Health & Fitness

Slimming down in a video game can have real-life effects

Researchers at UC Davis may have found a new way to engage women in an active lifestyle: slim video game characters.

Women who were assigned a slimmer avatar – the virtual character the player manipulates on the screen in a virtual tennis game – moved around more in real life while playing the game in a study of 96 women. The results, released Tuesday, also showed that assigning the women a virtual opponent who was slim increased physical activity.

The women were randomly assigned an avatar of a certain weight and either an overweight or a slim virtual opponent in Nintendo’s Wii Tennis. Their physical activity was monitored while playing the game through accelerometers at both their wrist and waist to track their body movements.

Women who were assigned the 121-pound avatars moved their overall body more while playing than women with avatars with the weight set to 209 pounds. In games where both the self-avatar and the virtual opponent were 121 pounds, the women moved both their wrists and waists more, according to study author Jorge Peña, assistant professor of communication at UC Davis.

He attributed the results to traits associated with body-weight identity. There are certain stereotypes around body weight and physical activity that Peña said he thinks led to the different levels of physical exertion while playing the game. The high rates of activity when both the self and the opponent’s avatars are slimmer implied a social competition.

He said the study, which was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, sheds light on the way video games can be used to promote health.

“There’s a big debate over violent video games in our society,” Peña said. “The promise of this study takes the debate away from violent games to what can be done with video games. We can use video games to get people more comfortable with physical activity.”

Mailene Tolentino, manager at Gamer World in Arden-Arcade, said she doesn’t think the appearance of the avatar affects the way she plays video games, but she does use video games like Xbox Kinect’s Zumba Fitness to get exercise because she feels more comfortable in her own house than in a Zumba class at the gym.

“I feel like I can’t get caught up because they go so fast” in a class, “but at home I can do it with my own pace,” Tolentino, 32, said.

Peña said he and his co-author, Eunice Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, chose Wii Tennis because like Zumba Fitness, the game requires physical activity.

Several studies have shown that engaging adults and children in video games that require movement in the real world can lead to more active lifestyles and weight loss. Peña’s study focused specifically on the impact of the appearance of the avatar.

The idea sprang from studies that show avatar appearance affects players’ actions within a game, but Peña wanted to see if virtual appearance can transcend reality.

“When people play video games, we can get so immersed that we forget our real body,” Peña said. “For one fleeting moment, our video game avatar is more salient than our real body.”

Kristin Walton, a personal trainer who runs a boot camp and personal training fitness studio, said some of her clients exercise harder when they aren’t looking in the mirror.

“They work out harder when they can’t see themselves,” she said. “It’s like they feel more free when they forget about their body.”

Walton said she does see the kind of competition between women the study revealed in her classes.

“The women tend to get competitive when they see someone they perceive to be in better shape than they are,” she said. “Like, ‘If you’re going to do 10 pushups, then I will, too.’”

The study subjects were weighed and their body mass index was calculated to study possible correlations between the levels of physical activity and the real-world weight of the player.

It didn’t matter; the findings remained the same regardless of weight or BMI.

Peña has begun to do follow-up studies, the first of which is with men. The study hasn’t been released. But, early results show that while there are similar effects for men in terms of the weight of the self-avatar, the opponent’s weight doesn’t have any influence on men’s physical activity while playing, he said.

“The social comparison aspect is more true for women,” Peña said.

Walton agreed. The men in her classes don’t engage in the same kind of friendly competition as the women.

A graduate student who works with him is designing a third experiment to determine whether the race of the avatar affects exertion.

Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006.