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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Weight loss and computer games Part 2

The Nintendo Wii study - marketing meets science, yet again!

If you scroll down this page, you'll see a post I did a little earlier today looking at a comparison between the Nintendo Wii computer game and an X-Box 360 game. The study found that Wii games, which are "active" and involve simulated hand and body movements by the players, burn more energy than the chosen X-Box 360 game (Project Gotham Racing). This has led to the inevitable marketing suggestion that Wii should form part of a weight loss strategy in response to concerns over childhood obesity.

In response to this post, we received a couple of great email comments noting that the selection of the X-Box game is itself a 'flaw' with the study. Both Stan and Daniel made the point that comparing Wii games to a car racing game (which is what Project Gotham is, by the way) may not be the ideal comparison. They suggested that perhaps the better comparison might be between Wii and some of the more active Playstation/X-Box games, like dancing games (which they do produce). So the choice of games, both neglecting the more active X-Box games and the more passive Wii games, represents a point of contention.

The reason for the choice - a "strategic" decision, perhaps?

Now, this is of course a valid point. I suspect that the authors (and certainly Nintendo), would argue that MOST of the X-Box games are in this category of "passive" games, but perhaps a comparison with a dancing game was required. There are a couple of other limitations, including the fact that energy expenditure was not measured directly, but rather calculated based on accelerometer data. It's not difficult to measure energy expenditure, so it is only a matter of time before this is done.

However, when you look at the choice of games, it's clearly one of the less active X-Box games compared to the more active Wii games (not all Wii games are this 'active'). Now, here at The Science of Sport, we're always alert to conflicts of interests in science - my (Ross) marketing training has made me more sensitive to this. On top of this, both of us are directly involved in perhaps the biggest conflict of interest of all - the sports drink industry, where Gatorade has its very own Sports Science Institute that funds "research" that, surprise, surprise, tells you to drink as much as you can!

So the conflict alert had been sounded from the beginning. Now, I looked at the paper specifically to find this, and I can't believe that I missed it the first time around:

Here's the thing - the study was funded by Cake, which is the MARKETING arm of Nintendo....Forgive my cynicism, but let's not all scramble to purchase Nintendo Wii as the solution to childhood obesity based on this study! Had there been no difference, I'd be willing to bet this research would not have seen the light of day. Having said this, the scientists have, to their credit, written a reasonably neutral discussion - they even make the point that the energy advantage is minimal on Wii and actually state in their paper that the "energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children".

So no problem with that - it's the use of the data by others that represents the conflict of interest. This is the eternal dilemma faced by science - funding is critical, of course, and the search for knowledge requires a question (does "active" gaming burn more energy than "passive" gaming?) But when the funder and the provider of the question are one and the same, or when the funder stands to gain from a specific answer, there's always a possible issue. This particular occasion is not the best (or worst) example of it, but it's there nevertheless.

But I wonder if the choice of games, and the study design, were not somehow 'strategically' influenced by Nintendo. It would be a shame, but as Daniel has pointed out, same old tricks recycled in another form!

One thing is for sure, it will come up in 2008 as well, and we'll hopefully be onto it!

Thanks for the comments - we love this blog and the readership we've gained because the 'dialogue' we have stimulates understanding all round!



Anonymous said...

All that's left to say is that without the initial cash injection for study by the marketing departments of the sponsors these controversial studies wouldn't come to light. And without them there wouldn't be the follow up studies that aim to improve the reliability and validity.

Great conclusion to your article by the way.

Unknown said...

I played on a Wii for the first time over this holiday break, and it was indeed a lot of fun. One thing I noticed, however, was that I was swinging my arm like a tennis racket during Wii tennis, but my (far more Wii experienced opponent) was simply flicking his wrist. He stated that this actually allowed him more fine motor control.

The experimental procedures section in the paper states "All participants regularly played sedentary computer games for at least two sessions of two hours each week and had not previously used Wii" I wonder what energy expenditure would have been like if they had been experienced Wii users - who had learned you don't actually need to move around to play if you don't want to.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Philippe

Thanks for that input! Never played Wii myself, but I've seen first-timers playing at shopping malls, and the effort is extravagant, so I can imagine how some experience will tone it down a great deal!

We'll call it "Wii economy". And just as we've done a series on running economy, in a few years, there might be enough scientific literature on computer games to do a series on "Wii economy", where scientists find that it is economy that is a crucial determinant to performance, and that regular computer gaming improves Wii economy and obviously, performance.


Anonymous said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é http://www.provedorcrescenet.com . Um abraço.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Crescenet

Thank you (I think!). Pardon my linguistic ignorance, but I understood little of your email! Anyone care to translate?


Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm Brazilian (which means Portuguese is my first language) so I could understand that CresceNet comment. It sounds just like spam (a generic "I liked your blog, please check mine out" thing). It seems that CheckNet is an internet provider (not sure if that's the right word), but I haven't checked that out...

By the way, your blog is really good and I'll try to post anyh questions as soon as my ignorance allows me... (there's still MUCH stuff I need to read here...)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Guilherme

Thanks for the translation - I needn't worry about the site then, flagrant site promotion...!

Thanks for your feedback on the blog - don't be concerned about asking questions out of ignorance. In my experience, I have always found that when I force myself to be ignorant, I ask the best questions. It's people who are convinced that they know the answers who fail to see the other possibilities! So do fire away with questions whenever you're ready!