Not Just Fun and Games: Illinois Tech Professor Examines the Benefits of Active Video Games



By Tom Linder
Arlen Moller

When it comes to video games, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Entertainment? Distraction? Just fun and games?

Illinois Institute of Technology Associate Professor of Psychology Arlen Moller looks at video games in a much different way, and he’s trying to change the way that consumers and game publishers alike view them.

Moller—working with a team composed of researchers from Loyola Marymount University, Northeastern University, and Harvard University—has recently published a pair of papers looking at active video games (AVGs) and their effect on public health.

The studies, titled “Active Video Game Interventions Targeting Physical Activity Behaviors: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and another titled “A Comprehensive Systematic Review and Content Analysis of Active Video Game Intervention Research,” which was published in Digital Health, took different approaches in reviewing a multitude of research to gain insight into how AVGs can be effective tools for increasing physical activity. These studies featured popular games for AVG gaming platforms such as the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Kinect.

“I see the world through the lens of a motivation scientist. So when I analyze games, I often think of them as a tool for promoting intrinsic motivation,” says Moller. “Intrinsic motivation is present when doing an activity is itself the primary reward or you find the activity interesting and enjoyable; colloquially, we sometimes call these activities ‘play’ as opposed to ‘work.’ 

“The billions of people who play video games regularly on Earth, the vast majority of them are not getting paid. They’re primarily motivated to engage with video games because they find this activity intrinsically rewarding.”

In short, the systematic review of studies that Moller led found that AVGs that intrinsically motivate gamers tended to also increase levels of physical activity as measured in multiple ways.

With physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles becoming a growing problem around the globe, AVGs have developed into a promising tool for countering this trend and encouraging positive health behavior changes. Part of the reason why AVGs have the potential to make such a big impact is the massive market that video games have tapped into. 

Globally, the video games industry brought in a total revenue of $213 billion in 2022, according to PwC’s Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2023–2027 report. By comparison, global cinema revenues topped out at just more than $42 billion in 2019 and have yet to return to that level post-pandemic. 

“Even though AVGs are currently a relatively small slice of the total video game industry, we’re talking about an enormous pie,” Moller says. “Even AVGs alone generate billions of dollars a year in revenue.”
Moller sees improving industry-academia collaboration as a crucial to realizing the potential of AVGs. Currently, most AVGs are developed by large video game publishers, such as Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Niantic, who are primarily focusing on optimizing entertainment value and profit. Partnerships with nonprofit universities could benefit both sides, helping game publishers outsource some research on their games while also increasing their public health impact.

“I’m hoping this paper can help start a conversation with game publishers developing active video games,” says Moller. 

The potential applications for AVGs aren’t limited to just console games. In addition to rapid advancements in virtual reality for gaming (e.g., BeatSaber, SuperNatural), gamification is growing in the exercise equipment and wearable activity monitor industries as well. 

One example of exercise equipment companies experimenting with gamification includes Peloton, the popular manufacturer of exercise bikes and more recently treadmills and rowing machines. Peloton’s first AVG is called Lanebreak, where participants can choose from different levels and difficulties as they rack up points pedaling to music. 

“But Peloton is just scratching the surface,” says Moller. For example, Peloton recently announced a new multiyear partnership with professional soccer team Liverpool FC, an opportunity, Moller says, for integrating Peloton fitness data with soccer-themed video games.

Wearable activity monitors such as the Apple Watch or Fitbit open up the possibility of integrating personal fitness data gathered with a variety of gaming platforms. Pairing data from these wearable activity monitors, synchronously or asynchronously, to gaming platforms could have a significant impact on the future of the AVG industry.

AVGs taking a more prominent role in influencing public health also calls attention to the video game industry’s potential to make a positive impact in other areas. Moller points out that studying and creating games can help us address multiple challenges, from improving education to mitigating climate change.

“Video games are sometimes unfairly stereotyped as a trivial pursuit, but that’s a misperception in a couple ways,” says Moller. “For one, many video games directly promote really valuable outcomes beyond their entertainment value, including games that promote health, learning, environmental conservation. But a second reason I think games should be taken seriously concerns the number of collective hours human beings on our planet are playing them today and going forward—billions of people, billions of hours of engagement. By studying video games and participating in their design, we can help billions of people live happier, healthier lives.”