Gaming as a Tool to Combat the Obesity Crisis

Gaming could be a tool to combat the obesity crisis. On the energy intake side of the equation, media diets can include exposure to high-nutrient food advergames (Calvert, 2008) and mobile games (Byrne et al., 2012) as ways to foster children’s interest, motivation, and consumption of healthy foods and beverages. On the energy expenditure side of the equation, exergames—video games that require gross motor movement—can increase energy expenditure and result in weight loss (Staiano & Calvert, 2011a; Staiano, Abraham, & Calvert, 2013).

Games for Healthy Eating

The literature investigating advergames as a way to combat obesity is limited at present. Therefore, we present one study in detail as an example of how this approach could work. Pempek and Calvert (2009) used a Pac-Man advergame to alter the food and drink choices and consumption patterns of children. Low-income third- and fourth-grade African American children individually played Pac-Man in one of three conditions. In one condition, children gained points for “eating” healthier foods like bananas and carrots and “drinking” a healthier beverage like orange juice. They lost points for “eating” less healthy foods like chips and candy bars, and for “drinking” a soda. In a second condition, children gained points for consuming the less healthy foods and beverages, and they lost points for consuming the healthier products. The game had two levels; children advanced from the simpler level with fewer foods and beverages to the more difficult level with more foods and beverages after accumulating enough points to win the first level. On average, children took about 10 minutes to play both levels of the game.

After game play ended, children selected a snack consisting of a banana or a bag of chips, and a bottle of orange juice or a soda. Those who played the healthier version of the Pac-Man game were more likely to select and consume the healthier products in a real setting, compared to those who played the less healthy version.

Thus, playing advergames can easily sway the children’s preferences and snack consumption.

These results indicate that transfer effects from game play to the real world can occur even after a brief treatment. One reason for effective transfer may be that the game was played and the snack choices were made and then consumed in the same school environment, which indicates a close rather than a distal transfer effect. Persuading children to eat healthier snacks at home or during the lunch hour may be more challenging. In addition, even though there was a delay between playing the game and subsequent snack choices and consumption, the delay was a matter of minutes rather than days, weeks, or months. Future research should investigate if playing the game in multiple settings numerous times will maximize effective transfer.

Children also enjoyed the advergame. About 93% of the children reported that they really liked the game, and 7% said that they liked it. About 66% said that the game was the right level of difficulty, with about 17% saying that the game was too easy and another 17% saying that the game was too hard. We also discovered that more African American girls than African American boys visited food websites and played games there, making advergames an important approach for targeting African American girls (Pempek & Calvert, 2009), who are at particularly high risk for being overweight and obese (Ogden, Carroll, Curtin, Lamb & Flegal, 2010).

Overall, the design elements found in this very simple Pac-Man game were enjoyable for children and offered a valuable resource for them to learn healthy eating habits from gaming. The intrinsic value of the game, which is documented in the success of Pac-Man games overall, suggests that variable levels of game challenge coupled with an attractive character can create an effective pathway for food intake interventions with minority children. Future research is needed to disentangle the specific features of the Pac-Man game that make it such an engaging and effective approach for children.

Mobile games can also improve children’s eating habits. For example, Byrne and colleagues (2012) investigated the role that virtual pets play in breakfast consumption. In their study, a sample of adolescents was given iPhones for nine days and some were told to play with a virtual pet app on the phone. Participants were told to take and send pictures of their breakfasts in one of three conditions: (1) they sent a photo of their breakfast to their pets, whose “responses” to the photo ranged from very positive (very happy expressions) to very negative (very sad expressions); (2) they sent a photo of their breakfast to their pets, whose “responses” to the photo ranged from very positive (very happy expressions) to neutral (neutral expressions); and (3) youth simply took pictures of their breakfast (control) and sent them to a generic email address rather than to a pet.

Adolescents who sent pictures of their breakfast to a virtual pet who gave them a full range of positive and negative feedback were significantly more likely to eat breakfast than those who only received the positive and neutral feedback or those in the control group. There were no treatment differences, however, in how healthy the breakfast foods consumed were.

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