At the start of my tour of duty as guest editor here on Kotaku, I mentioned the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's announcement of a $US8.25 million grant call to support games for health. I also said I hoped the RWJF incentive might produce better health games, rather than just more health games.
To drive this point home, I want to share a recent, high profile health game that represents just how these things can go very wrong.The HMO Kaiser Permanente created Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective earlier this fall. Here's their PR boilerplate on the title:
the Amazing Food Detective takes children through activities that show how to choose healthy foods and get more active. Children playing the game follow the routines of eight culturally diverse children whose activities or conditions would benefit from healthy food and exercise choices. The game, aimed at children ages 9-10 and available to everyone at www.kp.org/amazingfooddetective, complements Kaiser Permanente's nationally recognised childhood obesity clinical strategy.
There are two parts to gameplay. The first are "investigations." The player can read the "nutrition files" of each of eight kids who have a particular nutritional problem, such as not getting enough exercise or eating too many sweets. The player moves a magnifying glass around an animated scene trying to find the correct object(s) to "solve" the case. For example, Michael doesn't exercise enough. The correct solution to his case is to click on the soccer jersey resting on a chair. Miraculously, Michael goes outside and juggles a ball. Case closed!
The second part are minigames. These are unlocked for each case after you complete it. So, you get a simple soccer game after helping Michael, as well as the charming "Zap the TV" game, a kind of Asteroids perversion. There are a bunch more of these too.
The game is competently produced for its style, with good production value in art, animation, and voice over. And I want to be encouraged by large corporate investment in health games. Unfortunately, this game is a conceit that risks sending the whole health games arena back in time. Let's talk about why.
The game insults the kids it is intended to serve. It does so by preying on the idea that kids enjoy games, and no matter the nature or quality of games, rather than taking advantage of the representational power of games in the service of health topics.
That power is the ability to create models of the way things work in the world and to ask players to make meaningful decisions as actors inside those models. When Kaiser claims their game "takes children through activites that show how to choose healthy foods and get more active," they make a promise to present actual nutrition and exercise choices within the contexts in which kids might experience them. This is something videogames are certainly capable of doing. But clicking on a soccer jersy instead of a remote control is not a meaningful decision. It is an obvious one. And even if it weren't obvious, all the kid needs to do is click on all the objects until they get the right one. And even if that experience were meaningful, "rewarding" it with crappy, second rate minigame versions of games that one can find better examples of anywhere online amounts to folly at best, insult at worst.
One of the features the creators and supporters of Amazing Food Detective are most proud of is an "automatic shut off" that engages after 20 minutes, reminding kids to "get active." I don't think Kaiser has anything to worry about. I strongly doubt any child is in danger of playing this game for more than 20 minutes.
Serious games don't need to compete with commercial games or even with web games. They need to present compelling versions of complex topics in convincing ways, ways that can't be done better with books or cartoons or colouring pages. At Persuasive Games, we've been working on a game about the politics of nutrition called Fatworld. It's something like Animal Crossing meets Super Size Me. It doesn't have the same goals as Amazing Food Detective, but it does share some overlap in topic. The difference is, we gave nutrition a context. It's a game about the relationship between nutrition and socioeconomics. There's a world. It has an economy. There are rich and poor people, not just lighter and darker people for political correctness. Decisions have trade-offs. Some choices are less accessible or less obvious than others. You can do the "wrong" thing on purpose and see what happens. Whether or not our game will succeed is an open question. But we have tried to take advantage of the medium in a way that Kaiser has not.
Worse yet, Kaiser has spent a fortune promoting this travesty. They created a PR staff to bombard the press in and out of the serious games space to cover the game (I get regular telephone calls and emails). They even paid the book publisher Scholastic to produce and distribute textbook materials to 5,000 public schools. Think about that for a minute. Kaiser Permanente, a private company in one of the most eggregiously broken industries around, is buying their way into schools so they can start building a "relationship of trust" with your fourth grader. Of course, if they left the game to sell itself it wouldn't. The fact that they paid for school placement before they even brought the game out is an admission of how poor they'd expect it to perform on the open market.
Kaiser is a big company with a lot of money, and it's good that they are seeing value in games and choosing to invest in them. But they are trying to buying legitimacy they have not earned. As Spider-Man would say, with great power comes great responsibility. This game is not education and it's certainly not health advocacy. It's unadulterated and nefarious public relations. If you use it for anything, use Amazing Food Detective to teach your kids how corporations vie to buy their attention, not to teach them to eat carrots instead of potato chips.