Move Action: Are Gamers Unfit?

There was quite the stir over a recent post on Dungeons and Dragons and Dads, which featured commentary from a father who was concerned about encouraging his children to participate in roleplaying games and the culture that surrounds them. Please visit the original post before reading further.

Welcome back. The article sparked a good deal of debate, and another author presented a rebuttal on This Is My Game, which I also encourage you to read. The exchange continued between the two writers and others on the respective blogs and Twitter.

I had mentioned my misgivings about classic stereotypes being reinforced in the original article. I was concerned the article (admittedly) relied on a small sample of observations and anecdotal evidence. The bigger issue was the manner in which the “roleplaying community” was treated by the writer. Below, you’ll see how I struck out his words and inserted another word that is the victim of stereotypes and prejudice. I did this to illustrate my point that the structure of his arguement was problematic, and would not be tolerated if he was discussing another group of individuals. The following are the first two lines from his first post on the subject with my changes:

I hesitate to introduce my kids to role-playing games homosexuals and the culture that surrounds them. This isn’t because I don’t want my kids to benefit from the creativity and imagination that flourish in role-playing games homosexuals, but because I have observed that the health and fitness level of RPGers homosexuals is disproportionately lower than any other peer group with which I have associated.

Once again, I am not saying it was the author’s intention to present his argument in this manner, and I am certainly not accusing him of bigotry against any particular group of individuals. I appreciate that he has responded to feedback from various avenues, but there still seems to be the basic assumption that people who play roleplaying games are unfit when compared to people who do not play these games. No data is presented to support this assumption.

After thinking about my initial response, I figured I should add more to the discussion rather than just tear down the original post. I think the questions raised about the potential for the roleplaying-game culture to be a negative influence are worthy of discussion.

So I spent some time combing through the available literature. This is certainly not an exhaustive look through everything that is available, although I will state that all of the studies I mention below are published in peer-reviewed journals. I avoided anything that was presented as “research” by mainstream media; those articles typically have a host of methodology flaws. This is not to say that articles in journals do not have flaws; they most certainly do! But the peer-review system helps to eliminate studies that are not scientifically sound. Normally, a literature review on a subject would last anywhere from days to many months; however, I do not have the resources to devote that much time to this endeavor. The following articles are just a sampling of some of the work out there. I present and discuss the results to add some data to the discussion, and further clarify my reaction to the original post.

Review of Relevant Research

There is not a great deal of research on roleplaying gamers. Within the past decade, researchers have examined the online and/or videogame player. The notion of “online addiction” has been discussed at length, but I have not presented these articles. The results out there are interesting and mixed, but do not completely relate to the questions at hand, which again is, “Are roleplaying gamers unfit?” The following studies focused on the online gamer, but for the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that the online gamer and roleplaying gamer share many characteristics. This assumption is not 100% correct, but it’s a start in terms of looking at available research and applying it to the current discussion.

Researchers have set out to examine aspects of the stereotypical gamer profile. One study questioned over 7,000 players of Everquest 2 about their offline characteristics, motivations and physical/mental health. I encourage anyone with a serious interest in this issue to read at these the Introduction and Discussion sections of this article. Instead of summarizing the findings, I’m quoting directly from the study (p. 1007):

Players were found to be primarily adult, male, white, and middle class. They were less religious than the general population and have substantially different media habits. Player were found to be physically more healthy than the general population, but mentally less healthy. Lastly, players were motivated to play for achievement, immersion and social reasons, with achievement as the strongest predictor of playing time.

The results present a mixed bag of findings, but many of the findings contradict commonly held stereotypes of Massively Multi-User Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPGs) players, which are quite similar to the stereotypes discussed in the original article at Dungeons and Dragons and Dads. An interesting finding is that achievement is the strongest predictor for playing time.

An even larger-scale study surveyed 30,000 users of MMORPGs over a three-year period. They found five factors that drove user motivations – Achievement, Relationship, Immersion, Escapism and Manipulation. Once again, achievement was a predictor of playing time. Male players were more driven by the Achievement and Manipulation factors, while female players were significantly more likely to be driven by the Relationship factors. The data also indicated that users derived meaningful relationships and salient emotional experiences, as well as real-life leadership skills from these virtual environments.

The two studies above discuss the stereotypical culture of online gamers, and the results contradict some of the most commonly held notions, including that online gamers are less healthy than the non-gamer population. From here, I turned to studies that specifically focused on fitness and game playing.

I started with studies that examined the effects of gaming on fitness. Much of the recent literature is associated with videogame systems like the Wii and how they may promote more physical activity. A study of 18 children (aged 6-12 years) examined energy expenditure during a variety of activities – resting, playing computer games while seated, playing computer games while active. The study demonstrated that energy expenditure was significantly higher when playing computer games (either actively or seated) compared with rest; children during rest were allowed to watch television. In other words, children playing computer games while seated expended more energy than they did while resting/watching television. In addition, the study reported that the energy expended in the active gaming format was significantly higher compared with seated gaming. They primarily measured heart rate to measure energy expenditure.

The study was surprising because it shows that heart rate increases while playing games compared to resting. I find that interesting, although it is a small sample and only one study. Perhaps it can be said that engaging in roleplaying games is providing more “fitness” than lying around and watching television? Faint praise to be sure, but something to consider as we move forward.

Another study compared the energy expenditure of adolescents when playing sedentary (XBOX 360) and new generation active computer games (Wii). The results, as one would expect, demonstrated that playing new generation active computer games (Wii) uses significantly more energy than playing sedentary computer games (XBOX 360) but not as much energy as playing the sport itself. They determined that the energy used when playing active games (Wii Sports) was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children. There is not much surprising in this study, as we would all likely assume that playing the Wii uses more energy than playing the XBOX 360. It is likely that the energy expended during roleplaying games is in the same neighborhood as playing the XBOX 360, which again, is significantly less than playing Wii.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put my hands on a complete version of this study, which examined the links between childhood obesity, activity participation and television and video game use in a sample of over 2,800 children using body mass index (BMI). The results are quite mixed, but it seems that children with higher weight status played moderate amounts of electronic games, while children with lower weight status playing either very little or a lot of electronic games. The results also indicated that children with higher weight status spent more time in sedentary activities than those with lower weight status. However, we cannot say that one caused the other. Perhaps children who are heavy do not feel comfortable participating in sporting activities so they gravitate to sedentary activities. Or perhaps engaging in sedentary activities results in a higher weight status.

The only way to answer this question with confidence in a scientific way is to take 2,000 children and assign 1,000 of them to Active group and the other 1,000 to a Sedentary group. Measure their weight before and after, and this will give you more information about the relationship. I have not found that study, but it may be out there. If you search and find it, then please let me know.

Another study of this type was an eight-year longitudinal project that examine approximately 400 children between the ages of 5 and 13. They investigated the relationship between physical activity and fat mass in healthy children. They found that physical activity led to reduced fat mass, and that playing video games, but not television, was positively associated with fat mass. The study does not say that playing video games caused increased fat mass, but does indicated that they are related.

A final study examined the possible relationships between frequency of electronic game play and obesity, the social/emotional context of electronic game play, and academic performance among 219 college-aged males. The game players reported a weekly average of approximately 10 hours of game play, with almost 10% of current players reporting an average of over 35 hours of play per week. The frequency of play was not significantly related to body mass index or grade point average. This means that playing games more often did not relate to a higher weight or lower grade point average. The study did demonstrate a positive correlation between frequency of play and self-reported frequency of playing when bored, lonely or stressed. 

The study is only dealing with videogames and not roleplaying games, but this is another study that indicates gaming is not associated with health risks. It does seem to be associated with a way to cope with feelings of boredom, loneliness and stress. Of course, any coping strategy can become maladaptive over time. There is an enormous amount of research on “gaming addiction,” but that is another post for another day.

What Does This All Mean?

The research presented above is not an exhaustive review of the literature. I do not intend for this to be the definitive word on the topic of physical and mental health in those that are involved in roleplaying games. However, I think the research trends point to the following statements.

Playing roleplaying games is no worse – and possible better – for physical fitness than watching television.

Playing active gaming options like the Wii increase energy expenditure over sedentary games, but still does not provide the recommended daily source of physical activity. As a result, playing sedentary games, such as RPGs, will not assist with someone reaching their recommended daily source of physical activity.

Playing online MMORPGs has not been found to result in lower quality of health compared to the non-playing population. If we assume that players of in-person roleplaying games are similar to players of online roleplaying games, then we can say that research has demonstrated that RPG players, as a group, do not show negative physical health outcomes when compared to non-RPG players. 

Playing roleplaying games is influenced by a variety of motivations, including achievement, relationships and escapism. Players of RPGs are not a uniform group that share the same characteristics across the board. Some play for gratification as they advance in level. Some play to form relationships with others. Some play out of boredom or use the game as a coping mechanism to deal with other stressors. Overall, the motivations to play RPGs may be no different from the motivations to engage in any particular hobby or interest.

Conclusion

I believe this can be a healthy (no pun intended) discussion moving forward. I believe people too often rely on observational and anecdotal “evidence” to make broad claims. If I go with my observations, the group I play with has a married couple with a family of four and our games are structured around the dad’s coaching gig for his son’s pee-wee football and his daughter’s softball games. The husband and wife, along with their family, are some of the most physically motivated people I know, but it would be a mistake on my part to assume that all gamers are like them.

There is a reason we have science, even though some sectors of our culture would have you believe science is a bad thing. Thanks for listening, and I’m happy to read your reactions.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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9 Responses to Move Action: Are Gamers Unfit?

  1. This is a great addition to the conversation and I appreciate your research into the topic. As a father who has also considered the sedentary lifestyle of geek culture and it’s possible effects on my child I find this data all the more interesting (and confirms many of my suspicions and challenges others).

    While I don’t particularly agree that every single choice we make in life needs to be subjected to the full process of the scientific method (let’s face it, raising a child is often more gut and heart than science…although there’s research that says your gut/heart are often subconsciously listening to the science anyway) I do think it’s valuable when someone does take the time to do this.

    Thanks again for adding to the conversation!

    • The Id DM says:

      Jeff,

      I agree that “every”thing does not need to be subjected on a daily basis to the scientific method (who has that kind of time?), but the conversation on this topic was persisting without anyone jumping in to point out some of the available research.

      I think many of us – not just those that play games – deal with a sedentary lifestyle. Most people I know have office jobs and it’s tough to really break up that routine during the day. I am sitting for the vast majority of the day either visiting with patients, writing documentation on the computer or driving. By the end of the day, I need to move!

  2. Morgoth has four-pack abs! Take that negative dad!

  3. boccobsblog says:

    I’ll bring a tape measure and a scale to Gen Con and collect some data. I’ll get back to you in Sept.

  4. While I can respect the research and be rather happy to be wrong – in my group of friends the gamers tend to be a little unfit. We eat badly at times and are fully aware of our choices. That said, I find it totally strange that somebody would target rpgs as a hobbie to avoid for health reasons but allow a child to play contact sports. I’m actually more worried about a child’s exposure to drugs and drink than their exposure to rpgs. If they’re at home playing dnd they’re not out drinking and screwing up.

    It feels like a discussion at the borders of common sense.

    • The Id DM says:

      The topic came up last month and I felt the conversation/debate was moving forward without any data being presented. I tried to fill that role and add to the discussion. I think many people look around them and make generalizations based on their own experiences, which is understandable and fine. We all do that, but we can make the mistake of thinking that *everything* must be like our own experiences. As I mentioned, the people I game with are very active and there is exercise equipment in the host’s game room, which doubles as a gym. However, it would not be accurate for me to think that *all* gamers are this way.

      I would think most people would be more concerned about their child’s exposure to drugs and alcohol than roleplaying games. I do not think the original author who expressed his concern was saying otherwise. But it’s not accurate to assume that all kids that play roleplaying games are not out drinking and screwing up. Hell, we have a healthy amount of alcohol during our gaming sessions, so it makes sense that kids would sit around in some parent’s basement, roll some dice and sneak hits off a bottle of Jim Beam they stole from the cupboard. ;-)

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