Gaming for Health: Can Online Games Transform ‘Tween Eating Habits?

December 17, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Online-games

We've seen efforts to promote health through Wii and Dance Dance Revolution, but now the USDA is taking steps to integrate wellness into online gaming. The USDA is

…launching
the Innovations for Healthy Kids Challenge… by holding a national
contest that will promote healthier dietary habits among children…
This challenge is open to entrepreneurs, software developers and
students to design a creative and educational game targeted to kids,
especially “tweens,” aged 9-12. 

And the USDA is providing access to a rich database of nutrition information, the MyFood-a-Pedia database, to help software developers build their games.

So
while the details haven't been announced (and details do matter), it's
really interesting to see how the Obama administration is getting so
creative in getting health messages out. Obama was the first
presidential candidate to place ads in video games after
all, so it's interesting to see this non-traditional approach to
communication strategy play out in public health initiatives.

We've seen USDA on Sesame Street, the White House on Iron Chef,  and now efforts to meet kids where they are: on the Internet.

What kind of game do you think would get the healthy-eating message out to the 'tweens you know?

Here's my idea: how about a school food Facebook game? Run your own school food service (think of a combination of Farmville and Restaurant City)
where you need to stay within a very tight budget, make the food
healthy, incorporate veggies from local farms and of course you need to
make sure your customers (the students) like your food? Invite friends
to help slice cucumbers, or try your healthy chicken jambalaya.  I think it could work. It could be the next big  Facebook game sensation. Anyone game?

No more Mafia Wars requests please. I'll spend my time building a successful school cafeteria.

We've
yet to see how well the public health community (or others, such as the
sustainability movement) will be able to harness online games to get
their messages out. I think they have a fair chance of success,
especially if they proceed with the input of the kids and online gamers
they're hoping to reach. Which explains the contest. Kudos to the USDA
for reaching out to kids, gamers, software developers and others for
help in crafting a tool that will resonate with the 'tween audience
they're hoping to reach.

For a more detailed (and sometimes
academic) take on the place where online gaming and public health meet,
check out the work of Games for Health, an organization of
researchers,
medical professionals and game developers who “share information about
the impact games and game technologies can have on health, health care
and policy.”