Research Cynthia Carter Ching

Designing Video Games to Put Kids in Charge of Their Own Health
November 2012

As any parent knows, video games are a fact of life. So, too, is the childhood obesity epidemic in America. According to UC Davis School of Education Professor Cynthia Carter Ching, it is easy to blame one for the other.

But Ching and other researchers are turning this equation on its head in a new project that uses gaming to put youth in charge of their health.

With a two-year $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Ching and her colleagues J. Bruce German and Sara Schaefer from the UC Davis Foods for Health Institute and Marta Van Loan from the USDA Western Health Nutrition Center are teaming up with Play4Change, a not-for-profit company led by Ariel Hauter, 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. (See Ching discuss first-year findings in video of October 2013 presentation.)

“Gamers project their identities into game play in various ways already, but we are particularly interested in what might happen if the avatar in a game is tied directly to the gamer’s body and his or her actions outside the game,” said Ching, an expert in the use of technology for learning and the connection between technology and identity.

Here’s how the project, GET-UP: Gaming to Educate Teens about Understanding Personal Health, works: youth participating in the initial development, testing and launch of the game will wear activity monitors that measure such things as steps walked, floors climbed, and calories burned. 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. For example, a student who records more physical activity on a given day may find that their avatar is faster and stronger the next time they log in to the game.  As a result, the student can see short-term positive rewards for their healthy actions long before any physical changes such as weight loss or better circulation would take place. 

“Recreational games are often blamed for kids’ obesity, and some gaming platforms like Wii Fit and X-box Kinnect have tried to make gaming itself more active, but our approach is different,” said Ching.  “It’s exciting to see if, instead, we can leverage games to positively affect behavior that impacts physical fitness when the gamer is not playing.”

The ability to translate knowledge into action is the holy grail of education. As Ching explains, school-based approaches offer little health and nutrition information, and what is offered is often “impersonal, abstract and fails to connect a learner’s individual short-term decisions with their long-term consequences.”

GET-UP will be offered to 11-14 year old students participating in programs supported through the California Afterschool Network, housed in the UC Davis School of Education, with the eventual goal of integrating the program into school-based curricula as part of a larger initiative to align hands-on, personalized health learning with STEM and health education standards.

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