White House Launches Games for Health Initiative

Can video games get kids to go easy on the Lucky Charms?  The Obama administration thinks they might be able to.

In a letter to attendees of the annual Game Developers’ Conference last week, Michelle Obama issued a challenge to develop games that would educate kids about eating better and living healthier lives.  Prize money will be awarded to the best entrants, as judged by a panel including Zynga’s Mark Pincus and professional TV dancer Steve Wozniak.

Can this work?  I absolutely believe it can, but I’m more concerned that it might not.  Let me explain.

On the one hand, I fully believe that games can be used to bring about change in people.  In his speech at the DICE summit, game designer Jesse Schell proposed games to get people to do anything from brushing their teeth more often to helping their kids with their homework.  Popular games like WiiFit and Brain Age improbably get people to exercise their bodies and minds.  Games are intimately tied to motivation, and can be powerfully persuasive ways to get people to do something or adopt a certain point of view.

On the other hand, I’m concerned that this competition (itself a motivational game!) might not be structured to elicit the best solutions.  To be successful, a game must first and foremost be a game.  If an educational mission (however noble) supersedes the gameplay, the experience can become heavy-handed and unenjoyable.   I think there’s a danger here that the prize competition could reward entrants that most conspicuously promote the healthy eating idea, rather than those that really engage the player.  A game can’t influence people if no one actually wants to play it — call it “The Bible Game” problem.

But still, the White House is is doing something really significant by endorsing the idea that games can achieve real-world objectives.  I think that’s a sign of shifting expectations about the role games have to play in all of our lives.

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