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Jeb Bush goes after anti-obesity video game that conservatives love to hate

Legislation would strip firm of $2m grant from NIH

Jeb Bush spoke about healthcare reform at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday.
Jeb Bush spoke about healthcare reform at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday.(Brian Snyder/REUTERS)

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In the midst of outlining his health care policy on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush took a jab at an app, being developed with federal funds, that aims to teach parents how to get kids to eat their vegetables. The game, he said, is a waste of “scarce resources.”

It may have sounded like an obscure reference. But Bush isn’t the first conservative politician to pummel the “Mommio” game.

In fact, Richard Buday, the president of the small Texas company that is developing the game, has been under attack for years. He has received threats and hate mail. He is even the target of legislation — pending in Congress — that would block federal funds for any game that seeks to teach “food parenting practices.” If it passes, the bill would strip Buday’s company, Archimage Inc., of its $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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Buday didn’t want to talk politics Tuesday. But he defended his company’s efforts as “noble work” to combat obesity.

“This is the sort of thing that powers me through any adversity,” he said.

The Obama administration is so interested in the potential societal benefits of gaming that the White House has assigned advisers to study its power to promote public health and improve education.

The NIH is also intrigued: Before giving Archimage the $2 million grant for “Mommio,’’ which teaches parents to encourage their toddlers to eat greens with phrases like “try a small bite,” the agency awarded the company $9 million for two antiobesity video games for kids. One of the games, “Escape from Diab,’’ features a virtual world where players race from an evil despot who controls his hefty subjects with lard chips, cake pudding, and fried ice cream.

All that is red meat for conservatives.

“An obvious waste of your tax dollars,” Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona, fumed in a statement he issued this summer, shortly before filing the bill targeting “Mommio.’’

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Bush didn’t take a stance on that legislation in his speech at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. He called for focusing NIH funding on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, and autism.

Political attacks on Archimage’s games started in the mid-2000s, when the company got its first NIH grant, for “Escape from Diab.’’ It reached a crescendo this fall after the conservative Washington Free Beacon published an article spotlighting federal spending on that game. The protest went viral.

“The government just handed these people $10 million dollars of our . . . money,” bemoaned Amy Jo Clark, a writer for the website Chicks on the Right.

A post published on the Fox News Facebook page generated thousands of likes and shares. And one of the network’s anchors, Bret Baier, questioned the wisdom of using video games to teach weight control in an era of widespread concern that kids are spending too much time sitting in front of screens.

The barrage left Buday bewildered. “The political dimensions here escape me,” he said.

Archimage’s grants represent just a tiny sliver of the NIH’s spending on obesity prevention, which totaled $857 million in the 2015 fiscal year. Archimage’s total grant haul over eight years equals just 1.3 percent of a single year’s obesity research at NIH.

NIH spokesman Robert Bock said that Archimage’s grant application for “Mommio’’ was “rated highly” by an independent panel of experts.

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Which raises the question: Why do so many conservatives dislike Archimage so much?

Though grants like those awarded to Archimage are relatively small potatoes, they make perfect targets for Americans concerned about government spending and for politicians trying to appeal to those voters, said Pete Sepp, president of the right-leaning advocacy organization National Taxpayers Union.

“The average citizen is not likely to know whether $10 billion is enough or too much or too little to spend on an aircraft carrier,” Sepp said, “but they can certainly more directly understand if an expenditure is being made on their behalf for . . . a game that they might otherwise purchase in a store and play themselves.”

The video games, especially “Mommio,’’ also feed into the conservative anger over what Sarah Palin has called a “nanny state run amok.” Conservatives have used the “parental rights” mantra to fight mandatory childhood vaccinations, soda taxes, and new nutritional rules for school lunches.

Salmon echoed that stance in his statement on the bill, saying that “parents are capable of knowing what is best for their children.”

Amid the controversy, business buzzes as usual in the Archimage office on a tree-lined street in Houston.

Buday, a trained architect, incorporated Archimage nearly 25 years ago. His team has done computer animation for a Disney subsidiary and graphic design for Merrill Lynch. But these days, he and his five employees focus on developing “serious” games.

Designed with input from nutritionists and psychologists, the games often take on quirky themes. Learning about healthy eating becomes a medieval quest; education about treatment options for prostate cancer takes the form of a spin-the-wheel game.

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Psychologist Tom Baranowski, who has collaborated with Archimage on its antiobesity games, sees promise in the technology. In a small 2011 study, he found that children who played “Escape from Diab’’ and a companion game for 12 weeks ate about two-thirds of a serving more fruit and vegetables per day than a control group. The children, however, saw no improvement in exercise habits or body composition.

When it comes to preventing obesity, “there’s no substitute for physical activity,” said pediatrician Victor Strasburger, who studies the effects of media on children and adolescents.

“Escape from Diab’’ may never make it to market; it’s already outdated. But “Mommio’’ is moving ahead. A clinical trial in parents will begin early next year. Buday isn’t sure what kind of response to expect from his critics if he is able to bring the app to market. But he is not too worried.

“If we were totally invisible,” Buday said, “I’d worry we weren’t doing anything important.”


Rebecca Robbins can be reached at rebecca.robbins@statnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDRobbins. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the type of work Archimage Inc. did for Disney.