Want to be the biggest (weight) loser? Game on

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 22, 2014

AFTER all that recent festive feasting, the best way to atone would be to get back on that diet and will yourself thin, yes?


Brain scientist and marketing don Gemma Calvert will tell you that if you are relying on willpower to slim down, you are pushing the wrong button in your brain.

Professor Calvert, 45, teaches consumer insights and master of business administration modules at the Nanyang Business School. She says: “Willpower, which is your conscious brain, doesn’t work because the deepest changes in behaviour take place in your subconscious.

“The brain likes learnt behaviour and the subconscious has a set of scripts for that. Trying to overwrite those scripts with willpower is extremely difficult.” What’s more, the Oxford University alumna points out, humanity’s struggle for food ended only in the past century or so – and the brain has not yet snapped out of crisis mode.

So, it continues to crave highenergy foods, which are now disastrous for our health given our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

The World Health Organisation’s latest data shows more than 1.4 billion people are obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher – double the number of chubbies worldwide in 1980. You get your BMI by dividing your weight by the square of your height.

Prof Calvert’s big idea is to boost dieters’ efforts with a computer game, complete with an avatar, or digital icon, each designed to look like an individual dieter.

By now, you would likely ask: Won’t playing a computer game, even one about weight loss, just make one even more sedentary, which defeats the purpose?

But she insists that, as long as one is committed to a healthy diet and regular exercise, her proposed game will steer its players away from overeating and sloth.

That, she says, is because their avatars will immediately swell unflatteringly whenever they stop exercising and eating judiciously.

The game will change the avatar like so with data from a biometric bracelet worn by the player. The bracelet measures bodily changes such as blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

On top of that, Prof Calvert will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track changes in one’s subconscious by scanning the brain to see which parts of it are most active when stimulated by certain words and images.

The brain scan-cum-test, which uses an fMRI machine and a gadget resembling a car rear-view mirror to flash words and images on a screen, is devised to prevent those tested from fibbing. Those tested have only a split second to respond to various words and images by pushing a button on a provided console.

For example, when an overweight player is first tested, he may push the button whenever the word “Yummy” with the picture of a doughnut is flashed.

But if he commits to healthy eating and exercise, his subconscious will soon be associating the word “Yummy” with images of greens or fish instead.

The snag, of course, is that the fun of playing even the most exciting game would likely wear off if one is made to feel disciplined by it.

Still, Prof Calvert, who is married and has a school-going daughter, remains passionate about its potential. She has also excited her fellow members on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) global agenda council on neuroscience and behaviour.

The council, which has been actively discussing ways to combat obesity and champion sustainable consumption, backs her idea strongly.

Among her supporters is American social entrepreneur Lisa Witter, a champion of empowering women, who thinks gaming would be effective to entice people to lose weight, especially since most dieters are women. In an e-mail interview, she says a survey of gamers last year by casual gaming company Spil Games found that there are more women gamers aged 35 or older than male counterparts in the United States, Britain, France, Brazil, the Netherlands and Turkey.

“Gemma is trying to mash up this love for gaming with a desire and need to be physically fit,” Ms Witter says.

The council’s vice-chairman, French neuroscientist Olivier Oullier, 39, says Prof Calvert’s idea toes two ground rules for changing behaviour successfully: One, it must be pitched positively, and two, it must be as easy to adopt as possible.

On the phone from France, Professor Oullier, who stresses that he is speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the WEF, says: “A lot of public health strategies assume that people are rational and so if they are informed, they will make the right decisions. But in real life, people are irrational. They respond poorly to brochures, policies, TV shows and any other information that is given to them.”

That is why he and Ms Witter believe Prof Calvert’s idea will leapfrog the brain’s biggest hurdles to changing behaviour, via:

  • The sheer effort of changing: The brain has to use up a lot of energy to make the smallest switch. But the brain replaces a bad habit with a good one faster if it is having fun doing so. Gaming introduces that vital element of fun;
  • The craving for immediate feedback: The brain is hard-wired to prefer short-term gains over long-term boons. So most people would sooner reach for a doughnut than drop a few dress sizes. Having a personalised gaming avatar that grows slimmer if you adhere to a diet and exercise plugs this need for instant feedback, says Prof Calvert;
  • The preference for ease: Being motivated by a game that one can easily get good at is powerful in changing behaviour, says Prof Oullier, because the brain likes the path of least resistance.

To be sure, Prof Calvert is not the first person to think of using gaming to help others lose weight.

Neuroscientist Melissa Napolitano of Temple University in Philadelphia has also thought of using avatars but of other people, not the players themselves, and without tracking biological or psychological changes.

But while the WEF strongly backs Prof Calvert’s idea, it does not fund idea development. So the next step for her is to secure funding to do so.

Singapore-based game developer Chorus Digital, which is in talks with her to develop the game, is helping her do so. But its managing director Graham Lean, 62, knows it is an uphill task.

Mr Lean, who worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Bangkok in the 1970s, says even crowdsourcing funds for such an idea can be hit-and-miss.

He says: “People give money on the spur of the moment, like when there’s a disaster somewhere. But if it’s for something that’s consistently going to benefit humanity, they’re going to think, ‘What’s the rush?’”

Prof Calvert believes her big idea will be effective because it answers the question most people have before trying anything, which is: “What’s in it for me?”

She adds: “If you can see, touch and understand your options for weight loss, rather than be given negative messages, your behavioural change is likely to be more effective.”

THE BIG IDEA: Tickle the brain to trim the fat

Resistance is ingrained in the human brain, says British brain scientist Gemma Calvert, and few efforts are harder for people than losing weight. So she wants to develop a computer game to help people lose the fat more successfully by appealing to the brain’s craving for fun and fast feedback. One big caveat: Those who play the game should already be dieting and exercising regularly. n

  • The game will assign the player an avatar, or digital image of a person, that resembles the player;
  • The player will also have to wear a biometric bracelet, which tracks physical changes such as fluctuations in blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These changes will be recorded in the game, and the avatar will look slimmer or fatter depending on the data recorded;
  • The player will also be able to track changes in his subconscious, which govern changes in habits. This is done by taking a brain scan-cum-test of his responses to various words and images associated with diet and exercise.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 22, 2014

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