XXII.3 May - June 2015
Page: 52
Digital Citation

Discouraging sedentary behaviors using interactive play

Regan Mandryk, Kathrin Gerling

Regular physical activity has many benefits, including to a person’s physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being [1]. Although adults should achieve 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, only 15 percent of adults meet these guidelines in at least 10-minute bouts, and only 5 percent of adults meet these guidelines in at least 30-minute bouts on five or more days per week (see [2]). For children, the statistics are even more discouraging. Although kids should get 60 minutes of activity per day, only 7 percent of Canadian youth accumulate 60 minutes per day six days a week (see [2]). The exercise habits adopted by children and pre-teens during this critical period can have lifelong consequences in physical health and self esteem. To encourage physical activity, researchers and developers in HCI have created a variety of “exergames,” which encourage people to exercise by integrating exertion into the game mechanics (e.g., [3]). Many exergames have focused on providing intense physical activity for players and have been shown to yield sufficient exertion to obtain the aforementioned benefits to a player’s well-being.

However, recent work among health researchers has shown that there are also negative physiological consequences associated with sedentary behavior and that these consequences are distinct from those that result from a lack of physical activity [1]. Although this may seem surprising, physical activity and sedentary behavior are not mutually exclusive. Even if a person is physically active (e.g., biking to work in the morning), she can also be sedentary (e.g., by primarily sitting for the remaining waking hours); the effects of too much sitting are physiologically distinct from too little exercise [1]. The potential negative health outcomes are of particular relevance to populations who spend large parts of the day sitting, for example, schoolchildren who spend many hours a day sitting at their desks, and groups that struggle to gain access to opportunities for regular physical activity, for example, people with mobility impairments and older adults in long-term care.



Because of the potential negative effects on health, researchers are now exploring the need for anti-sedentary guidelines to exist alongside guidelines for physical activity (see [2]). As researchers who design digital game-based interventions to promote health, we have been focused on designing games to promote physical activity; however, these exergames may or may not also work to combat sedentary behaviors. For example, a game designed to encourage a jogger to commit to and follow through with a daily jog will help a player meet the physical activity guidelines but will not help to combat sedentary behavior over the remaining waking hours. There has been little research into how the design of anti-sedentary exergames should differ from exergames that promote vigorous physical activity.

In a recent book chapter [2], we presented and contrasted the medical guidelines for physical activity and those for sedentary behaviors. We identified five design principles that need to be considered for anti-sedentary game design (see next section). We dub these anti-sedentary games energames—games that reduce sedentary time by requiring frequent bursts of light physical activity throughout the day. Here, we revisit the design principles for energames and show examples of how they have been used to design games that combat sedentary behavior in three at-risk populations: schoolchildren, people who use wheelchairs, and institutionalized older adults. Our work in this area is distinct in both intention and execution from much of the work on exergame design. Rather than designing for exertion experiences (e.g., [3]), our goal is to use the motivational pull of games alongside interaction design to decrease sedentary time throughout the day.

Anti-Sedentary Energame Design

Design principles for integrating physical activity into games while fostering player motivation include aspects such as the importance of providing feedback on activity levels, drawing awareness to past and current activity levels, providing feedback on goal achievement, leveraging social sharing, and integrating activity into a user’s lifestyle. Based on these and other exergame design principles, we identified the following five design principles to foster energame design [2]:

  • Providing an easy entry into play. Lowering the barrier to foster physical activity can be accomplished by offering players an easy entry into play using accessible core game mechanics and controls.
  • Implementing achievable short-term challenges to foster long-term motivation. To engage players over a longer period of time, achievable short-term goals can build self-efficacy and foster long-term player motivation.
  • Providing users with appropriate feedback on their exercise effort. Providing players the opportunity to review their exercise efforts after play or through in-game feedback can improve performance and foster motivation.
  • Implementing individual skill-matching to keep players engaged. Adapting in-game challenges to match players’ individual skill levels is one of the most important aspects of energame design, and is applicable both for player-versus-system and player-versus-player games.
  • Supporting social play to foster interaction and increase exercise motivation. Supporting social play and fostering interaction between players is a core component when trying to increase long-term exercise motivation.

Here, we present some energame examples that follow these guidelines to help reduce sedentary lifestyles in three vulnerable populations.

Building Energames that Interrupt Sedentary Behaviors

The goal of energames is to encourage people to break up sedentary time with movement. Three populations who are at risk of the negative consequences of sedentary lifestyles are schoolchildren who sit in desks for much of the day, people who use wheelchairs, and the elderly who reside in nursing homes. We have developed energames for each of these populations, and discuss their design and evaluation.

GrabApple. We initially developed GrabApple to explore the space of casual exergames—that is, computer games that players can learn easily and access quickly, using simple rules and special game mechanics, to motivate them to exercise at a moderate intensity for short periods of play (see [4]). Evaluated originally with young adults, we found that players were able to increase their heart rate during play, which helped them improve their performance on tests of attention and focus (see [4]). This led us to consider the use of GrabApple for schoolchildren who could gain the acute cognitive benefits of breaking up sedentary time by playing a motion-based game.

Gameplay. The goal of GrabApple is to pick up falling apples and avoid touching the falling bombs (Figure 1). The avatar is controlled through the movement of the player’s body, and the game uses the player’s body weight as resistance to generate exercise through jumping, ducking, and movement. Score multipliers and game mechanics encouraged jumping, ducking, and periodically dashing to the keyboard.

Researchers are now exploring the need for anti-sedentary guidelines to exist alongside guidelines for physical activity.

Game input. The game used the Microsoft Kinect sensor to detect users’ body movements. In the Kinect version, the player’s position in space controlled the x and y location of the player’s avatar. In a mouse-based version, avatar position was controlled using the mouse cursor.

User experience. We compared the physical exertion, affective state, and player experience of children playing GrabApple with a sedentary version of the game and traditional physical exercise used for activity breaks to interrupt sedentary time at school [4]. Our energame raised heart rates and perceived exertion levels significantly more than sedentary play, but not as much as traditional physical exercise. Players rated their arousal as higher after playing the energame (compared to sedentary play), and rated the game as more enjoyable than traditional exercise. Students also identified benefits to concentration from light exercise during a short break during the day and were interested in using a game to engage in movement-based activities during breaks.

Although GrabApple was successful as an energame, it is not accessible to players who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs. To address this design space, we implemented and evaluated Wheelchair Revolution, a game for people who use wheelchairs.

Wheelchair Revolution. We designed Wheelchair Revolution [5] with two goals in mind: First, we wanted to design a motion-based game accessible for people who use wheelchairs, and second, we wanted to support parallel competition between players who use wheelchairs and able-bodied players.

Gameplay. Wheelchair Revolution is a dancing game similar to Dance Dance Revolution, a popular motion-based game. The gameplay consists of performing steps (indicated by falling arrows) synchronously to the beat of a song (Figure 2). The player aims to perform the move indicated by each arrow at the moment the arrow is in line with a target at the bottom of the screen and is awarded points based on how well each step is executed.

Game input. Players could use a dance mat, a game pad, or a wheelchair as input. The wheelchair mode emulates dancing by requiring players to move around with the wheelchair (forward, backward, and turning the wheelchair to the left and right). Wheelchair movements are captured by a Microsoft Kinect sensor. We implemented a variety of player-balancing mechanisms to ensure fair competition between various input types.

User experience. We had dyads of players (one able-bodied person, one person using a wheelchair) play the game in conjunction with the Canadian Paraplegic Association’s wheelchair relay, an annual family sports event. Participants provided feedback on the game and their player experience. Our findings showed that players using wheelchair input showed heightened satisfaction of needs (e.g., competence, autonomy, and relatedness) compared with a neutral response; satisfaction of needs during play ultimately predicts a player’s motivation and is indicative of a positive user experience. Players rated their enjoyment of our game significantly higher than a neutral response, and their comments demonstrated that they enjoyed how the game integrated the wheelchair (e.g., “It is nice to see my wheelchair in the game instead of being an object that stands between me and the world”). Although our balancing mechanisms helped equalize the playing field between the different types of input, able-bodied players still outscored their opponents using wheelchairs, suggesting that better balancing approaches need to be investigated and implemented.

Our work on Wheelchair Revolution demonstrates how the wheelchair can be integrated into a game as an input device. This game was targeted at younger adults; however, we were curious to see whether motion-based play could also provide physical stimulation for older adults experiencing age-related changes. We conducted several studies, exploring the space of motion-based game design for the elderly.

Hunting, cooking, and candy. Our work on motion-based game design for the elderly has investigated various input controls, including wheelchair-based control, and the use of motion-based games to foster relationships with caregivers. These research projects led to the design of a suite of motion-based games for use by the elderly, which we deployed in a long-term evaluation with seniors who lived in a care home (long-term care) and in a senior residence (assisted living) [6].

Gameplay. In Candy Kids, candy moved across the screen and could be fed to a child by moving the player avatar (represented by a virtual hand) over the scrolling candy. Prairie Hunter invited players to hunt virtual animals by moving crosshairs over the animal using the motion of their hand. In Cooking Challenge, players prepared a salad by chopping, arranging, and mixing ingredients. Harvest Time invited players to cut down apples from a tree and hand the apple to a girl (Figure 3).

Our work on Wheelchair Revolution demonstrates how the wheelchair can be integrated into a game as an input device.

Game input. Both Candy Kids and Prairie Hunter used pointing input, where the player’s hand was tracked using Microsoft Kinect to control an avatar within the game. Cooking Challenge and Harvest Time implemented gesture-based input that mimicked the real-world actions associated with the content of the games. Players used their strong hand to perform gestures and pointing actions. All games could be played in single-player or multiplayer mode.

User experience. A four-month deployment of the games in the two care facilities provided insights into the use of the games by the residents. Focusing on qualitative analysis of interview and observational data, we found that playing video games in the context of a weekly activity is enjoyable and empowering for independent older adults in a senior residence, but difficult when people experience complex age-related changes and impairments—as in the care home, for example—if these changes influence how older adults view the social context of play and how much assistance they require.

Reflections on Energame Design

We have presented three examples of how energames designed according to a set of guidelines can motivate movement through playful interaction design. Our games were designed for three specific populations who are vulnerable to long periods of sedentary behavior. GrabApple was deployed in schools to break up long periods of sitting. In addition to raising heart rate and being an enjoyable experience, it also met the guidelines for energame design. The simple-to-learn game mechanics offered an easy entry into play, the in-game challenges were achievable in a short time, players received immediate feedback related to their exerted effort, the game difficulty adjusted to the player’s skill through increasing challenge, and we provided a class-based aggregate leaderboard to provide motivation through social play without identifying individual players.

Wheelchair Revolution was designed to provide wheelchair-accessible motion-based play. By integrating the wheelchair as an input device, we gave players a way to break up sedentary periods of the day, and use the wheelchair as a tool to interact with a game while promoting movement. The guidelines for energame design guided development: The game provides easy entry into play by using accessible mechanics and controls; it provides short-term challenges to build self-efficacy; it provides users with feedback about how well they performed—which is directly tied to their physical effort; it balances play for players with different abilities and skills; and it allows players with different physical abilities to directly compete, offering a social play experience with other people who use wheelchairs or able-bodied players.

Finally, our suite of games for institutionalized older adults was created using the guidelines for energame design in combination with design recommendations for games for older adults. As such, we focused on energame design within the context of accessibility of games for older adults experiencing age-related changes and impairments. Our results show that the nature of energames (easy entry into play, combination of short- and long-term challenges, playability in a social setting) makes them particularly suited for deployment in care-home settings, where sessions of play often need to fit in with other scheduled activities, but that their successful integration and older adults’ engagement with them ultimately depends on their individual abilities and interests. However, if older adults do take ownership of energame play, our findings demonstrate that such games can be a valuable opportunity to provide mental and physical stimulation to combat sedentary behavior in late life, encouraging older adults to reintroduce challenge and competition into their leisure activities.

Our results suggest that energames can promote movement among very different populations—from schoolchildren to older adults living in care homes. Motivating physical activity in short bursts throughout the day can help to break up long periods of sedentary behavior; interactive play is a fun way of achieving this goal.


1. Tremblay, M.S., Colley, R., Saunders, T.J., Healy, G.N., and Owen, N. Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 35, 6 (2010), 725–740.

2. Mandryk, R.L., Gerling, K.M., and Stanley, K.S. Designing games to discourage sedentary behavior. In Playful User Interfaces, Gaming Media and Social Effects. A. Nijholt, ed. Springer, 2014, 253–274.

3. Mueller, F., Vetere, F., Gibbs, M.R., Agamanolis, S., and Sheridan, J. Jogging over a distance: The influence of design in parallel exertion games. Proc. of the SIGGRAPH Sandbox. 2010, 63–68.

4. Gao, Y., Gerling, K.M., Mandryk, R.L., and Stanley, K.S. Decreasing sedentary behavior among pre-adolescents using casual exergames at school. Proc. of CHI PLAY 2014.

5. Gerling, K.M., Miller, M.K., Mandryk, R.L., Birk, M., and Smeddinck, J. Effects of balancing for physical abilities on player performance, experience and self-esteem in exergames. Proc. of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2014, 2201–2210.

6. Gerling, K.M., Mandryk, R.L., Linehan, C. Long-term use of motion-based video games in care home settings. Proc. of CHI 2015. To appear.


Regan L. Mandryk is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Saskatchewan, where she is redefining the role of video games for motivating behaviors and connecting people. Her game-related research ranges from evaluation methods to new interaction techniques to game-based interventions for health and learning.

Kathrin M. Gerling is a lecturer in games computing at the University of Lincoln, U.K., where she focuses on the design and evaluation of interactive technologies for purposes beyond entertainment—particularly video games for audiences with special needs, such as people with disabilities, older adults, or chronically ill children.


F1Figure 1. Screenshot of GrabApple.

F2Figure 2. Wheelchair Revolution being played by a person in a wheelchair and an able-bodied player.

F3Figure 3. Screenshots of the four games designed for older adults (clockwise from top left): Harvest Time, Prairie Hunter, Cooking Challenge, and Candy Kids.

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@Play Group in Gurgaon (2015 07 14)

Kids do lot of physical activities in their play school and at home running here and there. But the adult tasks are usually sedentary. So it is required for the adults to indulge themselves in the anti-sedentary games and activities.