In Brief

Baylor College of Medicine researchers claim a tie between apparent improvements in the diets of Houston-area fourth-graders and a program they developed involving a computer game and related take-home assignments. The program, which will be available for free once it's updated to run on today's computers, encourages students to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. After participation, the students increased their vegetable intake by one serving a day on average.

The medieval-themed game, called "Squire's Quest," works by requiring players to complete a variety of activities--such as taking quizzes about the nutritional content of different foods and making healthy recipes in a virtual kitchen--to accumulate points toward attaining knighthood. Along the way, would-be knights design healthy meals for King Cornwell and the rest of the royal family and fight vegetable-destroying foes.

In addition to computer-based activities, the program asks that players perform homework tasks, such as trying a new fruit.

After five weeks of spending about 40 minutes a week playing the game during class time, 789 students in 13 Houston-area schools ate significantly more fruits and vegetables than those who did not play the game, according to project leader Tom Baranowski, PhD, a psychologist and professor of behavioral nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine who reported his findings at a June 17 National Institutes of Health lecture as part of the institutes' behavioral and social sciences research lecture series.

Other programs tried by Baranowski's team, including videotaped messages and classroom curriculum-based programs, took up to two years to achieve this level of dietary change, Baranowski noted.

"It is a testament to the power of interactive media," he said.

Some of the ways "Squire's Quest" promotes healthy habits include:

  • Using positive messages. Instead of asking kids to cut out sweets, the game encourages players to eat more fruits and vegetables--a behavior that indirectly decreases the consumption of empty calories, researchers say.

  • Teaching asking skills. Using the characters in the game, the students practice asking adults to buy them more healthy foods.

  • Changing misconceptions. The research team found that many fourth-graders considered macaroni and cheese to be a vegetable and Kool-Aid to count as a fruit, reported Baranowski. In response, the researchers created quizzes where the students practiced placing foods into groups.

  • Telling a compelling story. Squire's Quest engages children using a suspenseful plot, Baranowski claimed. And a push toward the goal of "knighthood" spurs fourth-graders to play the game and complete its tasks, he posited.