Student Well-Being

Dance Video Games Hit the Floor in Schools

By Rhea R. Borja — February 07, 2006 5 min read
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Listen to the beat. Watch the television screen. Now, boogie to the left and boogie to the right. Repeat a few thousand times.

More students are shaking their booties—and getting fit—in school with the help of the video game series Dance Dance Revolution and similar games.

Instead of punching buttons with their thumbs or maneuvering a joystick, students are jumping, stepping, spinning, and rocking on a sensor-lined vinyl dance pad connected to a video game console and TV blasting Top 40 or hip-hop.

In an age of rising obesity rates, the dance game is an example of how schools are using the bling-bling of technology to nudge students into a more active lifestyle, say some experts.

But others also caution that while the trend is positive overall, technology should only supplement—not replace—traditional physical activity, such as running, aerobics, and other sports.

West Virginia, which has the third-highest obesity rate in the nation, is rolling out the software and equipment for DDR, as it’s called, to 100 schools by the end of this school year, and plans to have the video game in all 765 public schools by 2007. The game is also used in the state’s nine juvenile-detention centers.

Schools in California, Indiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania have student DDR clubs, and teachers often supplement the game with heart-rate monitors, pedometers, and other technology to track physical fitness.

Other software and video games such as ParaParaParadise, a game popular in Japan that uses hand and eye sensors, are just on the horizon for education.

“Children are very high-tech,” said Nidia Henderson, the health-promotions manager of West Virginia’s Public Employee Insurance Agency. “While we very much appreciate the recommendations of health authorities to throw out the TVs and the video games, it’s technology that appeals to today’s kids.”

Super-Size Nation

The state insurance agency is one of several partners in the $500,000, three-year DDR initiative in West Virginia, which also has an advertising campaign promoting activity. One billboard, for example, cautions: “BIGGIE FRIES = BIGGIE THIGHS!”

Other partners are the state education department, Mountain State Blue Cross Blue Shield, West Virginia University in Morgantown, and Konami Corp., a Redwood City, Calif.-based electronic-game company that manufactures DDR software and equipment.

Preliminary results of a two-year pilot study on the effects of DDR on 80 West Virginia students show encouraging results in cardiovascular performance, said Emily S. Murphy, a researcher in the Human Performance Lab of West Virginia University, which is conducting the research.

The students, ages 7 to 12, play DDR at least five days a week for 30 minutes or more and track their steps with a pedometer.

“They’re loving it,” she said of the students in the pilot study, called Games for Health. “The parents say their kids’ self-esteem and coordination are better. They’re also more willing to do other [physical] activities as a result.”

At the 750-student Taylor County Middle School in Grafton, W.Va., students can play DDR before and after school, and the line to dance to the one- to five-minute songs are often eight to 12 students deep, said Rod F. Auvil, a physical education teacher at the school.

Taylor County Middle is an early adopter of the technology, having used DDR for almost two years.

Since then, the average drop in the percentage of body fat in 5th and 6th graders has been 2.1 percent, or roughly three to eight pounds, he said.

It’s no secret that Americans are getting fatter. The rate of overweight teenagers more than tripled— from 5 percent to 16 percent—from 1982 to 2002, according to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of overweight 6- to 12-year-olds more than doubled in that same period.

Public concern over rising childhood obesity has pushed more states to action. Last year, 18 states passed legislation on physical activity, recess, or physical education policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Denver.

While obesity is a problem, schools should focus on teaching children how to integrate physical activity and better nutrition in their lives, not just use short-term solutions such as DDR or other technology, say experts such as Gail Woodward-Lopez, the associate director for the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

“[DDR] isn’t some sort of silver bullet,” she said. “We shouldn’t be distracted from those more fundamental and long-term efforts to create communities where children can be physically active and can eat well.”

‘Basic’ to ‘Maniac’

Here’s how the dance game works: A player stands on a vinyl or metal-based pad with four arrows pointing up, down, right, and left. When the game begins, the music starts and colored arrows scroll up from the bottom of the television screen.

When the colored arrows pass over a set of transparent arrows in the middle of the screen, usually to the beat of the song, a player must step on the corresponding arrow on the dance pad.

Sound difficult? Wait until you play the game. The levels of ability range from “basic” to “maniac.”

The game’s challenge is what attracts students, say experts such as Dr. Deborah J. Rhea, a kinesiology professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth.

She is revamping the physical education curriculum of the 80,000-student Fort Worth school district and has put DDR and a similar video game, GeoMotion, in place in 26 middle schools and 16 high schools.

“We can’t keep the boys and girls off of it,” she said.

DDR started as an arcade game in 1998 and has a cult-like following in Europe, Japan, Korea, and the United States. In Norway, it has even been registered as an official sport. The game has become so popular that enthusiasts, mostly teenagers and young adults, can show off their moves in competitions.

Electronic-entertainment companies such as Konami Corp., which created DDR, and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based RedOctane Inc., introduced the video-dance games for consoles such as PlayStation2, Xbox, and GameCube several years ago.

Since then, sales have been brisk. Konami doubled the number of DDR units sold in the United States last year, from 1.5 million to more than 3 million, according to a company spokesman.

Joseph C. Gallo, a physical education teacher at Edgewood Elementary School in Yardley, Pa., is “anti-video game,” but says that his students have gotten in better shape and are more active since he integrated DDR, along with heart-rate monitors, into his classes two years ago.

“You would be hard-pressed to get a kid to run for five minutes,” he said. “But you can get them to dance.”

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