Scott Novis

Healthy Kid And Video Games: Fitness

Healthy Kids and Video Games: Fitness

Video Games and Fitness

Last week, I started to tackle the most frequently asked question I get when I speak to parents about children and video games. Many parents feel that video games are an obstacle to their children’s health. Because there is a strong correlation between spending a lot of time in front of screens and childhood obesity, their position is perfectly understandable. But if you believe it’s a problem and you still let your kids play games – how does that help? Fortunately, recent studies demonstrate that nutrition has a much larger impact on childhood obesity than screen time. Video games don’t have to be a source of conflict. I also shared some resources that can help. The rest of that article can be found here.

While it’s good to know we can help our kids be healthier (and thinner) with better nutrition, that doesn’t fully address the issue. What about fitness?

Why Don’t You Want to Play Outside?

Parental concerns about video games are not just about obesity. There is another concern that grows from our children’s lack of interest in physical exercise in favor of playing games. This is hard on athletic parents (especially dads) who want to see their children playing outside.

This is where it gets interesting I think.

The definition of “go play outside” has changed radically in the last 20 years, and that is part of the problem. When many parents talk about playing outside, kids often hear, “go play a team sport”. Even if parents literally mean, “No outside, Get out of the house.” The neighborhood environment has changed so radically that this is no longer an admonition to play, it’s akin to solitary confinement.

Several years ago I was standing on a corner in a cozy neighborhood in Oakland California. GameTruck was delivering a birthday party for a Nintendo Executive and several developers from Japan. On a cool sunny afternoon in August, we stood on the corner and looked up and down the street. I pointed out to the developers, “Look left, right, and down the street. You can tell everyone is at home because of the cars.” The small crew looked left and right, then back at me. “Where are the kids?” I asked. “30 years ago this neighborhood would have been teaming with children riding their bikes, playing in their yards or running from house to house.” Now it was a ghost town. There was not a kid in sight.

My first company GameTruck was founded at the intersection of several macro trends. One of those trends was the rise of concerns for child safety. Specifically the confusion between risk and danger. For example, the American Standard Testing Methods (ASTM)1 and Consumer Product Safety Commission(CPSC)2 guidelines still permit merry-go-rounds at playgrounds. But you don’t see them. Cities and schools have pulled them out despite no evidence of increased danger or any filing of litigation. In a similar way, pictures of missing children on milk cartons scared a generation of parents into needing to know where their kids are at all times.

And it’s not just American’s who think American parents are worried about childhood safety. In a recent New York Times article, parents from around the world want to tell American parents to “chill”.3 Children in other parts of the world experience a wider array of freedoms than their US cohorts.

I was brought up in the “Street Light Era”. I was kicked out of the house and only allowed to come back in time for dinner, or when the street lights came on. Even then, I remember my Dad asking me, “You in for the night?” “Nope,” I fired back, “just getting a flashlight.” “Okay,” he often replied. I can’t ever remember being told to stay in because it was dark out. In contrast, when my wife and I raised our kids they were never out after dark until they were old enough to drive. So I am very much a part of that “overprotective” generation of parents the Europeans caution against.

But being outside was about more than play. While my friends and I roamed the streets of suburban Detroit, we self-organized, we played, and we learned from each other. We developed social and emotional systems as we played games that included everyone. Yes, feelings got hurt, friendships were tested and evolved, but for the most part, we worked it out. They spent chaotic, unplanned hours where we did nothing important but grow up.

Exactly the kind of frittering away of time that causes most adults extreme stress.

Adult Stress and Child’s Play

I was talking to the founder of an international aid organization Outreach for World Hope4. Randy Tewes told me that in their experience, “American’s hate to wait. They just can’t stand around. They need to be doing something, being productive.” Randy’s team consequently does an amazing job of preparing for visiting missionaries so they can, “hit the ground running”. “It’s very important to the volunteers that they help as many people as possible.”

The need to be productive and useful however, may not be what our kids need most.

Since children cannot be left alone, they are now almost exclusively supervised by adults. This also means that they are exposed to adult needs to be productive. This need permeates virtually all of child group play activities. More often than not, when parents talk to me about their child’s fitness activities they mean team sports.

The trouble is, we have become blind to the idea that there are other ways to play.

The problem with team sports

When a parent asks, “what’s wrong with wanting my child to play sports?” I answer,  “Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting your child to play sports. However, a better question might be are team sports best for my child?”

Organized sports are not for everyone and for good reason. Most team sports have two things that cause kids angst. One, most have ONE ball. This means very few kids are actively engaged in playing at any moment. Two, they have a bench. This means that some children not only won’t get to play with the one ball, but they also might not even be on the field. Team sports frequently focus the attention down to a few key “talented” players at any given moment. This narrowing of who gets to play is a core issue that can unintentionally violate a child’s sense of fairness.

It turns out humans, like most mammals, are wired to stop playing games they perceive they can never win.

Fairness in play means you have a chance to win… sometimes

When we ran our first Bravous Youth Esports Camps, we included physical activities as an integral part of our program. When kids ran the obstacle course 100% participated without hesitation. When we tossed out a football the kids almost immediately split into three groups. The bigger kids took the ball and passed it to their more athletic friends. That group dominated the competition. A second group stayed on the field hoping to get in on the game, but about a third of the kids just quit playing altogether. They dropped out.

Watching this third group, I went over to them and challenged them to do something. They did not have to play football, or basketball, or soccer, but they had to do something, anything, as long as it was active. To my surprise, they selected jumping-jacks. They would exercise. They wanted to exercise. Later, I learned that having control over the exercise mattered more than I could have imagined. What’s important here is these kids wanted to do something they could participate in as individuals.

The Morality of Hope

Later when I learned about the research of Dr. Jaak Panskeep, the kids’ behaviors made more sense to me. It turns out our mammal brains are wired to behave this way. When there is no chance of winning mammals will stop playing. According to work done by Panskeep with rats, the play circuitry in our brains has a kind of moral code.

When two rats are put together and one is physically larger than the other (by say 10%) the bigger rat can win a wrestling match 100% of the time. There’s something curious about this, however. It is the subordinate rat that invites the dominant rat to play. If the dominant rat does not let the subordinate rat win a “reasonable” amount of time, the subordinate rat stops inviting the bigger rat to play – and the dominant rat suffers.

Panskeep measured how often the little rat needs to win to stay in the game, to keep inviting the dominant rat to play. The percentage? The smaller rat needs to win 30% to 40% of the time. Panskeep conclusion? Even rats have a sense of “fair” play.

If you think humans are very different than rats, check the standings of your favorite professional sport, then look at the win percentage for the teams at the bottom of the standings. As of the day, I am writing this the last place Baltimore Orioles have a win percentage of 31.8%.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out the high number of professional athletes that share the same birth month. Being larger at a young age has a major impact on the athletic advantage kids experience. Bigger kids tend to play more, are encouraged more, and are selected for all-star teams more frequently. As a result, they receive more coaching compounding their advantages.

I personally have seen an increasingly high level of pressure put on athletes to compete younger and younger. I am blessed enough to have two collegiate athletes and yet what I have seen was enough to make my head spin. Universities handing out “verbal commitments” to players as early as the 8th grade. I have heard it said, “if you are not great by 8 you don’t get to play.” You might make the team, but play? That’s another matter.

Individual Athletics

What does all of this have to do with your kid? Many parents for lack of information have trapped themselves into thinking that team sports are the most viable physical activity for their kids, especially boys. There is a range of activities that children can do to improve their fitness that are not centered around team sports.

Non Team Activities that Build Fitness:

Gyms that focus on the obstacle course style of fitness (like American Ninja). The popularity of the show has created more awareness for the incredible athletics parkour and obstacle courses require.

Some other options include:

  • Golf
  • Tennis
  • Martial arts
  • Girls On The Run is a tremendous program that focuses on esteem and values for girls. (Is there one for boys? I’m sure they could benefit too. How awesome would that be!?)

I am not saying ditching team sports is easy to do. Culturally there is a high expectation that children will participate in team activities. However, it is my experience people who begin to look at problems differently, see new solutions. The main idea is to be open to the possibility that team sports may not support your child the way your child needs support.


From what we have seen in our camps and activities, children who prefer video games over team sports also prefer individual activities over those sports as well. It is not the video games themselves that cause the problem, it is the aversion to “not having a chance to win”. If you are concerned about your child missing out on the lessons team sports have to offer, hang in there. I think there are some answers for you in later segments. The bottom line is that many gamers choose to game by default because their psychological emotional need for fair play is not being met.

As one parent told me, “I’m sick of my son’s identity being defined by the team sport he’s on.” Finding the right activity, very likely an individual activity may be what your child needs.

You Be the Engineer

If your child does not engage with team sports, do not panic!  You can find other activities more individually focused. Make a list together with your child and test them out. One tip, focus on the process, not the outcome. Rating and evaluating each type of activity can produce a wealth of data on preferences and styles that can be useful for selecting the right level of challenge and learning. Exploring options and assessing fit is a proven engineering process for identifying optimal solutions.

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