We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

Virtual World Takes on Childhood Obesity

A startup blends activity tracking with online incentives in hopes of getting kids into shape.

  • by Mya Frazier
  • May 16, 2012
  • Plugged in: The Zamzee activity tracker, seen here with its case, can be worn on a child’s waist or shoe or in a pocket. It gathers data about the child’s movement that can later be uploaded to a computer.

Malica Astin, 11, never paid much attention to how much physical activity she got. But one day she played basketball while wearing a small activity tracker called a Zamzee on her waist. Later, she plugged it into a computer’s USB port and uploaded the data captured by the device’s accelerometers. Unlike a FitBit, a popular pedometer geared to adults, Malica’s Zamzee didn’t tell her how many steps she took or calories she burned. Instead, it gave her points for the movements she made.

Even months later, she recalls the details of that first windfall: 758 points. And why not? The points are a currency that she can spend in the virtual world of Zamzee.com, where she created an avatar and outfitted it with braces, a necklace, and a hula skirt.

Malica has since earned 3,612 “Zamz,” and could eventually save enough to get real items like an iPod Nano (16,000 Zamz) or Wii console (18,000 Zamz). “At first, I didn’t know what it was all about,” she says. “Then I really started liking it.”

Malica’s experience illustrates the goals of Zamzee, a startup that is testing the notion that the addictiveness of games can be harnessed to solve a seemingly intractable social ill—in this case, childhood obesity. Rather than focusing on weight loss or diet, Zamzee hopes to reward movement of any kind in children 11 to 14, the ages when, according to research, physical activity drops precipitously.

Zamzee is a for-profit venture started by HopeLab, the nonprofit foundation funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam. (HopeLab has also created the Re-Mission video game to increase medication compliance among kids with cancer.) Although Zamzee formally launches this fall, it has been in pilot programs in schools and community centers in Atlanta, Chicago, Honolulu, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Malica is one of 20 middle-school girls who has been trying Zamzee at a Boys & Girls Club in Atlanta. It’s a daunting proving ground. Georgia ranks second in the nation for childhood obesity, and 52 percent of middle-school students fail to meet the CDC’s recommendations for daily activity. The situation is so dire that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a system of pediatric centers, recently launched a hard-edged ad campaign aimed at overweight children.

In contrast, Zamzee is about carrots rather than sticks. Parents put money into an account to fund the rewards that their children can try to earn with their Zamz (though some donors, such as the Mayo Clinic, are providing funding during the pilot tests).  

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, the author of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, praises Zamzee’s focus on physical activity instead of weight. But she cautions that a substantial body of research has found that intrinsic motivation outlasts extrinsic rewards: “There’s this funny tendency to lose the focus on why you enjoyed something in the first place,” Aamodt says.     

With that in mind, Zamzee’s developers have been testing multiple methods for motivating children. Steve Cole, a biomedical scientist at UCLA who heads research and development for HopeLab, says Zamzee has found that combining virtual and monetary rewards can be successful.

Even so, not all Zamzee users are as motivated as Malica. Emani Welch, 13, an Atlanta seventh-grader, isn’t racking up enough points for rewards. She’s yet to create an avatar or even log on to Zamzee.com. “I just sit still most of the time because there’s not much to do,” she says. “I go play tennis every now and then.”

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Print + All Access Digital.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivered daily

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.