A study published online and set to appear in the pages of the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that games can be used to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Researchers are looking for new ways to combat the rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes in young people. One of the ways to combat this is an increased intake of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, and water. Researchers hypothesized going into this study that video games designed to support healthy lifestyles would have a positive effect on children who played them.
"Serious video games offer promise of innovative channels for effective behavior change," writes Tom Baranowski, PhD, from the Agricultural Research Service Children’s Nutrition Research Center, US Department of Agriculture, at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas, and colleagues. "Once a child’s attention has been attracted, modeling, tailoring, and feedback can increase personal relevance; in addition, games add fun."
The study monitored 133 children, ages 10 – 12 years, with body mass indexes between the 50th and 95th percentiles. Using computers, 103 participants played 2 games called "Escape From Diab" and "Nanoswarm: Invasion From Inner Space." B games were specifically designed to support social cognition, self-determination, and persuasion.
A control group of 50 children played games with diet and physical activity themes on popular Web sites. Each group underwent four weight, body composition, and physical activity assessments immediately after completion of Escape From Diab, immediately after Nanoswarm, and two months after the trial ended. Participants were paid $25 for the first evaluation, with $5 more added incrementally to each of the subsequent reviews.
During the study, the children reported food intake to registered dieticians and game activity was verified through email, call-ins, and during equipment repair requests.
The study found that children playing Escape From Diab and Nanoswarm ate approximately 0.67 more servings per day of fruits (including 100 percent juice) and vegetables (P = .018) than those in the control group. The games had no clear affect on water intake, and did not "result in greater moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (P = .496) or lower body mass index (P = .107)."
"Fruit and vegetable intake and water consumption and physical activity were still below the minimum recommendations, indicating that more work is needed," the authors write.
The study did have its fair share of limitations too including self-reporting, limited size of the study group due to funding limitations, the effectiveness of the monetary incentives in motivating study subjects, and the small increase in "sedentary behavior."
"Serious video games hold promise, but their effectiveness and mechanisms of change among youth need to be investigated more thoroughly," the study authors write. "Research is needed on the optimal design of video game components to maximize change."
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the US Department of Agriculture supported the study. Study author Richard Buday is the President of Archimage, the creators of Escape From Diab and Nano.