As an ageing, overweight player of video games, I've always assumed games are a significant part of a lifestyle which is, to say the least, more sedentary than is good for me. Still, it could be worse (I've always said to myself), I could just be watching TV. But recent research suggests that stress markers and associated food consumption could be a bigger factor in gaming than television-viewing – with a liberal sprinkling of caveats, needless to say.

FIFA la différence

Researchers at University College London assembled 72 overweight or obese men aged between 18 and 32. All were given a muffin for breakfast before being set to work. The researchers then compared a control group watching episodes of the TV sitcom Friends to two groups of gamers: one playing a non-violent game, FIFA 2013, and one playing a violent one, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

After an hour, the volunteers were given a 25-minute rest and access to sweet and savory snacks including biscuits, chocolate, nuts, fruit, a sugary fizzy drink and water. The researchers measured heart rate and blood pressure throughout the experiment, and asked survey questions at regular intervals. The team took numerous steps to eliminate other influences, such as asking the volunteers to fast ahead of the experiment, and discounting data from one volunteer who rocked up with a hangover.

Kcal of Duty

The two major findings were these: First, that the gamers as a whole exhibited more stress than the TV group, though interestingly, the Call of Duty players didn't exhibit more stress than the FIFA players. Secondly, the Call of Duty players went on to actually consume more calories and saturated fat, despite no reported increase in appetite compared to the other two groups. They didn't eat more food overall, but their choices were more calorific.

"Playing video games in overweight/obese males is associated with an acute stress response relative to watching non-violent television, associated with great subsequent food intake," the research concludes. "These findings highlight the need to focus the metabolic effects, as well as the energy costs, of activities involving sitting in relation to obesity risk."

Games as exercise?

However, as the researchers point out, this work is one piece in a vast mosaic of related research. Prior research from 1991, for example, suggests that sitting down to play video games with a joystick (remember those?) expends energy comparable to mild exercise. Further, a variety of research suggests that any activities involving mental effort can lead to greater food consumption without an increase in appetite. In the context of other research, then, it would be unfair to conclude that "video games make you fat."

Further, there are limitations to this particular research. One obvious question, not addressed by this experiment, is what would have happened with a group watching violent television shows? Second, the researchers mention that the choice of video games will have had a bearing, as well as the gamers' skill at the games played.

What's in a game?

The researchers even suggest that Modern Warfare 3 could be insufficiently violent or engaging to exhibit a difference in stress markers from FIFA, though it's tempting to suggest that, so far as non-violent games go, a competitive soccer game is towards the more stressful end of the spectrum.

They also point out that findings which are true for overweight males may not hold for the broader population. They also point out that the limited choice of snacks did not reflect the full range of choice people would potentially have at home, especially if healthy choices are made when shopping.

The team's research was published in the journal Appetite, and is freely available online.

Source: UCL