When revisiting my childhood, the silver lining moments that glisten within my memory are these: Recollections of chasing school-mate friends in green grasses or jumping in and out of short-lived water tunnels created by a rapidly moving sprinkler, as large water droplets cascade over our heads. Amongst a sea of accessible memories, these are the, undoubtedly, so imprinted because of their sheer exhausting replication. Having grown up in the 90s, when I think back to what life was like when I was young, it was very much the epitome of outdoorsy happiness; the essence of one Michelle Tanner running gleefully on a green hill in the opening sequence of Full House.
This is in grave contrast, no doubt, to what my future children will come to cherish in their later years. By then, I can only imagine the technologies that will have eclipsed us all. What I do find dismaying, however, is how quickly technology has taken us over, winning the indoor versus outdoor debate. My mother, on the other hand, continues to repeatedly remind my sister and I that she was lucky to be one of the only children on her block to own a television: She was only allotted a half hour of programming per day. As the majority of her friends would play outdoors, she abandoned the virtual babysitter for play. For my generation, I saw the technological shift in the latter end of my pre-pubescent years, when Bandai toys introduced the Tamagotchi, a hand-held digital pet that had to be cared for constantly via a three button system. Yes, children on every playground were obsessed. Soon, the popularization of the Game Boy would come about. While more and more parents questioned technology’s effects on their children, however limited they were at the time, technology, nevertheless, continued to dominate and accelerate. When comparing how technology interfered with my childhood to that of the present-day experience, the difference is that we would still be playing on the playground.
Today, what I define as a “play” and the “grounds” on which we do it in, has, I have so unabashedly discovered, changed: The other day, when my eight year old cousin asked me to come to play tennis with him, I naturally brought over my racket and laced up my tennis shoes. When he opened the door, he looked mortified. In all my naivety, it seems, he had meant play virtual tennis – no racquet, no shoes, not even the matching head and wrist bands – well, they wouldn’t be worn on my physical head, at least. We would play on the Wii Sport; a video game system intelligently advertised to make millions of parents, of which my uncle was one, believe that the physical exercise could that would equate that of an outdoor match could be played in a virtual game. Nicky and I were on the same team, playing against two ‘bots,’ as he called them. He was player one in blue, and I was player two, in red. We played best of five games, not through a verbal agreement, but by pushing a single button. Against the bots, we didn’t last very long.
After playing a few matches, I began to see why parents might be convinced of the Wii – Nicky was not sedentary in the same way I would have pictured, going on any traditional gaming system: The Wii was certainly not a device that encouraged the couch potato, requiring, it seemed, genuine physical activity. As he jumped around, his little limber body jolted with every swing of the remote. When it was my turn to serve, he would yell encouraging words, in the same way one might in an actual game. I quickly realized then, that to him, this was an actual game. In the same reality that I had gasped and giggled running through a sprinkler at his age, perhaps the emotions that lent themselves to this game of virtual tennis were at least as true for him.
Immediately upon my return home, I began researching; maybe the Wii Sport wasn’t, in fact, too good to be true. Perhaps ‘exergaming’ could justly provide an alternative to promote fitness and fun with the added safety and privacy of staying within one’s own home. Upon primary inspection, and, to my hopeful belief, studies confirmed these positives attributes as well. The harder I thought about it, the more I was convinced; the benefits seemed endless.
That bubble, however, quickly burst once I came upon a study conducted by the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston: “There was no evidence that children receiving the active video games were more active in general, or at any time, than children receiving the inactive video games. ” It turns out, when Wii games were played in a child’s home environment, and not in a laboratory setting, as done in so many beneficial studies before, no boasting benefits could be found. The study observed seventy-eight children aged nine to twelve years old for a period of twelve weeks, with half of the children playing active games such as Active Life: Extreme Challenge; EA Sports Active; Dance Dance Revolution; Wii Fit Plus; and Wii Sports, while the others played inactive games such as Disney Sing It: Pop Hits; Madden NFL 10; Mario Kart Wii; New Super Mario Bros. Wii; and Super Mario Galaxy. Measuring their physical activity using an accelerometer at baseline then again during weeks 1, 6, 7, and 12, the study concluded that there is “no reason to believe that simply acquiring an active video game under naturalistic circumstances provides a public health benefit to children.” Though one would hope Dance Dance Revolution could garner at least an increment more activity than Super Mario, the verdict is set: Wii owners are in no such luck.
While researching for this article, and, frankly, for the pure nostalgia of it all, I eagerly watched a re-run of Full House. Within the opening song, the lyric “what ever happened to predictability? The milk man, the paper boy, evening T.V…” resonates particularly well. Perhaps changes, technological or otherwise, are not particularly unique. Yes, the world is rapidly altering, and technology seems to be the catalyst of it all. In all the uncertainty and fear of what is best for our children, we must trust one thing to remain predictable: whether playing in the wind or on the Wii, the glistening recollections we will come to look back on are what matter most.
Published in: Today Magazine; June, 2013