Gaming goes for the burn

Video games have taken heat for producing a generation of couch potatoes. But a new wave is getting kids moving again.

Video games have taken heat for producing a generation of couch potatoes. But a new wave is getting kids moving again.

Sweat isn't a typical video game byproduct. But with Konami's Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), the whole concept of video gaming has been turned on its head.

The eight-year-old music video game challenges gamers to beat one another with dance moves instead of swords or machine guns. It is so popular and effective in getting gamers off the couch that schoolchildren in West Virginia even play DDR in their PE classes as part of a statewide curriculum.

"No other video game has ever done anything like this, on this kind of scale," says Marc Franklin, DDR-maker Konami's director of communications.

Japanese game company Konami created the music game, and it took off in the Japanese arcades.

"We started noticing it would be a really good fit for it to come to the US," says Kit Ellis, Konami associate PR manager. In 1999, Konami localized the music to give it more of an American flavor, and it became an arcade hit. Fans gathered en masse and started performance groups and tournaments.

The next phase was a home version. Konami worked with partners who morphed the huge metal cabinet into a dance pad. To popularize DDR, Konami initially touted the music, dance format, and competition between players. But as more people caught on, fitness became part of the PR plan.

"Ever since the first version came out, the developers understood it was an unusual game." says Franklin. "It was physical; it was different from anything else on the market." The first home version had a workout mode, and when Konami began hearing about players losing weight playing DDR, newer versions developed that mode. It now counts calories and tweaks the game so it's more fitness-oriented.

"Now you can measure your activity dancing against other traditional sports, such as jogging or swimming, and you can... make it aggressive or easier," Franklin says.

As DDR grew, it became a top title and spearheaded the "exergames" category. Konami wasn't just taking it to its usual audience of hard-core gamers; teens, younger children, and their adult parents were now in the mix. Franklin says adults have been known to buy a console system just to play DDR.

Adds Ellis: "You are really seeing it penetrate into different segments in the market. Nobody thought a video game could be so beneficial from a health standpoint." Indeed, those children in West Virginia, a year later, reported increased levels of fitness, as well as another benefit: increased social interaction.

Dean Bender, cofounder of Bender/Helper Impact (BHI), DDR's agency, says the game's PR strategy with the media goes well beyond outreach to game reviewers. DDR was featured positively in Parenting and other lifestyle magazines as an alternative to sedentary activities for kids. The coverage veered off the path in how those outlets usually write about video games.

"With all the bad [gaming] PR, about violence, we became the white knights," Bender says. "DDR set the tone for games requiring physical activity. It removed the couch potato video gamer and created an active gamer." And it wasn't such a giant leap of faith to promote the activity message, after all. "Kids, inherently, do like to move," he explains.

BHI also did a lot of work reaching out to broadcast media with DDR, targeting local magazine-type programs with on-air demonstrations. Often, the agency had the hosts challenge each other to dance-offs, which played very well with the heavily female-skewed audience, Bender says.

Mental challenges

Nothing in the past 25 years has gotten teachers and parents to cry "waste of time" like video games. If the games aren't making headlines for promoting graphic violence, they're accused of encouraging auto theft and other sociopathic behavior. Critics say, at best, they turn American children in to dim-witted sloths. But this industry has produced some revolutionary titles as of late, experiences that challenge gamers both physically and mentally. And these games are creeping higher and higher on best-seller lists - even if fitness wasn't the initial goal.

"[Nintendo Wii] was literally nothing to do with the [obesity] debate," says Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America's VP of marketing and corporate affairs. The console, which has a physical component built in through its remote-control unit, has been lauded for its active sports games, even earning the number four spot on Forbes.com's latest list of market disruptors. Kaplan says the games took shape after Japanese game makers found great success with active offerings.

"[Gaming] needed more interaction," she says. "For the past couple of years in a row, we were flat. We needed to grow."

And it's not just physical betterment that the game producers are aiming for; brainpower is another goal. Nintendo's Brain Age is an intellectual workout that includes solving simple math problems, drawing pictures on a touch-screen, and reading classic literature out loud. Nintendo's PR firm GolinHarris targeted baby boomers by hosting a Grandparent's Day 2006 at its New York City Nintendo World store and partnered with a senior center in Washington to demonstrate the game.

Stephen Jones, Golin EVP and lead on the Nintendo account, stresses that with all the PR strategies involving these games, the key is to incorporate tactics into the 21st century lifestyle.

"Nintendo took a very pragmatic approach to the way people live their lives today," he says. "We live in the age of the digital consumer. Getting a kid to go out and run laps around the track is alien. Wii exists within the digital consumer dynamic and is being embraced."

If the virtual environment is right, kids will want to be engaged with the game, and if it has a healthy benefit, everybody wins.

"[Consumers] love the entertainment value of DDR, but they realize later they are getting a great workout," Franklin says with a laugh.

Games that make you work

 Game  Target age Special features
 Dance Dance Revolution (Konami) 4-up Used for weight loss efforts
 Leapster Sonic X (Leapfrog) 5-7 Teaches math skills
 Battle for Gotham City (Leapfrog)  8-up  Teaches logic and strategy
 Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (The Learning Co.) 8-12 Teaches history, art, language, geography
 The Oregon Trail (The Learning Co.)  9-up  Teaches history, geography of old West
 Yourself!Fitness (responDesign) Teen-adult With cardio, yoga, Pilates exercises
 Eye Toy Kinetic (Sony) Teen-adult Exercise video with camera
 Brain Age (Nintendo) 35-up  Puzzles, math, language

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