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.
Soon after the study began, it drew the attention of both the Department of Education and the governor's office, and it was decided that DDR would be used in the state's public schools.
"We started with the middle schools - and we've completed putting them into all the middle schools in West Virginia," Murphy said. "Now we're moving on to high schools, and eventually we'll get to elementary schools."
In addition to the original PEIA funding, Murphy said Konami has been a partner in the project, covering the costs of the game's software. Still, each unit delivered to the schools is costly - running approximately $800 each. The biggest expense comes from the dance platforms. Konami does not manufacture dance platforms that can withstand dozens of school kids using them daily.
As such, Murphy said they've been purchasing platforms from Cobalt Flux - a third-party vendor that sells "industrial strength" dance platforms. Murphy said they struck a deal with Cobalt Flux to get the platforms at a significant discount.
"[The platforms are] the most expensive part," Murphy said. "We're providing two pads per school and that's about $700."
DDR is a pastime for kids waiting for the school bus, and an outlet for those who don't participate in extracurricular activities. However, any student can use the game.
"We're putting them into the schools not to replace physical education, but to basically provide another opportunity for the kids to be physically active during the day," Murphy said. "What we're planning, once we get them into the schools, is developing an afterschool program based around active video games - like a DDR club for kids who aren't necessarily interested in doing sports activities."
Though it's not a cure-all for the nationwide problem of kids' increasing girths, West Virginia public schools are cleverly harnessing the power of video games.
Since their inception, video games have been loved by kids and reviled by an older generation that regards them as a waste of time. But as those video-game loving kids grow up and move into positions of authority, they give video games a new credibility, posing them as having a positive impact on health instead of being a detriment to it. Placing DDR in schools uses what kids already enjoy to improve their fitness.
The craze has caught on like wild fire - hundreds of schools in 10 states have weaved DDR into their physical education programs. As one might expect, the feedback from West Virginia's students and teachers has been positive.
"The only negative thing is we're not able to provide it quick enough," Murphy said. "We get calls every day, 'When do we get it?'"