Instead of putting on sofa weight and developing carpal tunnel in their thumbs, gamers can now apply their digital leisure time towards maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

This weekend, the Apps for Healthy Kids competition invited game developers, graphic artists and students from across the nation to assemble in eight cities and design the perfect video game prototype for promoting physical activity. The competition — a joint initiative between the Games for Health Project and Health Games Research Program — awards $60,000 to teams that can create the most engaging game from scratch within a 48-hour period. Headquartered at UCSB’s Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, HGR sponsors 21 research projects across the U.S. that work to develop interactive and healthy video games that combat childhood obesity.

HGR Director Debra Lieberman, a communication researcher at UCSB, said competitors incorporated recent research from the field to create efficient video games capable of altering children’s eating and behavioral habits.

“We are just trying to improve the quality of health games any way we can, mainly through research evidence to understand better how to design them, how people respond to them and what the needs and abilities are of different kinds of people,” Lieberman said.

According to Lieberman, although the field is still rapidly growing, there already are numerous existing video game platforms that encourage athletic ability. Some games, a.k.a. ‘exergames’ allow players to exercise while they play, while other games help to increase the skills and assurance for one to care for their own health issues. Users of the Nintendo Wii platform even turn to the game console for ‘Wii-habilitation’ purposes.

HGR Deputy Director Maria Fisk said the organization’s main objective is to find an innovative approach to enhance the effectiveness of interactive health games.

“What we really hope to do is infuse the idea that research is important to the development of health games,” Fisk said. “By understanding how users interact with games and use games, we can create better games that will help users improve their health.”

Additionally, Lieberman said developers are currently working on games tailored for individuals afflicted by diabetes, self-management problems, cystic fibrosis, asthma, autism, phobias and attention deficit disorders. HGR has allotted over $4 million in grant money to research teams across the nation since its creation, she said.

“If our software helps more people stay on track with their healthy eating, then our software has made a difference,” Lieberman said. “We are designing software that is going to support people, encourage people and motivate people to eat healthy, be more physically active, engage in more mentally challenging activities and stay in touch with their friends.”

According to Lieberman, the use of health games has been proven to lower the number of urgent care and emergency room visits for patients suffering from diabetes by 77 percent. And, she said, healthy video game regimens have even been proven to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that elementary school children consume daily.

Furthermore, Fisk said her team is ecstatic that the field of health games research has grown exponentially over the years.

“People learn in the course of their everyday lives, [that] to have the opportunity to learn and improve their health in the course of having fun and playing a game is very powerful,” Fisk said.

Health Games Research is a national program — funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — that operates out of UCSB to research healthy game technologies.

Winners of the Apps for Healthy Kids contest will be announced at the sixth annual Games for Health Conference on May 25-27 in Boston, MA.