Telling kids to play video games isn’t something you hear too often from a parent. Now, a team of researchers is conducting a study to determine how mobile-virtual reality gaming might help kids develop healthier lifestyle habits and dieting practices.
Leading the research is Rema Padman, professor of management science and healthcare informatics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.
Collaborating with Padman is FriendsLearn, a Silicon Valley startup who created an AI-powered app game called Fooya. Notarized as “the World’s Epic Food Fight” game, the goal is to educate players to understand the relationship between food, health, and wellness in a fun and immersive way.
“When we compare a group of children who played Fooya to a control group who played a board game, we observe a positive and statistically significant difference in their actual food choices at the end of the game,” Padman said.
The game consists of heroes who use food-based weapons to take on evil robots that are trying to destroy the player’s health. As players run around the virtual world, they burn calories and dodge unhealthy foods that are thrown at them by enemies. The enemies can only be defeated by throwing food back at them in return.
Fooya uses AI in the area of non-communicable disease prevention. This upcoming technological category, known as digital vaccines, is based on neuroscience, cognitive science, and immersive VR technology.
“Disease prevention technology has been focused on vaccines for infectious diseases, but how can we tackle non-communicable diseases? The burden is now shifting toward heart disease, diabetes, cancers linked to diets, and mental health issues,” said FriendsLearn CEO Bhargav Sri Prakash. “We are now focused on how we can harness the capability of digital technologies as health simulators, to imagine low-risk, low-cost, non-invasive and societal-scale ways of preventing these diseases.”
Padman said the goal of the game is to have players understand the concepts and play it often enough to reinforce health-related information.
“The idea is to think of it almost as a prescription, as part of a treatment plan. Just like a patient taking a vitamin every day – it’s a similar approach, only they’re playing a game instead,” said Padman. “We think it is a powerful push forward in disease prevention technology.”
Additionally, the game also utilizes machine learning and deep learning techniques by customizing each child’s experience based on their demographics. For instance, details in the gameplay can change to better reflect the child’s needs. These could include details about being undernourished or overweight, the location of the child, or seasonal changes in food the child may encounter.
Today, research has shown that playing games, including video games, can have emotional and creative benefits for younger players. One study found that playing videos games while having a fitness coach and step tracker helped overweight children lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and increase their overall activity.
Currently, in collaboration with other universities and experts, Padman and her team are examining the behavioral data that’s generated when users click during the game and are looking for patterns to indicate how children engage with it. They are also trying to pinpoint if kids are clicking on healthier food choices while playing.
“We’re seeing some interesting patterns in game mechanics and dynamics, such as variations in the number of levels, features played, and range of actions at each level, and associations between those variations and the kids’ actual food choices,” Dr. Yi-Chin Lin of Hofstra University said.
Padman also noted that children who were exposed to the game generated some awareness for them to make healthier food choices. In order to further their research, the team is expanding the technology and its analytics platform to collaborate with the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (CHP) to assess its impact within a pediatric population of Type 1 diabetes patients.
The most chronic diabetes patients only spend about one percent of their time at a hospital, so Dr. Srinivasan Suresh, emergency physician and chief medical information officer at CHP, said Fooya could provide clinicians information on what’s happening the other 99 percent of the time.
“The game can help us know more about the disease, about compliance with medications, and other general information so that we can provide better care,” Suresh said.
Additionally, Dr. Heba Ismail, until recently the clinical director of the Diabetes Program and a professor of pediatrics and pediatric endocrinology, said there is a gap between health education and youth today.
“Food is really important, especially for kids with Type I diabetes. They get a lot of teaching about food, they have to change how they eat, they have learn to monitor insulin, etc.” Ismail said.
Ismail also noted how current health education consists of lectures, which often is not retained; therefore, patients easily fall back into their old habits.
“Since most kids already play games, we thought why not have them do that in a way that is educational? Hopefully we will be able to change their habits and positively impact their diet,” Ismail said