One of the most exciting things that the Open Government Initiative has brought to the federal government is a newfound appreciation for video games as a persuasive and educational medium. (No doubt in part because of Deputy CTO Beth Noveck’s background in games and virtual worlds). Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the Healthy Kids Game Challenge, and notice and comment on the design of the contest is now open on the Open Government blog here:

Innovations for Healthy Kids Game Challenge: Help Design for Success

Again, the USDA is seeking comments on the contest design itself. The post directs commentators to four main areas of focus:

  1. Target Audience
  2. Timeline
  3. Criteria for Success
  4. Outreach

I hope the Serious Games / Games for Health / Games for Change community will weigh in on these questions. I’ve posed my own response, which I’ll repost below:

2. Timeline: I encourage the USDA to consider dividing the Challenge into a two-stage funnel. The first stage would focus on game design, where the goal is to flush out as many good ideas as possible. The second stage would then focus on implementation, perhaps with the rules of the Challenge refined as a result of what is learned from the first phase.

This two-phase process recognizes that people with good game design or education concepts may not also have game development skills (nor would good game developers necessarily understand either nutrition or education). The community of game-developing educators, as Joey C. previously pointed out, is quite small. Insofar as this Challenge intends to generate innovative thinking, maximizing the number of participants by lowering the barriers to entry should be a top priority. The wide end of a two-stage funnel should be so large that even the schoolchildren who will one day play the game could themselves enter the Challenge.

In theory, online collaboration between educators and game developers would overcome the challenge of missing skills I have identified. In practice, however, collaboration of this nature is very difficult to foster online, especially in the context of a contest where trust is difficult to build. The transaction costs of teamwork on something as complex as game development are so high that even assembling a concept, never mind a working prototype, is prohibitive to most people working together. The USDA may wish to talk with the Knight Foundation’s efforts to build teams among competitors in that Foundation’s annual challenge if the idea of online collaboration remains appealing.

3. Criteria for Success: As my co-author and I discuss in our forthcoming book chapter, Video Games for Prosocial Learning (Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play), transference is a major obstacle in educational games, or any educational effort. Certainly two possible criteria of a successful game design could be cognitive learning or attitudinal change. However, demonstrating transference between that learning and actual behavioral change – the ultimate goal of the intended video game – is much more difficult to measure and achieve.

Therefore I encourage the USDA to also include direct behavioral shaping as a possible criterion of success in the Challenge. For example, Nintendo’s Wii Fit does not ask players to “learn” about flexibility, but rather engage in physical activity that will increase flexibility. Likewise, hybrid cars’ miles-per-gallon gauges shape drivers’ behavior through a game-like interface (the Honda Civic even shows a virtual forest growing as the driver’s MPG results improve).

A game that incorporates actual player behavior, rather than assuming transference between learning and behavior, is much more likely to succeed in its goals in a measurable way.

Weigh in with your own comments.

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  1. I really liked thsi article on how the Government is lookign towards Video gaming. We have seen some significant investment in this area. Just with what the Army has done with their games for recruitement and training.

    I could see there be a day when we use games to train congress on how their process work. LOL