Otago Polytechnic

Computer games can help young people learn how to look after their health.

One of New Zealand's health problems is the increasing number of children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes, which may be related to an increasing prevalence of obesity. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin and/or when the pancreas gland stops producing enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that promotes the uptake of glucose from the blood into cells so that it can be metabolised (broken down) and used by the body as an energy source. 

Dr Nilufar Baghaei, Head of Information Technology department at our Auckland International Campus, led a team to design and develop mobile games to help children learn about type 2 diabetes. Starting with the open source version of Mario, they modified it so that Mario has diabetes. While Mario runs and jumps over obstacles to rescue the princess, he also has to watch his blood sugar. The character needs to make decisions about food options that present themselves, eg a chocolate bar versus an apple. The game shows children the difference between these foods on the character's energy levels, which increase quickly and then go down quickly if the chocolate is chosen for example.

The game is a tool to educate young people about type 2 diabetes to help them achieve a healthier lifestyle and prevent the development of diabetes. Nilufar is currently working with a team at the University of Auckland, led by Dr Ralph Maddison, and Middlemore Hospital on a clinical trial which has Health Research Council funding 2017-2019. The clinical trial will test the changes in knowledge of diabetes which the game can achieve. This research project paves the way for the systematic design and development of full-fledged computer games dedicated to diabetes education in the future.