CSE Game Design Lab

Innovation in game design

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Improving children’s eating habits

Posted by on June 29th, 2011 · Games for health

My undergraduate thesis project involves designing, building and testing a game which aims to encourage young children to eat healthier.  My research has shown that education isn’t an issue; children know what’s healthy, they just don’t choose to eat those foods.  As such, the strategies involved draw a few things from numerous fields and ideas, taking multiple paths to hopefully alter their behavior:

  1. Evangelism – making a player “convince” another person to eat a certain food has been shown to convince the player himself
  2. Pattern matching – human behavior is built on patterns created in the brain, to solve problems. Presenting problems and solutions which create these patterns in the brain, may shape future behavior which draws on the patterns
  3. Responsibility/ownership – if somebody chooses to buy, cook or create a certain food, they will feel responsible for it, and consequently won’t feel like they are being forced to eat it
  4. Value from rarity – limited supply artificially creates demand
  5. Practice – giving players time to practice the ideas of healthy eating turns them from abstract notions of good or bad, into actual choices made by the player

Combining these paths, we arrive at the high-level design for the game: players shop for food, grow vegetables in a garden, cook meals, and feed a virtual family.  Different foods affect the player-character’s stats, making actions easier or harder.  Some evangelism is necessary when feeding the family, and the size of the family increases over time to complement the player’s increases in skill and stats.

At this point, my hope is to finish the game by the end of July, allowing room for balancing and verification with Malcolm and the nutritionist helping me.  Ideally, testing on children will begin soon after that, to allow as much data as possible.

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