Using an Alternate Reality Game to Increase Physical Activity and Decrease Obesity Risk of College Students

While obesity rates for college students remain relatively low, they are still considered to be at risk for weight gain that can eventually lead to obesity and health problems. On average, during the first two years of college there is a marked decline in physical activity and an increase in weight.  This quasi-experimental study examined effects of an active game intervention on the physical activity levels and weight of college freshmen.

The study included students enrolled in a college health course and assigned them either to use exercise equipment in a weekly lab session or to play an alternate reality game (ARG), called The Skeleton Chase, that asked them to solve a mystery and, as a way to obtain clues, to engage in physical activities and long walks across the college campus. An ARG is an interactive fictional game experience that takes place in the real world and uses a variety of media to reveal the story. 

Key Findings:

  • Students who played the ARG increased in physical activity over the nine-weeks of the study and those who went to weekly lab sessions to exercise decreased in physical activity.  During the nine weeks, the overall amount of physical activity of the ARG group was higher than the lab group.
  • Both groups gained an average of about 1.5 to 2 kilograms of weight during the nine-week study.  This is in line with other studies that have found an average of 1 to 4 kilograms of weight gain during the first year of college.  The ARG was designed to increase physical activity and not to promote weight loss, so the findings are not surprising.

This research, conducted with support from the Health Games Research national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, suggests that well designed active ARGs for college freshmen have the potential to motivate more physical activity than traditional exercise classes do.