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Game on! Need help sticking to healthy habits? Turn everyday life into a game--and rack up rewards.

What if life were like a video game? You'd get points for brushing your teeth. By playing soccer and walking Fido, you'd earn merit badges and go to the next level. You'd be motivated to get moving.

That's just what researchers are hoping to accomplish with new smartphone apps, wearable devices, and other gadgets that track physical activity and good habits. Players rack up points based on the number of steps they take or chores they complete-even for getting a good night's sleep. Then they log into an online account to collect virtual trophies or compete with friends for the high score.

But the idea of "gamifying" good habits isn't only about the fun factor. It's based on the way the human brain responds to rewards. And in many cases--as with your health--the stakes are much higher than those in a video game.


Many self-tracking devices target a growing problem: People have slipped into a sedentary lifestyle involving little physical activity. According to psychologist Steve Cole, this isn't because people aren't interested in doing anything. One reason is that people no longer have to be physically active to experience excitement. Via video games, "you can go to outer space, fly airplanes, and become a completely different person, all without ever leaving your living room," says Cole, who works at HopeLab in California--a company that uses technology to improve kids' health. "You can do all the things electronically that you used to have to go out into the world to accomplish."

But physical activity is important for developing a healthy heart, strengthening bones, and preventing obesity--a condition in which a person has too much body fat, which increases the risk of life-threatening diseases. Kevin Patrick, a doctor who studies family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, says that the answer isn't avoiding computer games. "Rather than trying to get people away from using things that they enjoy, can we find ways to use the things that people enjoy to make them healthier?" he asks.


One way to help people pursue good habits is to capitalize on one of the most appealing aspects of computer games: the quest for rewards. The human brain is wired with a drive to succeed. Anticipating a reward--whether a monetary prize or a virtual trophy--activates a circuit in the brain called the ventral striatum. A brain chemical called dopamine floods this circuit, creating a pleasurable feeling and motivating people to pursue goals. "People are programmed to succeed in just about any circumstance that they're dropped into," says Cole.

Cole and his colleagues at HopeLabs used this principle to create an online rewards system called Zamzee. Players wear a meter that tracks physical activity. When they upload data to the Zamzee Web site, their online avatars move along a path toward completion of a level. Along the way, they unlock rewards such as avatar accessories.

Other wearable self-tracking devices, such as the Nike+ FuelBand and Fitbit, also measure movement. The idea is that the more you move, the more calories you burn. Calories measure the amount of energy that food provides, but when people take in more calories than they burn, the body stores the excess as fat. Over the course of a month, you need to consume only an extra 50 to 100 calories over what you burn each day to gain one pound of weight in the form of stored fat, says Patrick.


Looking for more good habits to track? Stick a GreenGoose sensor on your toothbrush: Sensors in the sticker detect motion and send Wi-Fi signals to the egg-shaped base station so that every time you use your toothbrush, its logged on the GreenGoose Web site. You can even attach the sensors to your pets' food containers and leashes to motivate you to feed and walk them.

There's also a Web site called Earndit that provides incentives for people who use certain apps and devices. Users can upload their activities and accumulate more points that they can trade for gift cards.


When you're ready for bed, the games aren't over. Devices like the Zeo track sleep, which is vital for good health. Zeo measures time spent in the four main stages of sleep: awake time, deep sleep, light sleep, and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. When we experience vivid dreams during REM sleep, the brain files away the day's memories. The body repairs itself and boosts the immune system during deep sleep.

To record the time spent in each sleep stage, a Zeo user wears a soft headband that measures the brain's electrical activity. The device sends the data to a smartphone app, which calculates the user's sleep-quality score. The Zeo Web site will also help you identify habits that help you get a good night's rest.


The idea of turning good habits into a game sounds great in theory, but does it work? To find out, Cole's team gave a group of 11- to 14-yearolds Zamzee meters to wear, plus access to the Web site and its reward system. A control group got only the meter. After a few weeks, the control group fizzled out, whereas the kids who used the Web site averaged 30 percent more activity than usual. "That 30 percent adds up to just a little bit under running a marathon every month," says Cole.

These are only a few of the many self-tracking systems currently on the market. With the human brain programmed to chase goals, the trend to gamify good habits is likely to grow. "I think we're just scratching the surface on this," says Patrick.











BEDTIME: 10:00 p.m. WAKEUP TIME: 7:00 a.m. SLEEP TIME: 9 hours

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you think that "gamification" can encourage good habits? Why or why not?



MAY 1   3
MAY 2   4
MAY 3   5
MAY 4   4
MAY 5   6
MAY 6   5

Note: Table made from bar graph.


NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS: Grades 5-8: Personal health Grades 9-12: Personal and community health

COMMON CORE STATE STANDARD: WRITING STANDARD: 1. Write arguments to support Claims using valid reasoning and evidence.


Students will learn about new online games and wearable devices that reward people for good habits and why they work.


* What are some household chores that you may not think are fun? (cleaning your room, walking the dog, etc.) What motivates you to do them? (You want to follow your parents' rules; you earn an allowance for doing them; etc.)

* Many people think that video games are only about fun. Do you think games can serve other purposes?

* Why is physical activity important? (It keeps you from having too much body fat, which can lead to disease; it keeps your heart and bones strong and healthy.)


1. Go to Open the digital edition to page 16, and have students do the same in their magazines.

2. Ask a volunteer to read the headline and the text immediately below it. Ask students if they think videogame-style rewards can make people change their behavior. What type of rewards do they think would work best? Write their responses on a digital sticky note.

3. Have students read the article silently. After they finish reading, discuss how the inventors of Zamazee came up with the idea. Ask the class to answer the following questions, and record their answers on a digital sticky note: What problem did the inventors want to solve? What solution did they propose? Why did they think this solution would work? What evidence do they have that it works?

4. Click the "Watch a Video" button on page 16 to find out more about how Zamzee was developed.


Pass out the "Nutrition Know-How" work sheet found under the orange "Skills Sheets" button at www.scholastic.comlscienceworld. As a class, read the introduction and callouts on the sample nutrition label. Ask the class if they often read nutrition labels on the foods they eat. Are they ever surprised by tins information? Would a nutrition-tracking device encourage them to read food labels more often and make healthier choices?


Go over the answers to the "Nutrition Know-How" work sheet. Do students understand the various numbers on the nutrition label? Are they able to accurately compare foods?


Go to and click on the orange Skills Sheets button to download these assessments:


Use this work sheet to challenge students to write a persuasive argument about why a reward-based program could lead to a positive change in your school.


Gamification gadgets and Web sites aren't the only tools aiming to get kids off the couch. Learn how new motion-controlled video games turn a player's body motion into on-screen actions.

* VIDEO EXTRA: Watch a video about how Zamzee works at:

* Find lots of printable work sheets about nutrition and healthy habits at this site:

* Read the story of a 14-year-old boy who fought back from obesity by creating his own "Ultimate Fitness Game." Cutting Myself in Half by Taylor LeBaron, Mary Branson, and Jack Branson. Health Communications Inc., 2009.

* Learn more about Zamzee at:
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Title Annotation:BIOLOGY: HEALTH
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 14, 2012
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