Designers create video games to teach kids about healthy diets

Kurtis Smith, a 3-D artist who worked for a video game giant, is trying to beat the clock.
Kurtis Smith, a 3-D artist who worked for a video game giant, is trying to beat the clock. (Michael Laris/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Alec Fisher-Lasky and Kurtis Smith sat behind a Toshiba laptop and a 22-inch drawing slate Saturday trying to jolt a vast virtual dinner table to life.

The goal was to help end childhood obesity. With a faint techno soundtrack humming in a George Mason University computer lab, this was their vision: You're a small dude, soaring above the table. You're banking and diving and veering out of the way of the doughnuts and pizza slices like any good superhero might. Then you run right into the broccoli.

"Ideally, instead of flying around, we'd like you to be running, to get the idea of activity, but with 48 hours, flying is easier to do because you don't have to do the animation," said Fisher-Lasky, 24, a Mason game-design student. The player has to hit a daily recommended calorie count.

Teams from Fairfax to San Francisco on Saturday raced to cram Agriculture Department data into video games targeting 9- to 12-year-olds or their parents. The Health Games Challenge is kind of like a tiny X Prize, which is given to promote exploration and innovation. The point, in this case, is fewer overweight kids.

White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra had dropped by George Mason on Friday to launch the weekend challenge and to gin up energy for a series of contests, including one run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this summer.

First lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity a focus of her outreach, but getting the message to young fans of Pepsi and Pop-Tarts remains a crucial step. Having to lure thumb-twitching young fingers to games embedded with good-for-you messages makes the task for game designers even tougher.

"Usually, everything goes smoothly until you start playing it and you realize it's not fun," Fisher-Lasky said. "You have to spend 60 percent of your time changing what you've done because it's not fun."

Spending more time in front of the computer is not high on public health officials' list of healthy living tips. But a health game modeled after casual counterparts, such as Tetris or the Facebook virtual agriculture game FarmVille, can be digested in few-minute bursts, the thinking goes. And games are increasingly seen as potent tools to press social issues.

"We have been doing games for entertainment for 30 years, so we're kind of good at it. Doing things outside of that -- games with ulterior motives -- is a lot harder," said Joel Gonzales, head of the Baltimore chapter of the International Game Developers Association. He worked on a game to promote nonviolent social change called "A Force More Powerful." It allows players to organize to free a journalist held by "The Regime" or help dockworkers demand the right to strike.

"If you rock the boat too much, they'll go out and kill your people," said Gonzales, who helped organize the weekend's Health Games Challenge.

Smith, 30, a professional 3-D artist, spent five years working at game giant Electronic Arts. His big game was Warhammer Online, and he's more accustomed to stone giants and orcs than baby carrots. After sketching a head of broccoli, he turned to an image of a glistening T-bone.

"And it looks delicious," said Smith, who is unemployed. He and other participants kicked things off Friday with pepperoni pizza, but he got back on track Saturday with a whole-wheat bagel and turkey bacon.

"Now that I don't have a full-time job in the industry, I have more free time to cook my own meals and have a better idea of what goes into them, as opposed to getting fast food or something out of the vending machine," Smith said.

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