This week my son Devon showed me the power of digital games to motivate kids to exercise. This is the core idea at the heart of the Apps for Healthy Kids competition launched by First Lady Michelle Obama last week. As OSTP worked closely with the Department of Agriculture in designing the competition, I had talked with many of my colleagues about its promise. But nothing could have crystallized better for me the immense potential of this approach than witnessing the impact on my own son in real time.
Devon is 11 years old and has a group of four friends who spend much of their free time playing video games. My wife and I have struggled to find ways to get Devon outside to take a walk or throw a ball around. But, in his mind, sports pale in comparison to the challenges of mastering his favorite digital games.
This week Devon set his sights on a new game. He couldn’t wait for us to drive to the store together and was willing to burn his last birthday gift cards on the purchase. This game was much different than other games because it was bundled with a pedometer for kids. Devon strapped the pedometer to his leg. The more he walks in real life the more bonus features are unlocked in the video game. With new adventures to unveil, he couldn’t wait to get moving.
I told my son about the Apps for Healthy Kids competition, and he suggested that he write to the First Lady to tell her about his experience. I thought that was a wonderful idea. So, we sat down together and drafted this letter:
Dear First Lady Michelle Obama:
My dad told me that you think it is really important that kids exercise and eat right, so I wanted to write this letter to tell you about a new video game I just got because you would find it interesting. My parents are always telling me that I have been playing my video games all day and that I should go outside and play. My sister, Isabel, plays softball and soccer, but I’m not into that. I was really excited this weekend because my dad took me out to pick up the new Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver game that I ordered. The store helped me unlock a new character in my game when I picked it up, and they gave me a Poke Walker that I clip to my pants. It counts my steps when I walk. Today I beamed one of my Pokémon named Onix into the Poke Walker. When I walked around so did my Pokémon. He earned watts in the game and that helps him evolve. The book also said that when I earn enough watts I can start battles and catch other Pokémon that I usually can’t find. I want to earn enough watts so I can catch Castiform or Kecleon. The book says that once I catch them in the Poke Walker I can beam them back into my game. I haven’t done that yet. I need to take a longer walk so that I can earn enough points. Dad says it should stop raining soon and we can walk around the neighborhood. I hope you are having a good time at the White House.
The next day at work, I was surprised to learn that my colleague Debbie Stine, the Executive Director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, had nearly the exact same experience with her daughter. Tina-Marie, also age 11, had purchased the same game and immediately started moving (including in the car on the way home despite being strapped into her seatbelt) to gather the precious watts so she can grow her Pokémon. “One of my friends brought her Poke Walker to school today and got 20 watts from just walking around the school!,” Tina Marie told her mom. Like my son, Tina Marie will be going to elementary school tomorrow with her Poke Walker strapped to her pants, taking every opportunity to take extra steps.
Is this the beginning of a new wave of technologies that will inspire and empower children to get active and eat healthy? When I was a kid, all we had was Pong! Now we have Dance, Dance Revolution, Wii Fit, and the upcoming Project Natal and Move as examples of active video game products. Will games like this not only capture kids’ imagination, but fundamentally change their behavior in high-impact ways over the long-run? I don’t know the answers to questions such as this. All I know is that I think I’ll take a walk with my son when I get home tonight.
Peter Emanuel is the Assistant Director of Chemical and Biological Countermeasures at OSTP and Devon Emanuel is a 5th grader at Emmorton Elementary School in Abingdon, MD