Video games have an undeniable effect on the health of today’s society, and are often cited as a contributing factor to sedentary lifestyles and obesity. Last year, the United States Department of Health and Human Service sponsored a competition in hopes of transforming these negative aspects of gaming into positives.
The Office on Women’s Health (OWH) issued the challenge to create an interactive video game app that focuses on obesity prevention and weight control. In answer to that call, I am proud to announce that Frolic, a new app developed in collaboration between Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University, rose to the top of the competition to win a total of $77,000 in prizes.
I found the opportunity on Challenge.gov, a government website where members of the public can submit their ideas to help solve a variety of problems (Check it out! It’s open to anyone!). This particular challenge, Shape of Health – An Obesity Prevention Game, called for entrants to create an interactive video game with a focus on obesity prevention or weight control for women or girls.
As Associate Dean for Research and Professor at Duquesne University School of Nursing, I teamed up with Jessica Hammer, Thomas and Lydia Moran Assistant Professor of Learning Science at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute and the Entertainment Technology Center. We combined our respective expertise in family-based weight management and human-computer interaction to create our prize-winning app for obesity prevention in girls.
Both behavior and genetics can result in extra body weight. This can contribute to health problems in youth that can persist into adulthood, especially diabetes and heart disease. The good news is that small changes in lifestyle (like eating and exercise) can have a big impact on helping people achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
School-age children do not get enough activity, with 10% of girls meeting the recommended activity guidelines, as compared to almost 30% of boys. Frolic is our solution to help close this gap through physically active play.
From the outset, Dr. Hammer and I agreed on the importance of respecting girls’ autonomy, designing for all kinds of bodies, and not blaming girls. We also agreed to use the existing evidence base to guide our app development.
Frolic was one of 10 entries to clear the first round and advance to an in-person presentation in front of a panel of judges in Washington, D.C. We shared video clips featuring our ideas and had a great discussion with the judges. They awarded us one of two first prizes in that second round, and we left with a lot of great suggestions that we took back to Pittsburgh to build our game.
Back in Pittsburgh, an incredible team of students helped us translate our health research insights and ideas into an app that embodied them. We iterated and tested Frolic with parents, teachers
, and kids who gave us invaluable feedback. After months in development, Frolic won the third round of competition and is now available as a free download in the App Store.
Frolic prompts play by sending a notification to a parent’s phone. If the time is right, the child can respond to some prompts. Where will she play? How active does she want to be? Are friends present, and if so, can everyone move quickly? This data helps the app recommend games that are best for her specific situation. Each game suggestion comes with illustrated instructions to support players of all abilities. We want girls to have a great play experience.
In addition to inviting girls to play, Frolic prompts parents to support their child’s new, healthy habits. The app shows parents their daughters’ activity data and badges earned through play. It also encourages them to have productive conversations with their girls about their physical activity.
We expect that this is just the beginning for Frolic! We hope that future versions of our app will engage all youth, regardless of their sex or gender, and meet the needs of not only parents and guardians, but also teachers and other caregivers. Allowing users to create and upload games will allow us to harness social networks.
As faculty members, we will continue to work with students to help us to creatively address an important public health issue while allowing for hands-on learning.
Get to Know the Author
Melissa Kalarchian, PhD, brings a strong research background, passion for teaching and creative leadership to her role as Associate Dean for Research in the Duquesne University School of Nursing. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral medicine. Her research interests focus on adapting evidence-based lifestyle interventions to meet the needs of vulnerable populations, such as children at risk for obesity and adults undergoing bariatric surgery. Dr. Kalarchian has been an NIH grant review panelist and serves as a peer reviewer for numerous biomedical journals. She has been an active member of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the Eating Disorders Research Society (EDRS), as well as a Fellow of the Obesity Society (FTOS).