Weight loss and computer games Part 2  //  The Nintendo Wii study – marketing meets science, yet again!

29 Dec 2007 Posted by
Earlier today I did a post 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!