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Could active video games really replace real sports?

With the levels of obesity in Australian children still on the rise, it has become crucial to explore all opportunities to encourage young people to get active. For many, this means getting more involved in sport, both on and off the field, and getting less involved in sedentary activities like video games, which many health issues have been attributed to.

But can these same games actually turn this trend around? With the rise of video game consoles with the ability to track and emulate human movements, we are faced with a host of new opportunities and challenges.

Active video games can certainly help push kids in the right direction, believes Dr Lisa Barnett, an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Deakin University School of Health and Social Development. But they’re not a complete solution, she adds.

Dr Barnett is an advocate for both active video games to teach kids basic skills, and real sports for its multitude of positive health and social impacts. She has over 10 years’ experience working as a public health practitioner, and has studied active video games and how today’s kids are interacting with them in both positive and negative ways. While real sports and structured physical education programs are essential for developing children’s skills and attitudes to sports, active video games provide additional opportunities for getting them interested and involved.

So are active video games the next big thing to help develop healthy Australian kids?

The benefits of active video games

Dr Barnett says research has found that children who play active video games had an improved perception of their skills when participating in real life sports. This improved perception and self-confidence can heavily contribute to a child’s willingness to become involved in sporting activities and experience their inherent health benefits. If children grow up being willing to participate and enjoy sports, they are more likely to continue this positive attitude in their adult lives.

Another benefit Barnett notes is that kids may find this confidence through video games by learning important aspects of sports, like rules and scoring systems, which are often daunting and complicated to learn.

Video games provide a perceived safer and more relaxed environment for kids to learn these skills in the comfort of their own homes. Barnett also acknowledges the possibility that social skills can be learned from games as more and more users play online and interact with other players which helps them build teamwork and relationship skills.

The challenges of real-world application

While active video games can teach kids the basics of sport, real sports are complex activities that require a combination of physical skill and understanding to play.

Dr Barnett says although evidence shows gaming experiences motivate children to try real world sports, the complexity of sport can become problematic for some children as they find the physical challenges too much when applied in the real world. Children often become very overwhelmed and instead, they go back to being comfortable with simply playing active video games.

To counter this, sporting experiences need to be well structured and supported so that students have many opportunities to master the small skills required before combining each element into a full sport. Dr Barnett suggests that video-game-based intervention for sedentary children may require an explicit bridging program between their video gameplay and real sport play so that their expectations can be managed and skills developed with adult assistance.

Looking ahead

So should active video games be at the forefront of children’s physical education? ‘Playing electronic sports games might be fun, but it is not a replacement for ‘real’ sport,’ Dr Barnett says.

And should we be using them in physical education lessons? Dr Barnett continues, ‘It shouldn’t go in that direction. I wouldn’t want to underestimate the role of proper PE program and a good school sports program.’

Interested in learning more about health trends? Find out more about your study options in health sciences and allied health at Deakin.

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Dr Lisa Barnett
Dr Lisa Barnett

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

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