Did you spend your childhood driving a wagon? Buying spare axles and hunting bison? How about chasing thieves across the world? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then chances are that you were once under the influence of serious video games.
Some may recall The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, games that we look back on and say, “Those games were meant for learning!?” And over 40 years later, serious video games are making a comeback, and this time, with a new, healthier agenda.
The Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail first appeared in the early 1970’s when student teacher, Don Rawitisch, developed a game to teach his students about 19th century pioneer life. In 1975, the state-funded Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) helped Rawitsch spread his game across Minnesota schools as part of a series, followed by the release of the standalone game in 1985. By 1995, The Oregon Trail had established a cult following and comprised one-third of MECC’s $30 million annual revenue. The game resurfaced in 2008, when Gameloft released versions for mobiles phones and gaming systems.
As of 2011, The Oregon Trail sold more than 65 million copies – more than Pac-Man.
Serious Video Games
Serious video games are intended to entertain players while attempting to modify some aspect of their behavior – a dual theory.
Some of the most common theories used in serious video games include Social-Cognitive Theory, which emphasizes goal setting and feedback, and Transportation Theory, which is commonly used in narrative forms of media, such as comic books. Each theory then has its own set of mediators, such as self-efficacy and immersion; any planned behavior change then requires that one or more of these mediators are targeted during game play. More often than not, games follow more than one theory and target multiple mediators.
Ultimately, the game, theories, targeted mediators and predicted outcomes together form a model. For example, the Elaboration Likelihood Model states that attractive and likable story characters are more persuasive, so such a model would be fitting for a health-promoting game.
Escape From DIAB and Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space
Escape from DIAB and Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space are part of an $8 million project by the Children’s Nutrition Research Center, funded by the National Institute of Health. DIAB follows the main character, DeeJay, as he helps his friends escape the tyranny of King Etes. As evident from the title, the game is a prevention strategy for type 2 diabetes. Nanoswarm is a live-action/animated game composed of multiple mini-games. Beneath both games lie two messages: achieve energy balance and increase physical activity.
The games were designed by a multidisciplinary team made up of game developers from Archimage and behavioral change specialists from Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, including Debbe Thompson and Tom Baranowski. Game development also relied on student focus groups early in the process and information that emerged was later used to develop the game. For example, the team found that students of low socioeconomic status preferred “oreo cookie feedback,” or hiding negative feedback in between encouragement and compliment, such as “Great work! But you need to be much quicker than that… Let’s try that again!”
Looking to the Future
An overarching question remains, “Is it the game? Or is it the moment?”
The Oregon Trail was more than just a game, but one of the first simulation games. And Carmen Sandiego came at a time when the Apple II was first hitting classrooms. Archimage may have found a formula for success, but how do we prepare for what’s coming next? Greater collaborations between public health experts and game designers are warranted if we wish to catch up to the latest technology.
Click here to read about That Dragon, Cancer, a game based on the actual experiences of a husband and wife as they raise their young son, who has terminal cancer. Click here to visit the official site. The game was announced at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).