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Video Games Zap Kids' Diabetes Risk

Nutrition Experts Creating Video Games to Help Children Prevent Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 28, 2008 -- Two new video games have their sights set on curbing type 2 diabetes in children by promoting healthy diets and active lifestyles.

Those games -- called Escape from Diab and Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space -- aren't available yet; they're still being tested in children aged 10-12.

But the games got some play at the American Dietetic Association's annual meeting in Chicago, in a presentation by the pediatric nutrition experts behind the games -- pediatrics professor Tom Baranowski, PhD, and assistant pediatrics professor Janice Baranowski, MPH, RD.

The Baranowskis -- who work for the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston -- talked with WebMD about the promise they see in video games. Basically, it boils down to fun laced with facts.

Stealth Education

Video games are "enormously enticing to children," says Tom Baranowski, who says he sees the diabetes prevention games as "stealth education" -- a way to promote healthy lifestyles without being boring.

"Diabetes prevention is obesity prevention," says Tom Baranowski. "We're trying to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, be more physically active, [and] watch less TV." And those messages play out in the video games.

In Escape from Diab, young characters living in a town called Diab take on evil King Etes, who has flooded the town with junk food (Diab and Etes -- get it?). And in Nanoswarm, kids race to fight a diabetes-like epidemic that turns out not to be the work of a mad scientist, but unhealthy lifestyles.

The characters struggle to change their lifestyles, notes Janice Baranowski. For instance, she says Bear's Paw, a Native American character in Escape from Diab, finds his dad fixing his favorite high-fat, high-calorie meal and suggests recipe changes, while other characters decide to split dessert so they don't overindulge.

"All of that is active modeling -- the characters doing exactly what we're trying to get the kids to do," says Janice Baranowski.

Each time kids play the games, they set goals and deadlines for making healthy behavior changes in their own, real-world lives, and they can't play the game again until their self-imposed deadline for reaching those goals passes. That way, they have time to work on their goals, and they don't spend too much sedentary time playing the games, Tom Baranowski explains.

"We know that children are playing video games anyway; the vast majority of kids pay video games. So if we can get them to play the health-promoting video games instead of the other video games, we see that as a plus," he says.

Game On

The Baranowskis are midway through studying the games' effectiveness in 150 kids; results are expected early next year.

To Tom Baranowski, it's not a question of whether video games will prove useful for promoting health, it's just a matter of learning how to do it. Other childhood obesity prevention programs "have not been working, or when they have been working, they've achieved ... excruciatingly small changes," says Tom Baranowski. "Video games offer us an opportunity to improve upon that."

Tom Baranowski tells WebMD that he and Janice Baranowski "will not directly benefit in any financial way from these games. We are scientists trying to develop better intervention techniques."

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