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Fighting fat via a video game

August 21, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Steve Ingraham of Fairplay led a team of video-game designers to create a game aimed at teaching young children good eating habits.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

There’s a new bad guy in the universe and it’s up to kids to defeat him.

His name is Master Sweet Treat — the czar of extra calories.

Forget whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Master Sweet Treat has declared war on good nutrition and has taken over the five food-group worlds.

Now, it’s the job of brave elementary school students to save each world and defeat the czar of extra calories. All it takes is a complete and balanced diet.

With childhood obesity rates tripling in the last 15 years, a team of college students is doing something about it.

They’ve designed a computer game.

This might seem counterintuitive, given that sedentary play often is associated with unhealthy lifestyles. But this game, say the designers, is an educational tool aimed at providing good nutritional information while making learning fun.

Steve Ingraham of Fairplay; Brandon Bishop of Middletown, Md.; Michael Goodrich of Myersville, Md.; and Grady Shingler of Hagerstown are the creators of “Project Pyramid.”

As students in the simulation and digital entertainment program at Hagerstown Community College, they were part of an internship funded by the USDA that involved creating an interactive game to teach nutrition to elementary-aged children.

A fifth HCC student, Cory Kerr of Hagerstown, was the audio lead and volunteered his time.

The project was part of a $339,602 U.S. Department of Agriculture Culinary and Healthful Enhancement of Food grant, which was awarded to the Maryland State Department of Education in 2009. The grant is intended to facilitate the creation of CHEF teams in Maryland school systems, which consist of food service departments, culinary arts programs, teachers and high school students.

The goal of the grant is to diminish childhood obesity and provide healthy nutritional information to children. It also is intended to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches.

The HCC team was given the task of creating a computer game that would teach students in grades one through five about the USDA food pyramid.

During the project, the college students worked with Washington County Public Schools staff, as well as students in the computer game development and animation program at Washington County Technical High School.

The game is expected to make its debut in local elementary schools this fall.

Becoming involved in the development of the computer game was a dream come true for the student team, said Steve Ingraham, 19, who served as project lead.

“It was a blast,” he said. “Video-game development and creative writing have always been my passion and there is nothing more rewarding than to share a fun and entertaining product with the education industry to truly make learning fun. After all, you have to have fun to create fun.”

Ingraham said his interest in designing video games began at the age of 12 when he signed up for an HCC College for Kids class that focused on video game development.

His interest became even stronger at Washington County Technical High School, where he was enrolled in computer game development and animation.

“We were taught how to create video games, simulations, animations and other forms of multimedia starting from simple concepts all the way to the marketing and publishing stages,” he said.

During his senior year, his class pitched their game ideas to Microsoft executives.

Following graduation, he continued his studies at HCC.

Ingraham said Martin Nikirk, a teacher he knew at Tech High, approached him about a possible internship where Ingraham would be creating a game for the USDA.

“So, first I wrote down some basic concepts on how the game could work and be educational and fun at the same time. Then, I assembled a team of some trusted friends and we all got together and fine-tuned my ideas and created the concept that is ‘Project Pyramid,’” he said.

The team began work on the project in January. They are fine tuning and completing the game, Ingraham said. For one things, the USDA’s Food Pyramid program has been changed to Choose My Plate. So the HCC team is making adjustments to incorporate the new concept. The game will be released under a new title.

Ingraham said the HCC team was joined by staff and students at Tech High, who contributed to the game’s art, animations and voice-overs.

Ingraham said the game is designed to complement existing nutrition curricula in schools. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, and there is a save-and-load feature so the game can fit into any school schedule.

The game centers around Sweet Treats that have taken over the five food group worlds. The player must shrink the Sweet Treats down in size. Finally, the player must gain allies to help defeat the Sweet Treat leaders of each world.

At the end of the game, all of the allies come together as a complete and balanced diet to defeat Master Sweet Treat.

In each world, the player must talk to food group citizens to learn about each group, Ingraham said. The player also has to collect food tokens which give facts, such as serving sizes. Players earn exercise points by exploring the levels in each world or by completing exercise mini-games with the citizens.

The goal of the game, Ingraham said, “is to bridge the gap between fun and learning. The kids will want to get to know our characters and be their hero, while not even realizing that they are learning something from health class.”

The student team presented a one-level demonstration of the game to the Washington County Board of Education and Maryland State Department of Education in May. The feedback, Ingraham said, “was very positive and enthusiastic. I think everyone had fun learning about the game.”

Ingraham graduated from HCC this past spring and currently is enrolled at the University of Baltimore at Shady Grove. He plans to pursue a career in video game development.

Too often, he said, people have a one-sided, negative view of video games as unproductive entertainment. “Project Pyramid” is not like that.

“I believe video games ... have a huge potential for benefiting the world on a large scale,” Ingraham said.

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