Games in Healthcare

Video Games Have the Power to Shape Eating Choices

Pepsi Invaders was an Early AdvergameA recent study published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, demonstrates the influence video games can have on children’s eating habits. Researchers Sandra Calvert and Tiffany Pempek from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. recruited 30 children between the ages of 9 and 10 from low-income African-American families to participate in the study.

The researchers targeted this demographic for its high risk of obesity and related health problems and aimed to establish a link between food-product placement in games and kids' snack choices.

The participants played SnackTime, a Pac-Man-inspired game in which they earn points for gobbling down objects. The kids were separated into three groups. The first two groups played a different version of the game. One featured healthy items like bananas and juice, while the second showed objects like pop, candy and chips. Read More...

After only ten minutes of play, those who had earned points from healthy items were more likely to choose healthy snacks after playing, when presented with both types of foods. The same went for the unhealthy game group, which were more likely to eat cookies and chips.

The third group was asked to select a snack before playing the game at all, and to the surprise of Calvert, a psychology professor who notably contributed to the 2006 book Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, most opted for healthy options without prompting.

The study’s trend demonstrates the marketing power of games on children. “The majority of kids choose the healthy snacks after just playing the game,” said Calvert, “All of them know how to choose healthy foods, but not all of them do it.”

Many fast food chains are taking advantage of the medium to attract kids. In recent years, companies like Burger King and Doritos have released video games promoting their products on the Xbox 360. This marketing technique has been around for a while. As early as 1983, Coca-Cola released Pepsi Invaders on the Atari 2600, while McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza both had games on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990-1991.

These days, companies easily market their products using online games. The Entertainment Software Association finds that 42 percent of video gamers play online games at least one hour a week, a potentially large audience for advertisers. “Marketers have taken notice of this online revenue-generating opportunity in which exposure to products costs less than traditional television advertisements and legal restrictions and regulations are virtually non-existent," wrote the researchers.

Even the Georgetown study’s low-income participants said they went online every day or multiple times a week. Some of the participants, mainly girls, also said they visited food marketing sites with product-embedded games.

The researchers suggest that this and other types of media exposure might contribute to rising childhood obesity rates in the United States, which have tripled over the past 40 years. With video games playing such a great part in kids’ lives, some experts suggest that game companies or advertisers take a social leadership role by investing in promoting healthy foods.

"It would be nice if they had a pre-game that you couldn't erase or fast-forward" to advertise healthy foods to kids, thinks Nanci Guest, a registered dietician. "Put the onus on companies making billions of dollars."

And Calvert agrees that the influential impact of games could be put to work for the better. "The basic idea (of this study) was threat or opportunity. ‘Advergames’ could be a threat, or they could be an opportunity to get children to eat healthier products," she said.