The Obesity Crisis: The Risks of Gaming

Pediatric obesity rates in the United States have skyrocketed in recent decades, portending less healthy and shorter lives for children than for their parents (Olshansky et al., 2005). Although children naturally gain weight as they reach their adult stature, many now gain excessive amounts of fat rather than lean muscle mass, which places them at elevated risk for serious health problems (Maffeis, 2000). Healthy weight maintenance involves a deceptively simple energy-balance formula that is in reality difficult to achieve: children must expend as many calories as they consume to maintain a constant weight. To lose weight, children must expend more calories than they consume, an even more difficult accomplishment.

Children’s passion for playing electronic games has often been blamed for the obesity epidemic. In particular, the sedentary behavior involved in gaming can potentially lead to inadequate caloric expenditure, thereby leading to unhealthy weight gain (Vandewater & Cummings, 2008). Moreover, the content children see during gaming typically involves exposure to advertisements for foods and beverages that are high in calories and low in nutritional value, another risk factor for consuming increased quantities of these products, thereby leading to weight gain (Harris, Speers, Schwartz & Brownell, 2012).

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010), 8- to 18-year-old youth are immersed in electronic media, including gaming experiences. Of the 7 hours and 38 minutes that youth spend with media each day, 1 hour and 13 minutes is spent playing video games. Presumably, time spent with electronic media could be spent pursuing more physically active pursuits that could lead to weight maintenance or even to weight loss. Data supporting the premise that playing videogames leads to increases in weight, however, are in short supply (see Vandewater & Cummings, 2008). That is, it is not at all clear that playing fewer electronic games would lead to more physically active pursuits.

Marketers heavily rely on media to sell products to children and adolescents. The products targeted to youth are often foods and beverages that are high in calories and low in nutrients (McGinnis et al., 2006). In a comprehensive review of the extant empirical literature, a team of scholars concluded that food and beverage marketing was causally linked to increased preferences, requests, and short-term consumption of the advertised foods, and was consistent with the prediction that consuming the advertised foods would lead to obesity (McGinnis et al., 2006). The data linking exposure to food advertising and obesity, however, was correlational, not causal, because researchers cannot ethically conduct studies that intentionally cause children to become overweight or obese.

While most of the empirical research involves television advertising, the marketing influences of newer media are now being examined as well. Advergames— video games designed to sell products (Calvert, 2008)—are one example. Advergames rely on stealth marketing in which the advertised foods are placed in the game and become associated with a fun experience (Calvert, 2008). For example, in the Boulder Coaster advergame sponsored by Post Foods, the player selects a branded Flintstones avatar to ride a roller coaster in order to virtually consume Fruity Pebbles cereal.

Moore (2008) conducted a content analysis of popular food websites sponsored by food manufacturers. Ninety-seven percent of the advergames found on food websites contained references to the brand. Unlike television advertisements, however, which provide limited periods of exposure, children can play advergames for an unlimited amount of time. The creation of “sticky” websites that keep children involved for long periods of time is a major goal of this marketing technique. Motivational incentives include options that allow children to control how challenging the advergame is with multiple levels of play, and players being allowed to track their own game progress. Most products that appear in online marketing at popular children’s websites, including the advergames on these websites, are high in calories and low in nutrients (Alvy & Calvert, 2008).

Harris and colleagues (2012) found that more than 1.2 million children are exposed to food company websites each month, many of which feature advergames.

The foods marketed on these sites (e.g., sugared cereals, fast food, and candy) were low in nutritional value and high in calories. Only one website had adver- games that promoted healthy foods (i.e., fruit). Children also played advergames from these food company websites. Those who played advergames that promoted unhealthy foods subsequently consumed those foods, whereas those who played advergames that promoted healthy foods subsequently consumed healthier foods. These findings implicate advergames as an effective approach for influencing children’s consumption of healthy or unhealthy foods.

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