowing how to implement the games and have various classes, competitions, parties, etc., is the key," she says. "Programming in fitness clubs and curriculum in educational facilities is the key." Exergaming tournaments are the cornerstone of exergaming programming. They attract a large number of participants, and have a high level of excitement that is easy to maintain because a tournament is finite and takes place over a short period of time.
Medina is a firm supporter of tournaments, and has a lot of experience hosting them at XRtainment Zone. "I believe that tournaments offer something that will keep [kids] 'hooked' into exergaming for the long haul," he says. "Sure, there are those few who will do the exergame for the pure joy of it, or to better their personal record, but the majority of kids aren't so intrinsically motivated, and need some form of extrinsic motivation to keep them going."
CompetitionThere are some potential pitfalls to hosting exergaming tournaments. One of these is focusing on the competitive aspect of the tournament. "Tournaments imply competitiveness, with inherent winners and losers," says David L. James, MSc., president and CEO of FUZE Fit For a Kid!, Los Gatos, Calif. "I oppose this, with respect to youth, unless there are clear expectations and values that can wrap the tournament in an envelope of fun without prejudice."
"A lot of people don't like competition, but the reality is, healthy competition keeps things interesting, keeps people motivated and adds that extra push to keep people doing things that they might not want to be doing," says Medina. "Healthy competition can give us that extra drive to do what we know we should be doing anyway." Competition is part of every tournament, and fostering an atmosphere of healthy competition is complicated, but essential.
Many children who would be attracted to an exergaming tournament are already good at video games, but have little experience with physical activity. Alienation — rather than a new interest in fitness — is a possible outcome. "Kids — particularly kids who may already be in the midst of behavioral or weight-management issues (and, hence, the ones we want to get moving constructively) — often do [not] have ... the ability to handle the 'competition,' where ... there are winners and losers," James says.
"When children experience success when moving their bodies, they will be more likely to voluntarily engage in it again," says Hansen. Being on the losing end of a game can have the opposite effect. "Unfortunately, too many times, we force them to play or exercise inappropriately (making them compete, making them play a game where they lack the motor skills, etc.) and they do not enjoy the experience. Whether it be the lack of competence with the skill of the game or fear of failure when competing, the negative experience turns them off from being active."
One possible solution, says James, is to focus less on competition and more on team building. "It is ... our responsibility to create games that reduce the very nature of competition and channel it into teamwork, personal success, achievement [and] goal-orientation. [That way,] we create an inclusive environment that does not, from the outset, eliminate the very audience we are largely aiming to help," he says. "I especially like the potential for family based programming (i.e., mom and son vs. father and daughter) or [a] neighborhood ... group vs. a second neighborhood."
Player supportAnother challenge to hosting an exergaming tournament is staffing it correctly. James points out that there is a high need for player support in an exergaming tournament, which may involve players who are not experienced athletes. "Kids who are [engaged in an exergaming tournament] for motivation, inspiration, fun and outcomes largely often do not have it," he says. "As technology envelopes us every day and we embrace exergaming's positive attributes, we need to recall that we are not simply operators of the latest and greatest (and expensive!) equipment," says James. "At the core, we are coaches, mentors, teachers and, ultimately, leaders whose custodial responsibility is helping kids and teens develop and hold onto a healthy lifestyle. How we get there is up to us, and we have many, many tools at our disposal."
Tools for the futureWhen done correctly and with consideration for participants' unique needs, exergaming tournaments can help technology become one of the most powerful tools available to the fitness industry. "One day, exergaming will have its own leagues and tournaments. Kids from all walks of life will be training at home, in their schools, rec centers and in businesses," Medina predicts. In fact, plans are currently in the works for the formation of the World XRGaming League, with its first international exergaming tournament to be held sometime this fall. "The overweight kid who hates PE and regular sports might just see himself as a 'virtual athlete' or an 'XRGaming athlete' because he loves video games and will enter the local tournaments," says Medina. The era of the technological athlete isn't here yet, but it may be soon, thanks to conscientious and motivated fitness facilities dedicated to taking the "virtual" out of "virtual reality."
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Ithaca College Athletics and Events Center