Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Policy Point Wedensday - Can Video Games Improve Nutrition?

Online gaming has become a national passion, and as a parent, I'm always searching for games that have some kind of benefit (in our household, screen time is rationed - I'd rather Sparky REALLY go out sledding than play a video game about it.)  Fortunately, a new crop of games has appeared with prosocial themes, and some even include information about diets and nutrition.

This led me to wonder - how much effect can something static like a video game have on active behaviors like eating and exercising?  A bit of research led me to this paper, Playing for Real: Video Games and Stories for Health-Related Behavior Change, which shows that video games can, indeed, teach children health-management techniques.  The paper looks at a number of studies of a number of video games, and notes that there is a wide range in measures and in characteristics of behavior-changing methodologies in the games that make it difficult to reach conclusions about what exact methods are the most effective.  Overall, most studies show that the games used modeling, attention-grabbing action and themes, and teaching a "moral" or lesson to change behaviors, and that the video games did show positive changes in real-world behavior.

Video games have an advantage in that they may be tailored to a particular subgroup or culture.  In the paper Using Entertainment to Improve Nutrition Among African-Americans, authors Andrea Grimes and Rebecca Grinter discuss the possibilities of using "edutainment" for culturally sensitive health education.  They note that it is particularly difficult to change dietary habits without considering their cultural context.  Using an entertainment platform improves the relationship of the consumer to the information, as it can be presented as an entertaining series of choices rather than a pamphlet of dos and don'ts.  If information is offered in an entertaining, nonthreatening and culturally sensitive way, it may go further in actually changing behavior and improving health outcomes.

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