Mind Your Body: Dancing with The Avatars

How digital doubles inspire would-be gymgoers.

By Sarah Stanley, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Two Avatars in Second Life on bikes at Club One Island

Exercise video games are no longer an oxymoron: Witness the Nintendo Wii, which has sold more than 860 million units since it debuted in 2006, and Kinect for Xbox 360, which tallied 10 million sales in four months—the fastest-selling consumer-tech product of all time. Players of "exergames" generally create digital representations of themselves and move along with the action on the screen. Now, researchers are noting the growing trend and examining how exergames can maximize performance.

In the virtual world, as in real life, a workout buddy can be invaluable. In a Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology study, those who worked out while watching a Skype video of a partner doing the same moves exercised 25 percent longer than they did while toning alone—but only when their partner was about 40 percent fitter than them. A too-fit partner can be discouraging and an out-of-shape partner can bore the exerciser, while a moderately more athletic partner embodies a realistic goal.

The avatars players pick to represent themselves affect behavior too. "Avatars that look similar to their real-life counterparts but are slightly more attractive or social improve real-life social behaviors," says Nick Yee of the Palo Alto Research Center. "In exergames, choosing a fit avatar could be similarly motivating."

In one study, people faced a digital doppelgaenger in a virtual room while lifting weights and then standing still. When the avatars grew slimmer during the exercise portion and plumper during the stationary phase, users performed 10 times as many reps as those whose virtual twins didn't change.

Active avatars may effect change even if their real-life counterparts watch the action from a computer. "Seeing your avatar exercising gets you excited to try it afterward," says Celeste DeVaneaux, CEO of Club One Island, an online health club based in Second Life. In its virtual weight loss program, participants hop online at the same time to watch their digital stand-ins try outdoor sports, attend nutrition and fitness seminars, and discuss their progress.

Indiana University researchers investigated Club One Island's effectiveness in sparking real-world changes. In 12 weeks, those who completed the program lost as much weight as those in similar face-to-face programs; moreover, virtual gym-goers reported bigger confidence boosts in their ability to lose weight. As research on exergame avatars progresses, such programs are likely to become more and more effective—and more enjoyable.

Digital Doctors

These video games address health issues beyond exercise.

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    Young cancer patients control a nanobot who kills cancer cells and fights infections in fictional patients.

  2. Packy and Marlon

    Diabetic kids who play this game (in which two elephants manage their symptoms and save a summer camp) have fewer urgent-care visits.

  3. Lit 2 Quit

    This iPhone app uses color, sound, and breath control to simulate the rush or relaxation of smoking.