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Gaming :: Eat Breakfast, Drink Milk, Play Xbox

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The daily recipe for students’ health and fitness is taking ona new ingredient long thought to be a poison: video games.

GamingPlagued by one of the most overweight populaces in the country, the state of West Virginia was looking for a solution to its obesity problem that would appeal to the school-age crowd. It turned to Linda Carson, a professor at West Virginia University’s School of Physical Education. Carson recalled witnessing kids lining up in an arcade to play a fiercely kinetic video game called Dance Dance Revolution, and she suggested it as a possible remedy. So in the spring of 2004, the state partnered with the university on a research project tomeasure the effectiveness of DDR on combating childhood obesity.

In most circles, academic or otherwise, this would have seemed a most illogical, even goofy notion. According to popular wisdom, looking to a video game to correct weight gain makes as much sense aseating licorice to protect against tooth decay.

But Dance Dance Revolution doesn’t jibe with popular wisdom. It isn’t the sedentary, brain cell-gobbling narcotic generally associated with computer games. Its touchstones are coordination, stamina, and balance. DDR, which comes in versions for Xbox and PlayStation (and soon for the Wii), features a video screen and dance mat with nine tiles that light up to a driving dance beat. The object is to step on the tiles as they lightup, while watching for clues in the form of arrows that flash all over the screen.

“Dance Dance Revolution sustains the kids because of the nature of the game,” says Nidia Henderson, health promotions director of West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency. “It’s challenging, it’s high-tech, it’s easily accessible.” And, above all, it’s aerobic. Kids who would normally avoid regular exercise gravitate to DDR’s light and sound.

The state started with a clinical, at-home study of 50 children— all of whom had a body mass index above the 85th percentile, which is the threshold for being considered overweight. The initial results of the study were overwhelming. Pre- and post-testing showed, among other things, better arterial response to increased blood flow, an increase in aerobic capacity, and no weight gain. In addition, all the participants were more willing to try new activities and invite friends over to play, and weremore confident in participating in physical education classes.

After seeing the data, West Virginia’s department of education got involved and decided to implement a pilot program on 20 middle school campuses in the fall of 2004 to gauge DDR’s acceptance within the general student population. The results ofthe pilot were similarly compelling.

So impressed was the state that it mandated Dance Dance Revolution be integrated in the physical education programs of all of its middle and junior high schools, with plans to expand it into the high schools and eventually the elementary schools. The state’s gym teachers now are trained in how to use DDR and how to work it into a PE curriculum. Some schools are allowing children to play the game before and after school as a supplemental activity,and it’s also being incorporated into school dances.

If you think about it, every new thing had the fear of God put intoit at first—comic books, radio, television, movies, music.This is just something that people are slowly getting used to.
— Kate Messner, Stafford Middle School

Henderson says that West Virginia regularly consults with other states looking to follow its lead and implement the program.“The states are all very interested, but they face thesame issue we do, which is funding,” she says. “The industrial-strength dance mats are expensive.” Fortunately, for WestVirginia schools, the pilot garnered attention from KonamiDigital Entertainment, the creator of DDR, which is now supportingthe program with a $75,000 grant.

The incorporation of video games into physical education curriculum is an outgrowth of the larger trend of using gaming as a learning tool. While plenty has been written about the cognitive benefits of sedentary computer games (see“All the Right MUVEs,” September 2006, and “Game On!”January 2006), the positive effects of “movement” games suchas Dance Dance Revolution are now making themselvesknown—and those effects go beyond physical fitness.

A study by the California Department of Education found that students who did just 10 minutes of rhythmic aerobics before a standardized test performed up to 25 percent better on the test than students who received 20 minutes of test-specific tutoring. And a recent research article by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation reported that breaks for physical activity during the school day can help children to be more focused and better able to learn.

Of course, this is not a new discovery. The mind-body connection has been heralded since ancient Greece. What’s new is that schools are recognizing the link and are turning to video gaming, long considered anathema to both physical and mental vigor, to manifest it. “Most people think of games as dangerous, but if you put good stuff in them, they teach good stuff,” says Debra Lieberman, a researcher in the Institute for Social, Behavioral,and Economic Research at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and a lecturer in the communication department.

Lieberman has done extensive research in the field of educational gaming and has developed a series of health-related video games that address diabetes, smoking prevention, and asthma. The games were created for the Nintendo gaming platform and distributed free of charge to drug companies anddoctors’ offices, which then passed them on to their patients.

BYTESIZE

Nintendo created its Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus game for asthma sufferers..

“We wanted to develop confidence in children’s ability to take care of themselves and then develop good health-behavior changes,” Lieberman says. “The games were not responsible for teaching kids about the disease and how to deal with it—they already knew that. The games removed the stigmas of the conditions and helped reinforce and boost communicationabout them. It increased the social support for the kids.”

That psychological boost seemed to translate into profound physical benefits. Lieberman and her team of researchers found in clinical trials that the asthma game, for example, reduced urgent care visits by 40 percent among the 200 asthmatic children it tested, and it decreased the number of missed school days. The diabetes game resulted in a 77 percent drop in doctor visits among its school-age participants (outpatients of diabetes clinics at Stanford University Medical Center and at a Kaiser Permanente clinic), from an average of 2.5 to 0.5 visits per year, she says.

“It was learning by doing, which works well,” Lieberman says, “especially if the game is highly interactive.”

Getting FIT

About 200 schools across the country have signed up with Generation FIT (Fitness, Integration, and Training), a soup-tonuts program designed to infuse daily exercise into curriculum and counter the de-emphasizing of gym class due to budget cuts. Generation FIT uses a video dance game in the style of Dance Dance Revolution called In the Groove, as well as other interactive video games such as Guitar Hero and Tetris. To play Guitar Hero, students stand on an elevated pad and mimic the movements of a guitarist on a video screen. The game helps improve hand-eye coordination and balance—it’s not easy to stay on that pad. And this Tetris is not the familiar falling-blocks handheld unit; this game is played on the same mat used for In the Groove, and the students physically move the blocks around the mat. In addition to promoting physical fitness, the program encourages team building, leadership, and social interaction, and it intends to boost students’ selfesteem, according to program creator Judy Shasek, a veteran in education and fitness program development.

The idea behind Generation FIT is to incorporate gaming into the classroom setting, in an unpopulated area of the room, to allow kids to get up and play the games at different intervals to keep their minds focused and re-energize them throughout the school day. Schools use the games in a number of different situations, as a replacement for a traditional gym program, or simply as a reward for students getting their work done early and correctly or for having overcome a hurdle.

Shasek calls her program “learning through fitness. We train one-third of the class to be leaders and manage the use of the fitness products. Students are empowered to see the difference in their lives, and changes in academic areas begin to happen.”

Design and Conquer

A unique high school program teaches students how to create their favorite entertainment.

Many schools can boast having introduced gaming into their curricula,but how many can also boast integrating gaming creation?

Led by instructional program developer Martin Nikirk, students at Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown, MD, are game-building for credits. The school is in its third year of pilot-testing a program in which students think up, design, develop, and market a computer game over the course of one year.

“At the beginning of the program, in the students’ junior year,” says Nikirk, a teacher in Washington County Technical’s advanced computer applications completer program, “they go through the 16 components of game design,” which include concept development, interactive storytelling, writing documentation, developing characters, designing user interfaces, programming, recording audio and video, marketing, and publishing. By their senior year, the students work in teams to cover the 16 components, and by May of that year they have a living, working game to demonstrate.

To enter the two-year program at the high school, which also offers traditional coursework, students must go through a “hiring process,” including visiting the campus in their sophomore year and signing up for a half-day visit. Students who are still interested after the tour speak with a guidance counselor to determine which program is most appropriate for them.

“We have positions to fill each year, including two hardware people, one LAN [local area network] person, three programmers, three or four artists, and one or two musicians,” Nikirk says. “Each person has a role to fill, and they work as part of a team.”

At the beginning of the school year, before the students decide on what types of games to create, they look at the current best-sellers, based on data from the Entertainment Software Association, which serves companies that publish video and computer games. “We build things that sell,” Nikirk says, “so we look at what’s selling.”

In addition, rather than use a textbook, Nikirk culls his teaching material from current, industry-based journals and articles. And what he can’t find or teach himself, he invites college professors and industry professionals to teach. The innovative nature of the program has earned it the Maryland State Department of Education 2006 Outstanding Secondary Career Technology Program Award of Excellence, as well as the attention of major corporations, including Microsoft, Dell, and Gateway.

“It has been a great program so far, and colleges really love the experience the students are gaining,” he says. “The students are having a great time, also.”

Often the students chosen as leaders are those most in need of honing their social skills, Shasek says. She tells of one boy who rarely attended school, “and when he did go, he would always sleep. He was tattooed, pierced, looked different from the other kids, and was just so angry all the time. When the program was introduced at his school, he didn’t want anything to do with the dance mats. I knew that Guitar Hero helps students with ADD and ADHD and those with balance problems, because of the special pad they have to stand on, so I convinced the teacher to putthis boy in charge of Guitar Hero.”

Gaming

SOUND BODY, SOUND MIND: In one study,
students who did aerobic exercise before a test
scored better than students who received
tutoring instead.

The teacher says the move paid off instantly. “That got him coming to class,” says Julie Mann, an instructor at Success Academy, a small learning community in Redmond, OR. “He really enjoyed the game and was very proactivein getting it set up. There was an immediate change.”

In Mann’s experience, good gaming helps convince kids’ of their academic potential. “They think they can’t do it. Then they use the games and you can see them building their confidence in knowing they can do it. And that transfers into the classroom setting. I see it as a psychological thing—‘Yes, you can do this.And you can do these other things, also.’”

According to Shasek, schools that have implemented Generation FIT report an overall increase in student participation, a drop in absenteeism, and a positive change in general attitude,as well as an increase in motor skills and coordination.

“We are always trying to manage fitness and learning,” Shasek says. “When the body-brain [connection] is out of balance because of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity, students aren’t in a good learning state—their retrieval and retention of memory is poor. Interactive gaming makes a huge difference.”

The Name of the Game

Although incorporating gaming into curriculum is still considered avant garde to some, the argument against it is starting to lose relevance. As technology evolves, and games take on more sophistication and tap in to so many skill sets—and the positive research piles up—the scales are leaning so far in gaming’s favor that naysayers are beginning to seem simplyout of touch, or just plain stubborn.

Susan Haydock, gifted and talented consultant at the School District of Random Lake (WI), believes that eliciting greater acceptance of gaming from educators and parents may simply be a matter of changing the term itself, which lacks seriousness.

“I think it should be called a ‘virtual learning environment,’ not gaming,” she says. “Because this is presented as gaming, people have a visualization—a preconceived notion—of what that is. And there are some forms of games that are like tabloids, and some that are really educational. But I think ‘gaming’ is aword that has had its time and place.

“I think we are in an evolutionary process,” she adds. “Once the next generation of instructors retires, this type of teaching and learning will be the norm. Look at how life has changed with computers—shopping changed; learning at the adult levelchanged. The next step will be learning at the other levels.”

Haydock worked with students on the River City Project, a simulation gaming environment that asks players to solve a growing health crisis among the residents of a virtual town. The game puts heavy emphasis on math and science principles, and draws on project management and collaboration skills. Haydock quickly noticed a difference in the thinking process of the participating students. “The students became very innovative.They were problem-solving at a very high level.”

Kate Messner, a seventh-grade English instructor at Stafford Middle School in Plattsburgh, NY, whose students participated in the River City Project, believes the game actually plays tothe current generation’s strength at multitasking.

“One thing I found surprising was how easily the students adapted to the [game’s] complexity,” she says. “When I first previewed River City and saw all the different components… I thought it was a little overwhelming. Not so for the kids. They’re a generation of multitaskers. They do their homework in front of the computer at night with a list of MP3s in one window, an essay in a second window, and two online chats happening in another one. For them, it’s no problem to conduct research, interview residents, chat with their own teammates, and keep an eye on water samples all at the same time. It lets them learn inmany different ways.

“If you think about it, every new thing had the fear of God put into it at first— comic books, radio, television, movies, music. This is just something that people are slowly getting used to.”

:: web extra ::For more information, visit T.H.E. Journal. To learn more on the use of video games in education, enter the keyword “gaming.”

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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