Recognizing the growing role of fast food in our culture, researchers at the VITAL Lab at Ohio University developed Nutrition Game, a simulation game that exists in the online virtual world of Second Life that allows users to virtually experience the effects that fast food can have on their short- and long-term health.
Before we dig any deeper, perhaps now is a good time to talk a little bit about Second Life. Launched in 2003, Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely created by its Residents (and, if you watch lots of Law and Order, featured relatively frequently in their story lines!). When in this virtual world, users can socialize, connect and communicate – either by voice or through instant chats – as well as purchase, trade and sell items with other residents (which can then be converted from the Second Life’s Linden Dollar system to actual U.S. dollars).
Sound confusing? Well, umm, it is! But since its launch, it has attracted million of “residents” from around the globe and is now being used by businesses to test new products or how to grow their company. In recent weeks, for example, Palomar West Medical Campus opened  a version of its planned real life hospital in the Second Life, allowing visitors to get a sneak peak at what it would look like on opening day 2011 and affording physicians (both from the hospital and competing institutions) to try out some of the new state-of-the-art technology the new facility will house. In addition, Kraft Foods last year opened  – what is believed to be the first – virtual supermarket in Second Life to test 70 new products, including a line of cheeses with probiotics and prebiotics.
Now check out VITAL Lab’s Nutrition Game:
Will explaining the concepts of Nutrition in a virtual world actually translate into a change in real life behaviors? On one hand, you could argue that showing someone a “personalized” – in that the effects are tailored to their age, gender, height, weight and other factors – view of what could happen to them if they make unhealthy food decisions would be better than simply telling them. In addition, the fact that the game makes the link between food choices and overall health may resonate among people who have never before made this association (because trust us, there really are people out there who have no idea!) However, the fact that these diets only cause damage to your avatar – or online version of yourself – could make it too easy to dismiss or somehow undermine the gravity of the situation.
The bottom line? Second Life might be a good tool for teaching fundamentals – especially among those with limited exposure to nutrition and health education – and there are a world of possibilities yet to be explored, but it’s probably not the solution we need to revolutionize the way America dines!
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