A game to teach healthy eating

Dr. Ifeoma Adaji (PhD’20) used influence strategies to encourage players to make wise choices

Dr. Ifeoma Adaji (PhD’20) tested the game on more than 300 people. (Photography by David Stobbe)

A new web game developed at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) that uses clever marketing techniques holds promise for teaching online shoppers how to eat healthily.

“Online grocery shopping has boomed due to the COVID-19 crisis as people avoid going to the supermarkets. With our new game, we can help educate the public on the nutritional value of foods and lead them toward healthier choices,” said USask computer science graduate Dr. Ifeoma Adaji (PhD’20).      

The game ShopRight, available for web browsers, simulates supermarket aisles that players can explore, and presents shoppers with several products to choose from the shelves. The healthier the foods that players put in their virtual basket, the more points they earn.   

“I first came up with the idea of the game when I shopped online. I often got few or no points for loyalty programs when I chose healthy food,” said Adaji, who plans to develop the game as a free Android mobile app.

Adaji’s research sheds light on how people can be influenced through targeted educational messages based on their answers to personality questionnaires and data from their previous online shopping behaviour. The results are published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Persuasive Technology 2020.    

Adaji used “influence strategies,” techniques commonly used by marketers to sell products, to encourage players to make wise choices. The strategies aim to affect people’s online behaviour by appealing to the players’ specific needs, such as for status, peer approval, feeling unique or for following authority.

“For example, for players who like listening to authority, I have come up with messages saying that the ministry of health recommended certain foods for certain nutritional value, whereas for those who value what their friends think, I have messages saying that they should buy certain items because their friends did,” Adaji said. 

“I found that players change their behaviours only when reading messages that are tailored to them. The messages don’t work if they simply state what healthy foods are.”

Given that not everyone playing the game may recognize nutritious foods to buy, when players make unhealthy choices messages designed by Adaji randomly pop up on the screen to provide information about healthy eating.

She tested the game on more than 300 people, and three-quarters of them responded to at least one message positively by “buying” in-game healthy groceries. She said most of the players described the game as an effective, fun way to learn about healthy eating.

By surveying people before and after playing, she found that these targeted messages were twice as effective as simple messages about healthy eating.

These strategies are already used in other domains, such as mobile apps for exercising and health, which use demographic data such as age, gender or location to tailor the content of the apps to their audiences.  

“This kind of app uses software that can ‘learn’ from returning customers and adapt influence strategies to them,” said USask computer science professor Dr. Julita Vassileva, Adaji’s former supervisor. “The online environment enables additional information, recommendations and nudges to be presented to the users while they are browsing, influencing their decisions.”

Adaji, whose research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), has been in contact with emerging online grocery shopping businesses in Nigeria, her home country, to test her game in real life and help customers make healthier choices.

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