New ‘Active Gaming’ Doesn’t Change Reality of Couch-Bound Stereotype; also, ‘Brain Games’ Doesn’t Work

There are a number of stereotypes surrounding gamers: such as that of the male anti-social, under-hygenic basement dweller toiling away the hours on Dungeons & Dragons fantasy games; or the ultraviolent shooter player who is a bit ‘off’, also an outsider, one round of Doom/Halo/Call of Duty from wiping out his high school/college/post office; and even in the more enlightened recent years there is the image of a few somewhat unkempt and overweight friends on a couch (or couches in different locations connected by the internet) playing a bunch of games.

If you look at the LAST console generation – PS2 and XBOX in particular – you see a continuation of previous trends of console gaming: one or two players for most games (occasionally up to four) sitting together playing the same basic games but at better resolutions with cooler sounds and graphics. The XBOX wasn’t the first console with online multiplayer, but it streamlined and popularized it to a greater extent than ever before. Jumping into this console generation in late 2005 with the XBOX360 and things were only slightly evolving – better graphics and a greater focus on online multiplayer, but otherwise very much the same as before.

And then the Nintendo Wii arrived. Rather than sit on the couch mashing buttons, the Wii used motion sensing controllers that meant that to play a bowling game you were emulating bowling moves, and in the very popular Just Dance games you were rewarded for matching high energy dance moves. Immediately there was a move to integrate these devices in schools (where some had been using Dance Dance Revolution as a workout helper), senior centers and so on. The move to ‘active gaming’ was on.

In our house we have a Wii (amongst others)! and my wife regularly uses the Wii, Wii Fit balance board and one of several fitness ‘games’ to augment her workout routine. Things like EA Sports Active really seek to get you moving and track your progress. Active Gaming has seen explosive growth, to the point that both Microsoft and Sony put out similar systems – well, Microsoft has the controller-free Kinect, but Sony’s system is a generic Wii knock-off. In general sales of hardware and games have been solid.

But what if we found out that one of the core drivers – creating generations of healthier kids through active gaming – simply wasn’t working? That is the outcome of a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics reported at the NY Times, and I provide a generous quote that sums up the important parts:

Previous studies have shown that adults and children who play active video games, when encouraged in an ideal laboratory setting, engage in moderate, even vigorous physical activity briefly. The Baylor team wanted to determine what happened when the games were used not in a laboratory, but in actual homes.

The participants in this study were children 9 to 12 years old who had a body mass index above the median and whose households did not already have a video game console. Each was given a Wii. Half were randomly assigned to a group that could choose two among the five most physically demanding games that could be found: Active Life: Extreme Challenge; EA Sports Active; Dance Dance Revolution; Wii Fit Plus; and Wii Sports. The other half could choose among the most popular games that are played passively, like Disney Sing It: Pop Hits and Madden NFL 10.

The participants agreed to wear accelerometers periodically to measure physical activity over the 13-week experiment. To observe how well the intrinsic appeal of active games changed children’s behavior, the researchers distributed the consoles and games without exhortations to exercise frequently.

They found “no evidence that children receiving the active video games were more active in general, or at any time, than children receiving the inactive video games.”

How is it possible that children who play active video games do not emerge well ahead in physical activity? One of the authors of the Pediatrics article, Anthony Barnett, an exercise physiologist who is a consultant at the University of Hong Kong, explains that the phenomenon is well known in the field.

“When you prescribe increased physical activity, overall activity remains the same because the subjects compensate by reducing other physical activities during the day,” he says.

The bottom line when it comes to raising activity? First, it is very difficult. But second, “live sports” — the kind that are outside of the home, without controllers and television monitors — “remain the gold standard to get cardiovascular benefit.”

Of course, with anything the key is sustained effort – the best equipment is worthless if it sits in a closet or under a bed. So when the study talks about how a “major finding was the dramatic drop in daily use after the first six weeks,” I wonder how that would compare with New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or new exercise equipment purchases?

In the end it comes down to this: video games in and of themselves cannot motivate a child to become more active. At best they can be a fun way to augment an already active lifestyle.

No Gain for your Brain

While I am riding high on the ‘good news train’, remember all of those very popular ‘brain training’ games made popular on the Nintendo DS? Well … apparently THEY don’t work either. Here is a quote from the study, referencing the 2008 study claiming that these types of games DID work (and leading to an explosion in their popularity):

SP: But you claim the study has major flaws?

DZH: If you find that people get better in one test of reasoning it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re smart, it means that they’re better on one test of reasoning. You can’t measure fluid intelligence with any single test, it’s measured with multiple tests.

SP: And the other flaw?

DZH: There were some pretty striking differences between the control group and the training groups. The control group who received no training, went home and did whatever. But the training groups, on the other hand, came in regularly for training. This raises possibility of motivation being an explanation: They wanted to do well in the experiment.

Another important point is that there were procedural differences across these training groups that really complicate interpretation of the results, and in particular the claim that more training equals more gain. These procedural differences were not reported in the Jaeggi article. We found out about them in Jaeggi’s unpublished dissertation, and through follow-up emails to Jaeggi.

Given my current day job has me designing and analyzing complex experiments, I am very sensitive to these ‘procedural differences’. When dealing with equipment and processes it can be that one piece of equipment requires a different input amperage than another, or a different operating temperature. These things seem trivial but can produce misleading results.

The article highlights how the control and study groups were treated very differently, to the point that there is little doubt that the attention paid becomes a secondary factor influencing the outcome. As I have done many times in the past, these authors noted the deficiencies in the original study and sought to replicate the results in a better controlled experiment. Here is what they said:

So, we set out to replicate the findings, correcting all of these problems. We had subjects complete not one but eight tests of fluid intelligence. We then assigned them to a training group in which they received 20 sessions of training in Jaeggi’s dual n-back task or to one of two control conditions. The “no-contact” control condition was the same as Jaeggi’s control condition. By contrast, in the “active-control” condition, subjects were trained in a task that we designed to be as demanding as dual n-back without tapping working memory capacity. Finally, we had all subjects perform different versions of the eight intelligence tests half way through training and at the end.

And what did we find? Zip. There wasn’t much more than a hint of the pattern of results that Jaeggi reported in any of the eight intelligence tests, and nothing in the predicted direction that even approached statistical significance. If you someone were to ask me to estimate how much 20 sessions of training in dual n-back tasks improves fluid intelligence, I’d say zero.

One of the important things discussed in the SmartPlanet article (definitely worth a read) is that the basics of these ‘brain games’ claim to impact ‘fluid intelligence’ but really focus on singular rote task accomplishment.

As an analogy, we went on vacation a couple of weeks ago and bought our Norfolk Terriers. As terriers, they tend to lead with their noses and love to explore. On past vacations we have used extended tie-outs, but really didn’t want to do that as we have an ‘invisible fence’ at home. We got ‘training collars’, took them to the local field and worked with them for a few nights. They quickly learned the boundaries, and so when we went on vacation and put on those collars, they were already alert for our motions and indications of boundaries.

Did we make them more intelligent, or simply train them for specific behavior/outcome situations? I would argue that we did the latter – and that is exactly what the authors of the study say about the brain training games. And what the authors further state is that while fluid intelligence is not easily improved, our desire to improve our intelligence can lead us to read, study, play training games, engage in debates and other things that will end up having a profound impact on our day to day effectiveness at making decisions and assessing situations.

And while that might not turn us all into super-geniuses … it is better than ending up fat and lethargic sitting on the couch as a failed product of the Active Gaming craze.

Categories: Editorials, Gaming

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