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Increasing physical activity and performance through exergames

By Deborah L. Feltz, PhD, Stephen Samendinger, PhD

This is an excerpt from Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fourth Edition, edited by Thelma S. Horn, PhD, and Alan L. Smith, PhD.

Behavior change theories and concepts for exergame design are important for enhancing the effectiveness in increasing physical activity behavior and training (Thompson, 2015). Theories can help balance the fun or pure entertainment of a game and the serious aspects of behavior change (Thompson, 2015). The conceptual approaches or theories on which exergames primarily have been based are achievement goals, self-determination theory, flow, and group dynamics. Most of the games that are theoretically based use a combination of these approaches.

Achievement Goals

Goal setting, a common procedure for behavior change, has been employed within exergames. Gao and Chen (2014) note that children typically have low self-regulation skills, which is a problem in self-directed exergames. One strategy that Gao and Podlog (2012) have used has been to help children with goal setting in exergame play. Gao and Podlog found that children who set specific goals had better health outcomes than those who set vague and do-your-best goals. Goals can also provide information regarding a person’s competence and can be considered a component of self-determination theory.

Self-Determination Theory

Exergames that are based on self-determination theory focus on the intrinsic motivators of physical activity (Peng, Lin, Pfeiffer, & Winn, 2012; Roemmich, Lambiase, McCarthy, Feda, & Kozlowski, 2012). Within self-determination theory, a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are viewed as important intrinsic motivators for trying to do well at a task (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Autonomy refers to how much control or choice a person has over his or her own behaviors, the need for competence refers to the need to feel mastery or the desire to perform skillfully, and relatedness is the drive for having positive interactions and feeling connected with others. Providing people with choices over how they engage in a task can enhance the need for autonomy. Competence can be developed by providing feedback to participants about their performance so that they know how well they are doing. Giving people opportunities to develop interpersonal relationships and build social connections with one another can foster relatedness. An example of an exergame based on self-determination theory is Olympus (Peng et al., 2012). The game, aimed at sedentary college students, involved an immersive story (players were citizens of ancient Greece training for athletic competitions) in which players had to run (in place), jump, and sword-fight opponents (using a wand) to reach Mount Olympus. The game altered various elements (e.g., character customization, dialogue choice, skill improvement choice) to improve autonomy and competency (e.g., achievements, adjusting difficulty levels) (Peng et al., 2012). Results showed that autonomy- and competency-supportive game features led to improved motivation, enjoyment, recommendation of the game to others, and the overall rating of the game.

Additional research has also shown support for the motivational benefits of autonomy- and competency-supportive aspects in exergames (Lyons et al., 2014). Roemmich et al. (2012) manipulated both autonomy and mastery in an exergame for children and showed that the exergame that was both autonomy supportive, in terms of providing more choices, and mastery oriented was the most effective for increasing physical activity.


Flow theory has been used as the basis for enhancing the immersion of exergame play. As advanced by Csikszentihalyi (1990), when a person is fully immersed in an activity, it is more pleasurable and enjoyable. When exergame players are in a flow state, they are absorbed in the activity and disengaged from distractions such that they may not even perceive themselves to be exercising, which may increase the likelihood of continued use (Straker et al., 2015). As Straker et al. note, the elements of an exergame necessary to promote a flow state include concentration, challenge, player skills, control, clear goals, feedback, immersion, and social interaction. Players of exergames who were assessed on their flow experience reported experiencing flow when they were engaged in more advanced levels of game play (Thin, Hansen, & McEachen, 2011). Research has also shown that higher perceived flow results in greater energy expenditure (Noah, Spierer, Tachibana, & Bronner, 2011).

Group Dynamics

More recent conceptual approaches to the examination of exergames have used group dynamics theoretical frameworks. Specifically, playing an exergame with one or more partners can add social elements of cooperation, competition, communication, support, and coordination to the game experience (Ede, Forlenza, & Feltz, 2015). Partners and social support groups can significantly boost motivation, but not without potential problems, such as finding a partner, coordinating time, negotiating different exercise goals, and meeting a partner’s performance at any given activity. Furthermore, although group dynamics afford opportunities to employ motivation gain mechanisms inherent in cooperation and competition, they also have the potential to have a negative effect on individual and group motivation and goals, and ultimately performance. Group dynamics broadly cover intra- and intergroup cooperation and competition. Whether the group consists of only two people or many, whether it is socially oriented (i.e., based on relationship or social motivations) or task oriented (i.e. shared performance goals), multiple dynamics determine immediate and long-term outcomes. Many excellent reviews have been written about the use of group dynamics in sport and exercise (see, for example, chapter 10). In the following paragraphs, the theories regarding group dynamics are applied specifically to the use of exergames to enhance performance and physical activity.

Exergames that are based on group dynamics principles have relied on Steiner’s (1972) typology of group task structures that are applicable to exergames. Steiner described the following task structures that can be applied to exergames, which include at least some level of dependency and cooperation within the group. The task structures most relevant to exergames are additive, coactive, and conjunctive. The term coactive group structures suggests two or more persons working independently at the same task, so this common arrangement does not truly describe a team. But coactive task structures can socially influence others, and thus they are included here. In additive tasks, the group’s performance is simply determined by the sum of all group members’ individual performances. As mentioned, in coactive tasks, two or more people work at the same task but independently of each other. Unlike additive tasks, individuals are not working as a part of a group toward a common goal, yet they still can be influenced by the mere coactive or competitive presence of another person through social comparison. In conjunctive task structures, the group performance relies on the weakest member. Members work toward a group goal, but goal attainment is determined by the abilities of the member who is recognized as least capable. Steiner (1972) uses the example of mountain climbers who must yield any progress to the performance of the slowest climber.

The conjunctive task dynamic is unique and obviously differs from scenarios founded on coactive or additive group results, which are inherently prone to motivation losses (e.g., social loafing or social compensation). To capitalize on the conjunctive task structure for motivation gains (versus avoiding potential losses brought on by the weakest member), the group dynamic effects of upward social comparison must exert their influence. Furthermore, when a group member perceives that she or he is instrumental (i.e., key to the group’s performance at a high level) and values the outcome of the group effort, motivation is thought to be highest (instrumentality-value model; Vroom, 1964; Karau & Williams, 1993).

The motivation gains incurred by team members in a conjunctive task have been labeled the Köhler effect (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). Studying a club rowing team in the 1920s, Otto Köhler noted that performance on a physical task (biceps curls) by weaker rowers was better when their efforts were yoked to stronger rowers. This increased motivation was based on rowers’ understanding that their shared task would end when weaker members became exhausted and quit (i.e., a conjunctive task structure). In addition, the greatest motivation gains came when performance discrepancy was moderate and partners did not perceive performance differences as too great.

The Köhler effect emphasizes the weaker partner’s effort as indispensable to team success. This indispensability perception and the associated desire for success have been theorized as key to the motivation gain (Kerr et al., 2007). Also integral is an upward social comparison by the weaker partner (Kerr et al., 2007). The weaker partner may either set a goal to improve his or her performance or decide to compete with the stronger partner. Either way, comparison with a stronger partner is thought to be critical to the Köhler effect. To date, other possible explanations for the Köhler effect have not been clearly demonstrated, such as when a group identity is adopted in a team demanding high performance (Gockel, Kerr, Seok, & Harris, 2008). Kerr and Hertel (2011) have published a thorough review of possible moderators for the Köhler group dynamic effect.

Several lines of research have demonstrated that Köhler motivation gains applied to exercise and exergame conditions build on the robust stability of this group dynamic effect. Weber and Hertel (2007) completed a meta-analysis of inferior group member motivation gains (outside exergame research), finding that conjunctive task structures measured favorably to additive and coactive settings.

Another benefit of exergames is the adaptability of the exercise partner and the user - partner relationship. Exergame technology permits the use of live, virtually presented, and software-generated virtual partners. The research on these types of partner or group dynamics is reviewed in the following sections.

Learn more about Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fourth Edition.

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