Health Center Home
Children Obesity and Computer Games
Using Computer Games and Other Media to Decrease Child Obesity
Since 1979, scientists at the USDA-ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center
(CNRC) at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, have been studying
the unique nutritional needs of pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, toddlers,
and children. Much of this work is basic research to learn how best to nourish
infants, children, and adolescents.
CNRC researchers also study how to translate their findings into practical
ways to help children obtain the best possible nutrition - especially children
in certain vulnerable socioeconomic groups. One approach to changing food
choice/eating behaviors of children in various age groups has been to develop
interactive computer games - called "edutainment" - that are both amusing and
Researchers at the CNRC have already created and evaluated several
edutainment approaches that fall under the umbrella of what are called
"eHealth" programs. The eHealth series of CNRC projects is aimed at engaging
children in nutrition studies by using devices such as the Internet, video
games, Web-based games, comic books, cartoons, and other media.
One of the latest efforts, called "Food, Fun,
and Fitness Internet Program for Girls," focused on preventing obesity among 8- to
10-year-old African-American girls (of all economic classes),
a group that has higher-than-normal obesity rates and higher risk
of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, and stroke once they grow up.
CNRC behavioral scientist Deborah Thompson was the principal investigator for this
interactive online computer program. She led the research team in developing and
refining the design and in evaluating the effectiveness of this approach to
promote two main healthy behaviors: increasing physical activity and consuming
more fruit, juices, vegetables, and water.
The Internet program focuses on culturally sensitive web-based comic strips
that are aimed at reaching African-American girls. The comic characters have
different preferences. Some like to exercise more than others and some dislike
vegetables more than others. They also vary in personality and in physical
features, like body shapes and hairstyles.
"This is a great way for the girls to relate to the comic characters a bit
more," says Thompson. "Characters were given different looks, styles, and
personalities with the hope that the girls could identify with one or more
of the characters. This would give the girls more incentive to participate
and complete the program."
Throughout the 8-week study with girls in the Houston area, Thompson examined
the effect of incentives on the log-on rate to their new eHealth program. Each
day throughout the study, the participants in the "Food, Fun, and Fitness"
program had goals to eat five servings of fruit, juice, and vegetables;
drink five glasses of water; and do 30 minutes of physical activity.
The website activities were structured to help participants learn ways to
meet those goals. For example, the comic characters modeled asking, negotiation,
and decision-making skills to meet their goals. They also participated in
problem-solving activities. Based on these examples, the girls themselves
set weekly personal goals and reported whether or not they met their goals.
Based on online questionnaire responses, it appears the program has had a
positive impact. Preliminary results suggest the program was effective at
helping the girls increase fruit and vegetable intake and physical activity
behaviors likely to decrease obesity risk.
Family Web and Squire's Quest
CNRC behavioral nutritionist Karen Cullen has recently completed a similar
project called "Family Web," another Web-based comic strip health program,
geared towards parents of 8- to 10-year-old African-American girls. The comic
strips depict possible solutions to different problems parents may face if their
child does not want to eat healthier foods or increase physical activity.
The program also provides fun-yet-healthy recipes even kids will like.
Another successful eHealth program is "Squire's Quest," a computer game
developed by CNRC behavioral nutrition researchers led by behavioral
nutritionist Tom Baranowski. It's oriented toward helping elementary school
students eat more fruits and vegetables.
In the game, the "Kingdom of 5ALot" is invaded by snakes and moles attempting
to destroy the fruit and vegetable crops. The King and Queen enlist the help
of student "squires," who face challenges related to drinking more juices and
eating more fruits and vegetables. The squires gain points by preparing recipes
in a virtual kitchen using these foods.
Follow-up testing of 1,578 fourth-grade Houston Independent School District
students who played Squire's Quest showed they soon began eating an extra
serving of fruit a day.
A Badge for Better Health
Thompson and Baranowski collaborated in a "Multicultural 5-A-Day Badge Project,"
an intervention to increase consumption of fruit, juice, or vegetables and
physical activity among Boy Scouts. That project was funded by the American
Cancer Society. It led to a nine-session instructional program that included
about 20 minutes per week of in-troop activities, such as recipe preparation and
taste testing; 20 minutes of Internet activities, such as goal setting; a comic
strip to show how to overcome problems in making dietary changes; problem
solving; and goal reviewing. Forty-two Boy Scout troops participated in the
program. The boys were divided evenly into two groups, one focusing on diet
and the other on physical activity. Participants who completed their programs
received an achievement badge.
Combined, these different programs in various computer formats and with differing target age groups are providing Thompson, Baranowski,
and other CNRC researchers with invaluable data for their studies.
Can Computer games really help to decrease children obesity? So far, they think so!
Source: "Using Computer Games and Other Media To Decrease Child Obesity,"
Agricultural Research magazine, March 2006
Adapted by Editorial Staff, November 2006
Last update, August 2008