WASHINGTON -- Video games, long demonized by public health officials and parents for contributing to sedentary habits and obesity among children, scored a big win Monday night with a new partnership between the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and the video game industry's major trade group, the Entertainment Software Association.
The partnership was announced at a splashy reception in the gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum attended by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a co-chair of the president's council. It centers on encouraging kids to play active video games that get them off the couch dancing, running, hopping and otherwise moving in ways that sensors translate onto a video screen.
"It's a very different world today than it was just a few years ago," Sebelius told HuffPost. "Kids love the games, and this program is an important way to meet [young people] where they are, and teach them that exercise doesn't need to be punitive, that it can be really fun and keep you healthy in the long run."
The partnership centers around a challenge in which gamers go online and log their time playing active video games. If the player logs enough hours over a six-week period, he or she wins a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. The challenge includes healthy eating goals, and is structured for kids and parents to do together. [To learn more about enrolling, click here.]
The president’s council and the software group "recognize the need to embrace technology in the fight against childhood obesity,” said Brees. "And through this program we are motivating kids and families to adopt a healthy lifestyle by using active video games."
The announcement comes after President Barack Obama in a 2009 speech to the American Medical Association blamed video games for contributing to skyrocketing U.S. obesity. "It means going for a run or hitting the gym, and raising our children to step away from the video games and spend more time playing outside," Obama said then.
In the past three years, however, the gaming industry has seen an explosion in the popularity, and technical sophistication, of active electronic games including Nintendo's Wii console, which rely on sensors and batons to detect players' movements that are then translated onto the screen.
The active gaming trend has even made it all the way to the White House, where last Christmas, Obama gave his two daughters a copy of the dancing video game "Just Dance 3," which he purchased at a Best Buy store in Northern Virginia.
First Lady Michelle Obama has also warmed to the potential of video games to help keep kids active. Her signature program, Let's Move!, which encourages active play to combat childhood obesity, announced a video game health challenge in 2010 that encouraged the software industry to develop more active games for young people.
"Active video games have a tremendous new potential to get kids up off the couch and exercising their whole bodies, not just their thumbs," said Erik Huey, a senior vice president at the Entertainment Software Association. "Given that so many children spend up to seven hours a day in front of screens, this industry is the only one right now that is converting that screen time into active time, and coming up with new ways to do that every day."WATCH: President Obama goes shopping for video games