Electronic Game Changers for the Obesity Crisis



Learning through game play has been recognized as an important and enduring way to teach by scholars as eminent as Plato. Children have always enjoyed and learned through game play, and technological advances have added electronic games to their recreational options. Attitudes by scholars and parents toward contemporary electronic games, however, have been mixed (e.g., Rideout & Hamel, 2006; Greenfield, 1993). A case in point is the role of electronic gaming in the obesity crisis, in which U.S. obesity rates have tripled over the past 30 years (McGinnis, Gootman & Kraak, 2006). On the one hand, gaming has generally been viewed as a negative factor in the childhood obesity epidemic, due to the plausible contribution of gaming to increased sedentary behaviors and poor eating habits (Vandewater & Cummings, 2008). On the other hand, gaming can also offer the potential for healthy weight outcomes (e.g., Calvert, Staiano & Bond, 2013).

In this chapter, we explore the negative and the positive effects of electronic games in relation to the childhood obesity crisis. We focus on the role of electronic games in terms of energy balance, the concept that calories consumed must be equal to the calories expended in order to maintain weight (Koplan, Liverman & Kraak, 2005). Time spent playing electronic games may, in fact, contribute to both sides of the energy balance equation.

We begin with a discussion of the properties of electronic gaming that enhance young players’ motivations and interests, and then we focus on obesity as a specific topic of concern for gaming. Next we turn to the theories that describe and explain how game play can disrupt or improve child and adolescent health. We describe research investigating how healthy messages in games can be transferred from the virtual world to the actual world and then how electronic game play can result in energy expenditure. We end with conclusions about the skills learned during video game play and how those skills may transfer to academic settings, and we lay out recommendations for a future research agenda to explore this potential.

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