- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla.

Obesity may be a global epidemic, but it’s Obeez City that is spreading out of control in a video game released last week. The game teaches youngsters how to avoid the ravages of being overweight — and may the healthy force be with you.

Gamers join a team of superheroes called Body Mechanics and war against the Evil Coalition of Harm and Disease, battling villains with names like Col Estorol and Betes II. The fighting takes place inside the body of Jack Decayd, and if Obeez City is not contained, “Jack will die soon,” says Neuro, the Yoda-like wise one who narrates the game’s story line.

“I remember how it started. A few snacks here, a soft drink there,” Neuro, speaking in an ominous tone, says during the opening. “And before we knew it, the Evil Coalition of Harm and Disease was threatening us all.”

Neuro then makes his plea: “You must join the team of heroic Body Mechanics. They need your help in order to gain the knowledge necessary to save Jack’s life. Only you can change how this story ends.”

“Body Mechanics” is the latest in a string of products in the video-game industry to buck long-held criticism and stress exercise and healthy living. The game is packaged with an animated movie and sold as a two-disc set.

Viewed as sedentary pastimes, video games — and their cousins, the television and the personal computer — are typically the object of parental finger-waving.

Children are becoming gamers younger than ever — 2 years old, according to a survey conducted by NPD Group, a market research firm. With U.S. sales of $12.5 billion last year, the gaming industry’s foothold is planted firmly in American culture — and so is childhood obesity.

About 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is an 80 percent chance that overweight children will become obese adults and will be at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

But with the popular active video game “Dance Dance Revolution” and gaming consoles such as Nintendo’s Wii and now “Body Mechanics,” the negative hype that video games enable teens to lie around and gain weight may meet resistance.

Imagine “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” all mixed up inside the body and that’s “Body Mechanics,” said Tony Findlay, the game’s creator, who is based in Australia. Mr. Findlay, 40, said he developed the idea for the game and movie while on tour to promote a book about dieting.

“Parents approached me and asked how they can teach their kids to eat better and exercise more,” said Mr. Findlay, who said his own father was obese and died of a heart attack at 56.

Dr. Butch Rosser, one of the contributors of “Body Mechanics,” was once a morbidly obese medical student whose weight topped 450 pounds. He acknowledges that he used video games — dating back to “Pong” in the 1970s — to escape the stresses of all-night study sessions.

Now a surgeon in New York City, father of five and, yes, still a gamer, he weighs in 160 pounds lighter these days because of gastric-bypass surgery six years ago. Dr. Rosser lends his acting ability in the movie as Dr. Bludd, the good doctor who stresses the importance of saving not only Jack Decayd’s life but “all of humanity.”

His prescription for the young and overweight today is the very thing he says enabled his weight gain early in life: video games.

“We have a new genre of video games today,” Dr. Rosser said. “You can lose pounds while having fun and that’s a beautiful combination.”

Jake Schweizer, an 8-year-old gamer in Orlando, plays his XBox about an hour every day. He is within the 5- to 11- year-old age range that “Body Mechanics” aims to reach.

Players choose one of three main missions and then follow along on an animated adventure, answering 10 questions along the way. Answer too many questions incorrectly, and Jack Decayd dies.

“I like the questions. They’re fun to answer,” said Jake, who missed only one the first time he played “Body Mechanics” during a recent video game convention in Orlando.

Video games like “Body Mechanics” have a difficult task, said Karen Cullen, associate professor of pediatrics/nutrition at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center in Houston.

“You can give someone an hour’s worth of facts, and you’ll bore them to death,” she said. “The games have to be entertaining to compete in the marketplace.”


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