In the fight against childhood obesity, video games are often seen as the enemy — sucking kids in to yet more sedentary screen time.

But some video games are designed to get kids moving, and a new study suggests that those games might help certain kids meet exercise goals that they’re not motivated to get in other ways.

The study’s authors suggest that vigorous video games may have the most potential to help inner-city minority kids, who tend to be at the highest risk for becoming overweight.

“A lot of people say screen time is a big factor in the rising tide of childhood obesity,” said lead author Todd Miller in a press release. He’s an exercise scientist at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. “But if a kid hates playing dodge ball but loves Dance Dance Revolution, why not let him work up a sweat playing E-games?” 

In its physical activity guidelines, the United States government recommends that kids get an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise most days of the week. But most American children fall short of that goal. And 17 percent of kids and teens in this country are now obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. African-American and Latino kids disproportionally end up in that category.

As part of the physical education curriculum, many schools have added interactive video games that get kids to move. To see how those games stack up against each other and against more traditional sports activities, Miller and colleagues studied about 100 kids in grades three through eight from an inner-city school in D.C. Most of the students were African-American and most qualified for subsidized school lunches.

During their normal gym period, kids were randomly assigned to do one of three activities: regular gym activities, such as dodge ball or jump rope; the game Dance Dance Revolution, which challenged them to repeat increasingly difficult dance moves; or the game Winds of Orbis: An Active Adventure, which put them in the role of a virtual superhero that had to climb, jump and do other active moves.

Each session lasted 20 minutes. And by the end of the experiment, each kid had done all three activities. All the while, the researchers measured how much energy they used up during the period.

In general, kids used more energy doing normal gym activities than they did playing either video game, the researchers report today in the journal Games for Health. But for kids in third through fifth grades, activity levels were high enough during video-game play to qualify as “vigorous.” And Orbis pushed kids to move more energetically than Dance Dance Revolution did.

Those findings suggest that role-playing games that allow kids to control the pace of the game might help some kids meet requirements for physical activity, particularly in certain groups.

On a more discouraging note, kids in grades six and up expended less energy than younger kids did on all three activities. In the older group, girls also expended less energy at all activities compared to boys, reinforcing how hard it is for adolescent, inner-city girls to get enough exercise.

“Our study has substantial public health relevance, as we studied a relatively large sample of inner-city school children who may be most at risk for sedentary behavior and for obesity,” the researchers wrote. “It appears as though e-gaming may provide an effective adjunct to traditional PE activities in promoting recommended daily levels of — at least in younger children and perhaps in overweight/obese children.”