You've probably seen them around town - at the mall, the bowling alley or the local pub. The machines are quite elaborate, with flashing lights, psychedelic imagery and familiar music. Yet one element is particularly arresting.

Upon stepping onto one of the machines, seemingly normal kids display dance moves so complex that even Michael Jackson might not keep up. What could cause ordinary 'tweens, teens - and even some adults - to suddenly bust a move when, under normal circumstances, they couldn't tango their way out of a wet paper bag?

It's the ultra-compelling and ultra-popular Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) - a hip hybrid of video gaming, booty shaking and grooving.

Even casual DDR players know the game is a sensational way to work up a sweat - a fact the West Virginia Department of Education observed.

After statistics showed West Virginia's childhood obesity rate was among the worst in the nation, the Department of Education looked for ways to encourage more physical activity for an increasingly sedentary age group, tapping Dance Dance Revolution as a possible solution.


Kick Off Your Sunday Shoes
DDR is a world-renowned video game.

Originally launched by the Japan-based Konami Corp. in 1998, the game has spawned nearly 100 versions, and features more than 1,000 songs. Despite the many iterations of the game, from arcade version to home version, the basics remain the same.

Like other video games, there's a lot occurring onscreen. But DDR's magic happens on the attached dance platform. The platform has four primary foot panels - up, down, left and right, though some versions have two additional diagonal panels - surrounding a neutral center panel. Each panel has a corresponding arrow.

During game play, users watch the screen and listen to a song. While the song plays, arrows appear onscreen and users tap the appropriate foot panel to the song's beat. As users progress, the beat becomes faster, more complex and harder to follow. The result is a wholly unique style of dance that combines elements of tap, break dancing and freestyle. Advanced players often demonstrate impressive abilities.

In spring 2006, at West Virginia University's (WVU) Health Sciences Center, researchers Linda Carson, Ware distinguished professor at the WVU School of Physical Education and director of the WVU Motor Development Center, and Emily Murphy, research instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at the WVU School of Medicine, conducted a study to find ways of addressing the growing problem of childhood obesity.

The study was sponsored by the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to find a way of preventing costly obesity-related problems among future members before they start.

"PEIA came to Dr. Carson and me, and my mentor Dr. [Rachel] Yeater, and said they had heard we worked with children's programs and wanted to know if we would be interested in trying to develop a home-based intervention for kids," Murphy recalled. "It needed to be something kids could do in their own homes, and in a wide variety of homes."

After investigating possible solutions, Murphy said they came across DDR.

"We'd seen it in the arcades," she said. "So we thought we'd try to use this with this population of kids. It appealed to us for two reasons - kids were able to do it in their home, and also, it had different levels. Kids using it for the first time could, over time, advance with it."

During clinical studies, the researchers found that over a 24-week period, children playing the game five days a week for at least 30 minutes per day improved their cardiovascular risk profiles. Though not all children lost weight, the majority did not gain weight and improved their aerobic capacity.


Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.