By MARILYN J. SMITH, For The Leader-Herald
Could some computer games actually help children get healthy? Researchers in Cornell's Food and Brand Lab and Department of Communication think so.
They have designed a game called Mindless Eating Challenge that teens can play on their mobile phones. It links the health and happiness of a virtual pet - a worm, a dinosaur or a tree, for example - with real-life choices about eating.
"It's taking the flipside of the technology," says Geri Gay, Senior Professor of Communication and principal investigator. "The Nintendo Wii has shown us that computers can help people exercise.
This game focuses on being conscious about eating."
Here's how it works: Mindless Eating Challenge will send customized tips developed by the Food and Brand Lab to teens' phones several times a day. The choices players then make in their own eating, such as to snack on fruit instead of chips, will affect the health of a virtual pet living on their phone's home screen.
If the teen makes a healthy choice (and proves it by sending a photo to researchers or a peer group), their virtual pet will grow bigger, stronger and happier.
Consistent healthy choices will unlock special accessories for their pet, games and fun features. Poor choices will make the pet lethargic, sickly and sad. In some versions, players will be able to see the health of their friends' virtual pets too.
"People have an underlying motivation to become healthy, but on its own it's not enough," says J.P. Pollak, a Ph.D. candidate in information science and a researcher on the project. "The game gives an extra kick." Geri Gay says, "It's about negative and positive feedback and how it motivates choices."
The work is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has committed more than $8 million to its national program for Health Games Research.
Gay says she and her group are taking on "an amazing epidemic."
More than 17 percent of adolescents in America are overweight, up from 5 percent in the late 1970s, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Health risks to overweight children include Type II diabetes and such precursors of cardiovascular disease as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Other risks include social stigma and low self-esteem.
What's more, four out of five children who are overweight in their early teens will be clinically obese by age 25, according to estimates by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Electronic games for mobile devices are a new frontier in health research, but Gay and her team are building on extensive knowledge they have collected by experimenting with mobile devices in other contexts, including museums.
They believe cell phones make it possible to deliver a persuasive message at the most opportune time - and get better results.
This may be especially true for teens, whose always-connected relationship with mobile phones is well documented, adds Pollak.
The research group is collecting preliminary data now with plans for a full study in the spring and summer that will involve up to 150 children ages 10 to 14 in upstate New York.
If the results are encouraging, Pollak says, the mobile gaming concept could be adapted to health issues for adults, including smoking cessation and alcoholism.
He acknowledges that mindless eating - like scarfing down buttery popcorn throughout a long movie - is only one factor contributing to childhood obesity, but he says calling attention to it can cut down on calories kids weren't really hungry for in the first place.
"It won't feel like dieting," he says. "There are literally hundreds of calories a week you just didn't need to eat."
For more information about nutrition education for youth and adults, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension in Fulton and Montgomery Counties, 762-3909. Or visit the Web site at www.ccefm.com.