On a hot Bakersfield Friday, Jonathan Marquez, 13, skateboarded up ramps, jumped across rivers and raced past palm trees. If he fell in the river, he just paddled his arms and kept moving.
Marquez did all this in the air-conditioned Beale Memorial Library in front of a large LED screen.
Every Friday afternoon in June and July, library staff opens the auditorium for young gamers to virtually skate, dance or smash a few tennis balls. The program is part of an effort to keep teenagers safe and active during the smoldering summer months. Staff also hopes the project will keep the library relevant for its younger patrons.
"This is the video game generation," said David Meeks, a librarian. "Once people find out what a great place this is, maybe they'll check out a book, too."
The library's effort coincides with the Kern County Department of Public Health's goal to integrate fitness into residents' daily lives. The plan, or "Call to Action," aims to improve health by focusing not only on individuals but also the broader environment. In Kern County, about 60 percent of teenagers and adults are overweight or obese, according to the department.
"You wouldn't think of a library as a place for physical fitness," said Mariel Mehdipour, the department's director of health promotion and public information. "This is a perfect example of what can be done."
The Kern County Library Foundation donated $12,000 for the project, which was used to purchase four gaming consoles, LED screens and accessories, and about a dozen active games for both the Nintendo Wii and the Kinect for Xbox 360. Now that the library has the equipment, it's possible the program will continue after the summer months, said Andrea Apple, the head librarian.
On Friday, about 30 participants, ranging in age from toddlers to moms, showed up for the event. While the program targets teenagers, everyone is welcome, Apple said.
"The dancing really gets kids involved, and it's hilarious to see the parents getting into it, too," Apple said. "This is moving the library forward into the next decade."
Arianna Robles, 10, said she was interested in hanging out and dancing: "I'm just happy to be here."
Marlo Zacarias, 34, brought her two children to the library for the "free entertainment." They have their own game console at home, but it's more exciting to be part of the group atmosphere, she said.
"At home, they just watch television, which is so boring for them," she said. "It's fun to be with the other kids."
On Friday, Zacarias joined in the fun, mimicking the moves of an on-screen dancer wearing tiny black shorts and sexy red suspenders. Zacarias followed the lead, lifting her arms and sashaying her legs to the beat of disco hit "Funkytown." Thanks to a video camera in the auditorium, the screen occasionally flashed with Zacarias' own image.
Next up on the "Dance Central" game was Breann Barber, 10, who said she enjoys shaking her arms overhead and sliding her feet to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face."
"It gives me the exercise I need in the summer," Barber said.
Before long, several onlookers began following the steps, too, creating a lively troupe of back-up dancers.
"When one person starts dancing, sometimes five or six join in," said librarian Meeks. "Some of these turn out to be whole group games."