June 18, 2010

Playnormous fights childhood obesity

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 6:00 am by dinaheng

For the makers of Playnormous, getting kids to stay healthy is child’s play.

Seven years ago, a group of game developers in Houston were awarded $8 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop two middle school games to combat childhood obesity.

The games they developed, with researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, resulted in an increase of one fruit or vegetable serving a day in the children who participated in the studies. For any parent who’s tried to get their child to even try broccoli, carrots, green beans, you name it — this is huge.

“To get inside the children’s heads and change their attitudes about things, we chose video games as a medium,” says Richard Buday, president of Archimage/Playnormous in Houston. “Video games that are designed to increase children’s caloric output through aerobic activity, from an obesity prevention point of view, are interesting, but so far ineffective.”

Buday says studies show that there’s roughly a two-week burnout period for many people who use exercise video games like the Wi because they simply lose interest.

While losing weight involves both cutting calories and exercising, Buday says Playnormous aims to prevent obesity in kids by stealthily blending behavioral change techniques with great stories and fun activities in its Web games.

While developing those video-based games, Playnormous set up an experimental Web site to see who would come to play. To their surprise, kids began using the site, driven by teachers who found the games online.

Playnormous plans to develop online health curriculum for schools, and if the response of Houston teachers to the Web site (www.playnormous.com) is any indication, the demand for such a product is definitely there.

Kids seem to love “Nanoswarm: Invasion From Inner Space” and “Escape From Diab,” which have been proven in clinical trials to increase those fruits and vegetables in kids’ diets. Kids using these games were also shown to be more physically active than those visiting traditional health Web sites for kids.

Anything that turns kids (or adults, for that matter) from couch potatoes to physically active playground users is exciting.

As a recently released White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, noted, “Obesity is estimated to cause 112,000 deaths per year in the United States, and one-third of all children born in the year 2000 are expected to develop diabetes during their lifetime. The current generation may even be on track to have a shorter life span than their parents.”

Buday hopes to market his games to hospitals, pediatrician offices, and schools, teaching kids about good eating habits and healthy exercise in a fun way .

If he succeeds, it would definitely be Playnormous.


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