The Secret Weapon to Get Kids Fit

Here’s a conundrum:

  1. Games are fun.
  2. Kids like games. Especially computer games.
  3. Many parents think their kids should be more physically active.

So why don’t we have more games that get kids moving?.

Combining kids’ love of games with their parents love of keeping their kids healthy seems like the perfect opportunity to do good and to make money — and yet we still don’t have ‘Fitbit for kids’. Is this like the proverbial dollar on the sidewalk that no-one’s picked up yet, or is there something more fundamental that stands in the way of kids’ fitness games and gadgets?

According to the CDC, obesity has more than doubled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents, over the past 30 years. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Jimmy Fallon is concerned about getting kids more physically active and eating more healthily. There are few out there who don’t realise this is a major challenge — and thankfully, there are some signs of improvement.

In the modern world of fast food, sugary drinks, and the lack of sports facilities in many areas, there are no easy solutions to improving kids’ fitness — but new ideas like fitness games might help reach kids who aren’t otherwise already engaged. In a perfect world, we could design fitness games that are as accessible and compelling and fun as playing on a smartphone or console.

These games might not be needed for kids who already play a lot of sports, but they could provide a valuable way to reach those who don’t. Kids who already enjoy playing sports don’t need this kind of encouragement, but all kids don’t have access to physical activities they enjoy. I didn’t enjoy our mandatory cross-country and rugby outings at school — but when I was allowed to play sports that I actually enjoyed, like football and badminton, I became fitter.

From Dance Dance Revolution to the Leapband, many people have already tried to tackle this problem. But why have so few succeeded in making a lasting impact?

At Six to Start, we’ve made several very successful digital fitness games like Zombies, Run!, The Walk (both co-created with Naomi Alderman), 7 Minute Superhero Workout, and Step Buy Step: A Pedometer Adventure, but these are best suited for teens and older — for those with the agency and motivation to perform solo exercises like running and walking and bodyweight routines.

Things are very different for toddlers, children, pre-teens, and teens. For example:

  • Adult supervision is often required
  • Team sports and playground games are generally favored as they also help promote social interaction skills
  • Smartphones are fragile and difficult to set up, compared to a dedicated toy/gadget. However, they are getting significantly cheaper.
  • Game themes and maturity must be adjusted (we’d need to remove some of the gorier scenes in Zombies, Run! if we wanted to get pre-teens playing!)
  • Shorter attention spans, different levels of stamina and strength (obviously)

So, let’s see what’s out there for younger players:

Dance Dance Revolution

Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) is a dance game where you step on arrows in time with music. The reason DDR is one of the very best fitness games for kids and adults is because it isn’t really a fitness game at all; it’s a rhythm-matching game that mimics dancing. And while exercising can easily feel like a chore, dancing to music doesn’t.

This sets DDR apart from Wii Fit, which through its name, presentation, weight-loss goals, and most of its exercise activities, is much more associated with fitness, and thus a chore.

DDR was first released as an arcade game almost twenty years ago, in 1998, quickly making it to the Playstation with the aid of a dance mat peripheral. Schools soon realised DDR could be a fun new way of exercising, and in 2014, Konami released DDR Classroom Edition:

DDR piggybacks on our basic knowledge of dancing. The only thing you need to learn is stepping on the correct arrow at the right time. In fact, you can learn the game simply by watching someone else for a couple of minutes (it’s a surprisingly fun and social game to watch).

And yet it has surprising depth. As you increase the song difficulty, the pace of arrows increases and the patterns become more complex, requiring you to refine your ‘dancing’. The game becomes more interesting and more energetic, but the rules are still just as simple as they were before.

The point of DDR is not to burn calories, or to lose weight. It’s not even to become more co-ordinated, although all of those things will inevitably happen if you play long enough.

The point of DDR is to have fun. And that’s what makes it so good.

However. There are good reasons why kids aren’t playing DDR every day. The game comes in several parts (dance mat, console, disc), it requires users to look at a screen, it requires you to move around your furniture, and since it’s a single-player game based around a finite number of songs, when your skill plateaus, you can easily lose interest.


The Leapband, by Leapfrog

Leapfrog’s Leapband is the best kid’s fitness tracker/pedometer on the market right now — which is not saying much. As the wearer moves, they earn ‘joules’ that can be used to care for a virtual pet, Tamagotchi-style. This would be pretty dull if it required kids to go out walking, as adults do with Fitbits, but the Leapband has some cute ideas like getting kids to wiggle like a worm or march like an elephant.

Unusually for wearables, the Leapband includes a speaker, opening it up to pre-readers. It’s also similar to Nike’s Fuelband in that it attempts to measure all physical activity rather than just steps. This led to inconsistent or poor tracking for the Fuelband, although I don’t think it matters quite as much for something that is more of a toy than a ‘professional’ activity tracker.

But is it fun? I don’t know. It doesn’t look like that much fun to me, not compared to playing a ‘real’ game on a tablet, or running around at a playground. After all, you can’t really look at the Leapband while you’re moving, so you have to rely on the speaker and your imagination to make the act of moving more fun. Still, while I’m not sure whether the Leapband has lasting appeal, its good reviews on Amazon and $24.99 price mean that it barely matters.

(Note to Leapfrog: For a long time, I thought that the Leapband didn’t actually have an LCD screen. The packaging and marketing materials all made it seem like the screen was just painted on, as it is in many other kids’ toys. I imagine many parents have been similarly mislead.)

Other Activity Trackers

GeoPalz iBitz pedometer
Kidfit wristband

There are several other screenless pedometers and activity trackers for kids, many with the same conceit of looking after a virtual pet, or more generally, earning currency via movement that can be spent on ‘fun stuff’.

It’s hard to say how successful these gadgets are; unsurprisingly, sales and usage figures are scarce. But I am doubtful; they turn movement and exercise into an extrinsic goal, useful only in the service of getting something else that’s fun, rather than being fun in and of itself. And without a screen, these gadgets provide a decidedly inferior experience to the Leapband. The iBitz pedometer may have a colourful app, but a kid is hardly going to be running or jumping around while looking at (probably their parents’) smartphone.

Contrast this to the slightly more fun activity of wiggling like a worm, or a much more fun activity of actually dancing to music.

Laser Tag

NERF Lazer Tag

Anyone who’s played laser tag or paintball for a couple of hours will know precisely how tired you can get when you’re running for your life. And like DDR, it doesn’t take long to learn how to play or to have fun.

Unlike DDR, laser tag is a team game. This can make it much more exciting and social, but it also reduces the opportunities for play, since you need to assemble enough players; and the equipment is more expensive, finicky, and unreliable than other sports or even DDR.

Laser tag is also directly competitive and rewards players with greater physical fitness and dexterity (whereas DDR is perfectly playable even with lower fitness levels). In that respect, it has the same advantages and disadvantages of normal competitive sports like football and hockey — which obviously promote fitness but can also discourage those who are unfit.

Fun Gym Equipment

Touch Wall by Exergame

Exergame Fitness sells a range of gamelike gym equipment, including some designed for kids. It’s not hard to imagine that the Touch Wall could be a lot more fun than rote stretches and jumps, and that you might be motivated to beat your own high score. If you had a gym full of these things, it’d be like a supercharged fitness playground. It would also be much more expensive and require much more maintenance.

And yet there’s something very fun and easy to grasp about these games. New technology such as ultra-short throw projectors could make it much cheaper to simulate a big touch wall, but with far better graphics and interactivity.

Smartphone Games

7 Minute Superhero Workout by Six to Start (photo from @mrrobbo)

We didn’t design our 7 Minute Superhero Workout smartphone game to be used in schools. It’s a very intense workout, and it’s also designed as a single-player game that uses the device’s front-facing camera to track the player’s motion and count reps; not as a group game. Even so, we’ve seen plenty of reports of it finding success in large gym classes.

Our take is that Superhero Workout’s exciting story of saving the Earth from alien invasion while wearing an advanced battlesuit — delivered through both audio and graphics — is a hell of a lot more exciting than your typical exercise class. That shouldn’t be surprising — the game is the product of thousands of hours of design, writing, and development, whereas a lone teacher has far fewer resources.

Our latest game, Step Buy Step: A Pedometer Adventure, is much more suitable for kids, being aimed at families and only involving walking.

Of course, most kids do not own smartphones, and even if they did, they are unlikely to have the opportunity to go out and walk another 800 steps to buy a new animal companion.

It won’t be very long before smartphone-like devices cost under $50, are more robust, and much easier to set up. This will open up a whole new range of opportunities for digital fitness games for kids — but there’s a limit to what smartphones can do. They can’t reproduce the physical thrill of laser tag or DDR or a touch wall.

The Problem of ‘Fitness Games’

We’ve seen some very fun but impractically expensive pieces of hardware; some activity trackers that are cheaper but aren’t very fun; and some smartphone games that are only sort-of for kids. So that’s the state of the art right now. But is it an art worth perfecting?

Should we even be making fitness games for kids at all? I asked a friend, game designer, and mother of two girls, Andrea Phillips:

It’s like educational games. You can make a fun game that happens to be based on, say, the Oregon Trail, or that happens to have a mechanic that involves a lot of activity, like tag. But as soon as you start calling it a “fitness game” you’ve sucked the fun out of it. Is a hula-hoop a fitness gadget? No. It’s a frame that doesn’t work for children. They need toys.

“Hey kids, let’s go for a hike in the woods” is good. “Hey kids, here is a wristband, try to get 10K steps today” is not.

Soccer is a game that happens to get you fit. Geocaching is an activity that happens to involve walking and hiking. You may well encourage your child to play soccer in the hope that they’ll get fitter, but it’s safe to say that most people — kids and adults — play soccer or go geocaching because it’s fun. The same should be true for any other ‘fitness game’ that hopes to be effective over the long term.

I’d contrast Andrea’s view with that of BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk . Zeschuk’s company, Biba, creates mobile games that integrate with playground equipment made by PlayPower. Sounds awesome, right? PlayPower has said:

Getting enough active outdoor play for their kids is a problem with which most modern parents are familiar. The solution PlayPower has developed with Biba blends the technology-driven world that kids expect with the joyful outdoor fun that parents remember from their own childhood.

What is this solution? Biba explains:

Playgrounds are transformed into the wreckage of robot spacecrafts that have crashed on Earth, and players interact with their very own companion robot, which encourages the player to explore the playground through its whimsical eyes. The games marry a colourful interface intended to foster the imaginations of kids ages three-to-nine with a unique ‘embodied play’ game philosophy that encourages kids to actualise their gameplay with their bodies.

Very intriguing. But where do the mobiles come in? Where is this interface? Eurogamer says, “the focus is on “refereed play” where the parents hold the mobile devices while their children complete the tasks assigned to them.”

Hmm. Tasks. That doesn’t sound like much fun. Biba continues:

Fun and age-appropriate physical challenges are reinforced through points, high scores and badges that can be shared online and with friends.

Oh. Like Andrea says, this could quickly suck all the fun out of the game.

The Way Forward

Digital fitness games work best when they complement or address the shortcomings of existing physical fitness activities. It would be lovely if every kid out there enjoyed and practiced a sport, but the truth is that they don’t. As WebMD’s exercise tips for overweight kids suggests:

Avoid elimination games. Some games, such as dodgeball, make it too easy to be eliminated from play. “These kinds of games can make an overweight child feel self-conscious,” says Epping. “And then the child sits out for the rest of the game and doesn’t get any exercise.”

In those cases, a single-player variable-difficulty game like DDR, even with its shortcomings and expense, can help a great deal.

Digital fitness games can adjust their difficulty to the players. They can matchmake and handicap players in competitive situations, and co-ordinate and control games to keep them different and fresh (e.g. by procedurally generating levels or controlling non-player characters with AI). AI won’t be as good as other humans, but it will be there rain or shine, no matter the time or the place.

Crucially, digital fitness games shouldn’t rely on the crutch of ‘gamification’. Using scores and achievements and badges in the place of actual gameplay or intrinsic motivation often leads to an unfulfilling and ultimately short-lived experience. Exercise can and should be fun, as our Zombies, Run! co-creator Naomi Alderman put it so well.

My intuition is that, unlike adults, kids should be performing a range of physical activities in their games, rather than just one (e.g. running). That calls for a range of different fitness games or gadgets, or perhaps one highly versatile gadget/game (e.g. a ball) with multiple modes. And if we’re wishing for things, a game that could scale from just a single player or two players to multiple teams would be ideal.

A good fitness game would be easy to pick up, but difficult to master. Soccer is a perfect exemplar of this — the rules are simple, the physical co-ordination required is low (as compared to, say, baseball); and yet one can play it for years. We aren’t likely to hit on a digital fitness game as good as soccer for some time, but it’s a nice target to have.

The good news is that all the technology required is already available. The sort of gadget we’re talking about here is likely to use accelerometers, gyros, Bluetooth, among other sensors. Thanks to the smartphone dividend, these are all very cheap to obtain. Retail cost should be on par with a couple of Nerf guns.

The real challenge lies in the marriage of game design expertise with logistics, manufacturing, marketing, and sales expertise— an unusual set of talents. It also requires quite a bit of cash and time.

It’s a massive challenge, but the opportunity is also massive — it could make a lot of money, improve health and fitness, and make millions of children happy.

Thanks to Matt Wieteska for his input on this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s