Video games are often accused of contributing to childhood obesity. But they also may be able to help fight it, says a group of University of Georgia professors who have created the educational video game Bee Tees.
Bee Tees, a play on the word “diabetes,” makes players responsible for the health of a beehive. As the bees, controlled by the player, bring in food, the hive creates honey and grows larger. But if the bees bring in too much food, the hive begins to decay.
This scenario may not correspond to the real world of beekeeping. But the game’s creators hope it will be a fun way to start the conversation with students about understanding and managing their bodies.
“Education and stopping obesity go hand-in-hand,” said Tom Robertson, associate professor of physiology and pharmacology, and one of the developers of the game. “If you can get to kids early and help them understand their physiology, the more they can appreciate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle,” he said, “But if you tell 10-year-olds that if they don’t change their lifestyle habits, in 20 years they’ll have heart problems, their eyes will start to glaze over because it’s not relevant to them.”
In Bee Tees, pollen and nectar mimic protein and sugar in humans. The game’s designer, former University of Georgia professor Casey O’Donnell, thought a beehive would be a good symbol for the body since he didn’t want kids to have an avatar that would gain weight in the game.
“You can’t tell kids to eat broccoli because it’s good for them. It’s like telling people to exercise so they won’t get fat versus somebody wanting to exercise because they are interested in it,” O’Donnell said. “We approach all of our games that way. Can we make a game about diabetes that’s not about diabetes?”
Georgia ranks No. 2 among states in childhood obesity, and state government health officials, Gov. Nathan Deal and private partners have mounted a full-scale effort to reduce that rate.
Playing to improve
Researchers across the country have found that video games designed for specific purposes have improved health. A 2009 study out of University of California –- San Francisco showed that pre-teens showing early signs of schizophrenia improved the cognitive skills weakened by schizophrenia after playing a specially designed video game for five hours each week over 10 weeks.
Researchers at the University of Rochester and University of Minnesota found that action video games could increase the speed at which people make correct decisions, which could improve driving safety and computer skills. Another study showed video games could improve visual attention, also necessary for safe driving.
A University of Colorado study showed that experience playing video games could improve job performance. The UGA researchers hope to see similar results from Bee Tees.
“Some people view educational games as teacher replacements, but we don’t. My job is to give teachers the tools to help them talk to students,” O’Donnell said. He hopes that students will want to maintain their hives and share them across social media platforms such as Facebook.
“Bee Tees is unique because in most resource management games, the first thing a player does is mine all the resources and bring them in, but with the body, that’s a bad idea,” O’Donnell said. “If experienced gamers play it, they’ll probably mess up the beehive. But even if you do that, you can get the hive back to a healthy state.”
Bee Tees joins several other educational, science-based video games created by Robertson, O’Donnell and a handful of other UGA professors, through their company IS3D.
The game is now in the prototype phase, but Robertson, the company’s CEO, hopes it will soon be ready for testing in schools statewide as part of UGA’s Obesity Initiative, launched earlier this year to tackle adult and childhood obesity in Georgia.
“Software developed at the university can only truly have an impact if moved into the community and made a commercially viable entity,” he said. “We want to translate these innovations into something practical and useful for education in the real world.”
Carolyn Crist is pursuing her master’s degree in Health and Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. She graduated from UGA in 2010 with degrees in newspapers and English and worked at The Times in Gainesville as an education and political reporter.