Andrea Parker motivates people through gaming.

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January 15, 2014

Getting Mobile: Andrea Parker motivates people through gaming.
Andrea Parker, Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science and Health Sciences

As an innovator in personal health informatics, Andrea Parker is devising ways to use technology to help those in poor neighborhoods make better choices about their health.

As any teenager can tell you, technology is (a) fun and (b) one of the best ways to create a sense of community. So by creating health-related games and discussions, Parker has been able to engage her audience, create a community that supports healthy decisions, and provide the knowledge people need to make the right choices.

Parker is collaborating with her Northeastern colleagues to create mobile applications, games, and social media to convince low-income families to exercise more and eat more nutritiously. To be effective, she says the technology has to “feel authentic and connect naturally with their lives.”

She has already achieved success in Atlanta, where she designed a mobile game called OrderUp! in which low-income people assume the role of waitstaff in a neighborhood restaurant. The challenge was for participants to serve virtual customers as quickly and healthfully as possible. Parker’s research showed that the game shifted user perception of what constitutes a healthy meal.

“Users started to reassess their own behaviors and began to see how they could make and eat healthier foods themselves,” she says.

Parker also designed an application that encourages participants to share text messages documenting their eating habits. The messages were displayed on a large touch-screen display installed at the local YMCA. At the end of a three-month study, Parker found that participants had come to think of themselves as community health advocates.

“These kinds of technologies are not just helping people change their own habits, but they are also developing participants’ identities as advocates for change,” she says. “It’s exciting to think about the influence these people could have on their social networks.”