Friday, March 16, 2007

Exergaming in Texas

Jason Dobson has written a piece over at the Serious Games Source on a new partnership between Konami (makers of Dance Dance Revolution) and a new chain of "child focused" fitness clubs in Texas called NexGym. As part of the deal, Konami wil be installing Dance Dance Revolution games at all future NexGym locations. Dobson writes,
"As part of the agreement, children between the ages of 3-14 will be able to take advantage of the health and fitness benefits of Dance Dance Revolution at all Nexgym locations during interactive classes and open gym “exer-gaming” sessions. Konami will also promote DDR tournament events at existing Nexgym locations and in connection with future Nexgym grand openings.

NexGym, which opened its second location in Texas earlier this year, distinguishes itself by offering interactive classes and programs for children ages 3-14 and exergaming programs featuring video game and virtual exercise technology equipment designed specifically for kids 6-14. Nexgym also offers “Xtreme Birthday Parties” with a focus on fun and fitness, as well as programs for children with special needs, nutritional guidance and custom fitness programs for children."

The concept of gyms for kids is pretty intriguing, as is the idea of "exergaming" programs. Going to the gym IS pretty boring, not to mention the fact that most of the activities and machines there are oriented pretty purely towards adult physiology, so I definitely see why a new format--combining more aerobic activities and, well, fun--would be necessary. Less than a year old, NexGym (formerly Energym) represents the first official gyms-for-kids chain that I've heard of. While both existing branches were opened in Texas, the company plans to open 10 new locations over the coming year. The company is banking on a couple of things. First is the growing likelihood that parental concern about soaring child obesity rates will soon create a significant consumer demand (perhaps even in lieu of citizen demand) that options such as these be made available. The second is that the western focus on "rational" or instrumental play as ideal play will provide the illusion that regimented, technologically-enabled fun represents the surest way towards better health--both physical and mental. The website reflects this focus on its "About" page:
"Nexgym is the leader in the growing trend in kids fitness. With an ever-increasing population of children who are unfit expanding across North America, the time is right to provide a facility which has the right technology to engage children, a precise understanding of children and their needs, and an exclusive brand and image which brings the concept to life."

Now, I am NOT going to complain about a facility that provides kids with a greater number of exercise alternatives, particularly one that emphasizes kids' having fun as much as it does other health benefits, but there are a couple of things here that deserve noting. What concerns me most is that commercial entities are once again at the forefront in providing kids with the spaces and tools they are most lacking in other areas of life--in this case play spaces and pro-social technologies that at least initially seem responsive to (some of) kids' own needs when it comes to physical activity and exercise (it's missing cooperative play/team sports and fresh air, but it's a start). As citizens of a theoretically democratic and socially-responsive government, Texans and Americans should take one look at this initiative and wonder why the school systems (like the one in West Virginia) and health departments aren't offering similar kinds of programs for free (or at least at a subsidized cost). Knowing that obesity is tightly linked to class and socio-economic status, a highly specialized fitness center that charges a $49/month membership fee + additional fees for things like karate lessons and yoga might just be an indication of a new form of emerging social stratification based around access to health/fitness knowledge and opportunities.

As for the concept of "exergaming" and what it could mean in relation to theories around rationalized play, I definitely see a great opportunity for an extension of "ludification" theory, but will have to think it over a little more before making an approach.

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