Obesity has never been a problem historically until recently. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, obesity has nearly tripled since 1980. Nearly 100 million Americans are now considered obese. This staggering number comes primarily from poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle that has become the norm in our society, and video games only bolster this problem.
Most video games still use the traditional controller-and-console setup in which a person can sit and play for hours on end. Combine that with excessive snack foods that have no nutritional value, and you generally get obesity as the end result. With the help of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the Get Up program — a collaboration between the UC Davis School of Education, Foods for Health Institute and Play4Change — wants to combat this epidemic by using video games as motivation for children and teens to live healthier and more active lifestyles.
The project is currently under development. Started in September of this year, the team is working closely with a group of kids from Sacramento, Calif. between the ages of 11 and 14 to help develop an algorithm that can be used for the game. The goal is to teach the kids better habits through positive reinforcement, and it also helps researchers study the importance of identity in children.
“Once this idea came in, I started looking for grant opportunities, and found the perfect call out for cyber learning to educate kids … A lot of children don’t get health education within their daily curriculum, so we’re working with an afterschool program in Sacramento to educate kids,” said Sara Schaefer, associate director of children’s health and education programs at the Foods for Health Institute at UC Davis, and the lead director of the study. “The way we’re thinking it will work is the kids will have an avatar, like in The Sims, but the avatar [within the game] will be affected by the kids’ behavior outside the game.”
Schaefer also adds why the group of kids were chosen.
“This age group is selected due to the fact that middle school students, ages 11 to 14 (pre-teens and young teens), are at a critical stage where they are on the one hand making more of their own physical activity and nutritional choices than elementary school children, but on the other hand not fully shaped in terms of their identities or behavioral patterns.”
The game’s interface is currently a concept. It will translate from a survey-based system to a digital system later in the development, and will use specialized accelerometers that record the daily activities from the number of steps to the amount of sleep a child gets. The recorded data is then wirelessly transferred to a database in which researchers will analyze and input the information into the game. This directly builds up an avatar’s abilities, such as increased speed, strength, or even disease immunity.
The project is currently experimental. Over the next two years, the project team hopes to understand and develop a game that can be used for a larger population.
“We’re hoping that based on the things we find out here, we can expand and start creating different kinds of games. [We] then figure out what kinds of kids are motivated by what kinds of games,” said Cynthia Carter Ching, an associate professor and director of undergraduate programs at the UC Davis School of Education, and the principal investigator for the project. “Right now, we’re looking at the sort of game with an online environment, like [the game] Glitch, where it’s open-ended and continues to change with new levels or new worlds, so we can keep kids motivated and playing.”
The game has similarities to World of Warcraft, where players gain levels and unlock achievements with more training. The only difference is the physical connection to the real world.
“As long as there is a connection between the out-of-game experience and in-game experience, it could work, but there also has to be a proper reward system. Maybe it would work with kids, but there would need to be more of an incentive,” said Otelo Contras, a third-year aerospace engineering major and an avid gamer.
Due to the project being in the developmental stages, its fine details have not been finalized. Luckily, the team has Robin Hunicke, a designer that has been involved with several projects such as The Sims, Journey and Boom Blox for the Wii. Together, the project team is hoping to move to the next stage after Christmas.
ALLEN GUAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.