A wish list for educational health games

In yesterday’s health care communications and social media (#hcsm) chat  on Twitter, one of the questions raised was, “How do we use social media to reach kids and get them to take an active role in their health?” Answers quickly turned to the potential of social games to get kids engaged in wellness information and behaviors. Almost as quickly, solutions offered included providing points and badges to create engagement.

The discussion was timely for me since I’d spent the day taking a look at some free online games designed to help kids distinguish between healthy and non-healthy foods. I’m particularly interested in games for  adolescents and also games that have been used with kids with adolescent spectrum disorder (ASD).

My very preliminary findings

It’s quite challenging to find good free online educational games for adolescents that target wellness behaviors, like healthy eating. Many of the “games” I came across were actually Flash-swaddled presentations with multiple-choice questions providing interactivity. There also seem to be many arcade-style games out there that require you to zap bad foods or catch good food items using an avatar. In most cases, points are provided for answering questions right or for zapping or catching. Leveling up options generally provide increased challenges but these tend to relate to faster zapping or catching actions. In very few cases did these rewards seem to be connected to true problem-solving activities.

Some of the games I came across that had more synergy between interactions and information than others I investigated include:

None of the games I came across offered an opportunity for social interactions as part of the game itself.

I’m still researching and on the look out for games, so if you have any you can send a link to, please provide a comment!

My wish list

I’m just scratching the surface on the quality of good games that are educational and targeted towards wellness behaviors in adolescents. As a first pass at coming up with a design wish list for these games, I’m keeping an eye out for a game that:

  • Provides a seamless interface between content offerings (e.g., nutritional information) and game challenges
  • Is appropriately targeted to the interests and developmental stage of the target audience (e.g., doesn’t treat teenagers the same as younger children)
  • Provides an opportunity to interact and collaborate with other kids in similar age groups
  • Encourages content creation and sharing
  • Offers opportunities outside of the game to reflect on game experiences and learning
  • Provides a  well-written and engaging narrative
  • Allows learners to affect and interact with characters in a game and to modify the narrative (i.e., provide a sense of control over personal activities within the game)
  • Gives kids time to develop problem-solving strategies (and ideally, is interruptable)
  • Offers access to multiple media types (and a mobile option)
  • Supports connecting game play to long-term wellness behaviors (e.g., via encouraging journal keeping) while maintaining privacy safeguards
  • Offers an opportunity for leveling up that reflects better or more thoughtful decision-making rather than faster decision-making
  • Provides informative feedback (i.e., more than, Great! Level Up!)

Although I haven’t explicitly mentioned fun, I think fun is an important aspect that should flow from these traits. Also, there’s nothing wrong with providing extrinsic motivation in the form of points; however, it needs to be balanced and serve game features that support and enhance intrinsic motivation. (For an interesting post on the perils of pointification, look here.)

This is a tall order and of course it’s a lot easier to articulate a wish list than to actually  incorporate these traits in a game. But if 2011 is the year of gamification and serious games, it doesn’t hurt to set the bar high.

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