Research Cynthia Carter Ching

“People Who Walk to School Have a Big Advantage”: Can Gaming Improve Youth Health?
Posted May 2014

As the growth of gaming has skyrocketed among nearly all segments of society, researchers in health, technology, and education have been asking whether video games can be leveraged to improve health outcomes for youth.

Research led by Cynthia Carter Ching, associate professor of education, and several other researchers and game designers is beginning to reveal not only whether gaming can inform and impact health, but also how understanding young people’s motivation to play games implicitly connected to health and nutrition behaviors can make or break the intervention.

In 2012, Ching received a grant from the National Science Foundation, along with colleagues J. Bruce German and Sara Schaefer from the UC Davis Foods for Health Institute, Funomena (a game design company in San Francisco), and Ariel Hauter from Play4Change Labs (based in New York City), to design a game that puts youth personal health and well-being at the center of a virtual universe where the choices the user makes are based on personal data about key health and nutrition indicators.

Merely providing students with a gaming experience explicitly tied to health and nutrition will not necessarily lead to sustainable change, however. The type of game matters, according to Ching’s research. Ching argues there must be a mind-body connection.

Some games, referred to as “exergames,” are designed to get players physically active by playing the game. One example of this is the Wii Fit. Unfortunately, exergames provide no sustainable knowledge to help inform players about the effect of the play on their health. The approach Ching and her colleagues took puts the collection and analysis of data about personal daily activity at the center of the game, through the use of wearable devices that collect information such as number of steps taken.

Youth participated in the initial development, testing and launch of the game that incorporates data from activity monitors. These data, along with diet logs and health and nutrition information they receive prior to play, inform the choices youth make and their rate of progress in their journey through the game.

A year into the study, evidence of students’ lack of data literacy and desire to analyze sets of data has resulted in a greater understanding of what actually motivates young people to take action on what they are learning about their daily exercise. For instance, the youth in the study are more interested in the immediate data they glean from their activity monitors than they are in the aggregate data they can collect from the game’s dashboard. The participants have also found it difficult to incorporate exercise more into their daily routine, such as walking to school, even when they want to because often they live too far from school or feel unsafe.

But what holds true among all the youth is that getting more accurate data about their daily exercise has changed their ideas about how they define “exercise” and has motivated them to do more. For instance, some students didn’t think that walking to school was exercise until they realized the number of steps taken.

“People who walk to school have a big advantage,” one student said.
Likewise, some youth were motivated to walk more when they knew the actual distance: half a mile versus half a block. Their attitudes about PE, which many “hated” before the study began, have improved.
Ching presented this research at the April conference of the American Educational Research Association. Read more about the project here

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