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THE BALANCED LIFE | Esports and Exergaming — buyer beware

I f ever you sought an example of vested interests eager to promote their products using dodgy and incomplete, but sensible-sounding, science and studies, Esports (electronic sports) and Exergaming would be it in 2022. We’ve been here before.

If ever you sought an example of vested interests eager to promote their products using dodgy and incomplete, but sensible-sounding, science and studies, Esports (electronic sports) and Exergaming would be it in 2022.

We’ve been here before. Kashi isn’t all-natural, Emergen-C has been unable to prove in court that it really does cure or prevent the common cold, and Vibram has agreed to cease making claims that its FiveFinger shoes prevent injuries and strengthen muscles.

Or worse: cigarettes, oxycontin, and thalidomide.

Properly conducted and vetted studies to be launched in the near future as additional credible data becomes available will ultimately determine the benefits and disadvantages of the ever-increasing presence of esports and exergaming in our society. In the meantime, for every caution recommended by those who are concerned, an opposite claim is made by an industry profiting from their growing popularity.

The purpose of this column is not an attempt to resolve the risk or value of esports and exergaming, but to illustrate the need for diligence by all of us. The proliferation of esports and exergaming is particularly insidious because of their targets (children, adolescents, and seniors amongst others), their potentially addictive nature, their lack of regulation, and their significant profitability. These ingredients are a perfect recipe for unsubstantiated marketing claims.

Esports are loosely defined as competitive and organized video gaming, including those which simulate motion-based sports (Mario Tennis Aces), those that involve motion inputs from players but are not necessarily sports based (Surgeon Simulator CPR—yes, you can compete with a buddy to see who can perform the fastest, least bloody digital surgeries), and action-based combative games (Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil).

As digital streaming and cloud-based gaming techniques improve, the popularity of these games is exploding. Commercialization is rampant as competitive leagues are established, sponsors are attracted, and media, both social and mainstream, expand their coverage of esports., a German market data consultancy, estimates there are now 271 million esports enthusiasts worldwide and another 261 million occasional participants. This is a 22 percent increase in participation since 2020, representing a $1.79 billion USD market, which is an 80 percent increase from 2019.

Research based on many of the original video games, which would be included in this broad, but not consistently accepted definition of what constitutes an esport, has shown many negative health outcomes. These outcomes become more pronounced as young participants strive to be increasingly competitive.

The results of a study published by Science Direct, an online Journal of Sports and Health Science, indicated increased stress, sleep-related difficulties, aggression, violence, addiction and other behavioural problems as mental health concerns. Vision fatigue, decreased levels of physical activity, muscular overuse pain and injuries, metabolic disorders attributable in part to diet changes such as increased consumption of sweetened beverages, and increased body mass index (BMI) are physical health threats attributed to the gaming nature of esports.

The purportedly positive side of the argument is exemplified by the Montana Youth Soccer Association (MYSA). MYSA was founded in 1978 to “Promote programs devoted to the development and training of soccer players as a means of recreation and fitness.” They have embraced esports as it applies to soccer, and the following quote appears on their website under the heading, Benefits of Esports.

“Studies have shown that esports provides many of the same benefits of grass sports, minus the physical exertion. There is teamwork, communication, strategy, and sportsmanship learned through participating in organized esports. For our players, the addition of a digital esports league can only help them further develop the cognitive skills we currently refine during their play on the grass.”

While acknowledging above that esports have a lower level of physical exertion, MYSA lists improved hand-eye coordination, visual acuity, executive function, self-confidence, problem- solving, and strategy skill development as cognitive benefits provided by their esport soccer program.

MYSA adds, “71 percent of parents report gaming having net positive effects for children.” (The lack of wording designed to qualify what type of gaming is their omission.)

Since most children and adolescents (in the Western world) play video games, we are already past the point of no return

A list of benefits which offers more detail is provided on their website, including the following direct quotes. “Collegiate Scholarships: Over 280 colleges today feature esports scholarship programs. These programs operate similarly to traditional programs, and sometimes operate out of the college’s athletic departments. The total number of grass soccer scholarships is limited, so leaning into esports for many players may become a realistic opportunity to gain valuable scholarships for college. All players who participate in our leagues will be placed in a national scouting directory for esports scholarships to help them get discovered.” “Academic Excellence: Players who participate in esports programs are found to have a higher interest in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) subjects and have strong average GPAs. Esports helps them engage with their fellow students and their schools.” “Future Job Market: Playing video games can make students smarter and more employable across a wider spectrum of careers including medical field[s], engineering, aviation, remote flying, computer sciences, and etc.”

It boggles the mind to imagine what students and parents must evaluate as they attempt to navigate these two disparate versions of how esports might affect their future.

Exergaming, an emerging trend in fitness, education and health, is only slightly less controversial, in part because the risk-benefit scale is less broad and less understood. As with esports, an agreed-upon definition of exergaming is elusive.

Fitness for Health – Therapeutic Services & Training Center, in Maryland, explains exergaming as combining, “The fun of video games, cutting-edge, high-tech equipment with proven fitness tactics … to help children and adults build their strength, fitness and self-confidence while having the most fun possible.” An explanatory video on their website begins with a woman in workout attire standing on the gym floor in a three metre by three metre space with metal posts on each corner. Her exergame is to chase down flashing lights at various heights on alternating posts, then swat them while carrying weights in each hand at all times. Dynavision was another exergame shown in which she stood in front of a board with a multitude of electronic switches, and slapped each one as it lit up, sort of like electronic whack-a-mole.

The United States National Library of Medicine, National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), defines exergaming as digital games that require body movements, thus providing some sort of physical activity. Although the American College of Sports Medicine promotes exergaming as “the future of fitness” for children and adolescents, NCBI launched a study to determine the strengths and weaknesses of exergaming when used to promote physical activity and health in kids.

They concluded that existing exergaming offered two advantages: the ability of some exergames to increase motivation and enjoyment among participants, and importantly, exergaming, as most digital experiences, was adaptable and scalable which made routines easy to target toward specific individuals or populations as required. They saw future opportunities for exergaming as a therapeutic tool to enhance physical activity, learning and neuroplasticity.

Of concern was the cost to research and develop exergaming, the lack of regulation on commercially produced products, and the short duration of time that exergames maintain participant’s interest and commitment. NCBI concluded that exergaming provided a threat to traditional physical exercise, and may cause similar negative health outcomes as esports because both ultimately increase screen time. They were candid in their summation, saying, “Since most children and adolescents (in the Western world) play video games, we are already past the point of no return. Thus, the question is how we can positively impact what type of digital games they use, and for what purpose they are playing. Considering this, exergaming could be a viable tool to positively influence the screen time experience of children and adolescents.”

To do so, we must understand what an enormous transformation sports, exercise and training are about to undergo, and the benefits and disadvantages that will accrue. We have our work cut out for us.