Wanted: Better Labeling for Health Apps in App Stores

Health apps (including games for health) are being used today by consumers and medical professional to treat diagnosable health problems.  They are currently unregulated, though the FDA this month announced the first round of regulation.

The FDA has specifically said they are not aiming at app stores (link).  However, there is clear need for improvement in today’s app stores.

Consumers should know if the health app they’re buying is effective, but today, there is no such information available.

The design of app stores (e.g. Google Play, Apple App Store) strongly influences the information developers disclose.  Right now, there are no guidelines for health app developers.  They are required to supply the same information as entertainment app developers.

I feel the health app community – mHealth, Games for Health, FDA, academics, and consumer advocacy organizations should band together to produce or endorse a single set of design guidelines. These guidelines are aimed at Google, Apple, insurance agencies, and other leading distributors of health apps to consumers.

App stores are the isle in the drugstore.  They are where consumers shop and compare.  Like the labels on over-the-counter medicine, developers of health apps should inform their consumers:

– what does this app aim to achieve? (reduce depression? weight loss? injury rehabilitation?)
– is the app effective? (an independent, 5-star rating from “promising” to “proven”)
– who is the app intended for? (age, condition)
– what are signs that further help is needed, and where can the user find that help?

I feel that, given the state of affairs, voluntary guidelines strike a good balance between overregulation and the total consuiosn in today’s app stores.

If you agree or have comments, please add a comment below or get in touch directly: josh@whit-kin.com

New Job Title: Researcher/Designer, Northwest Media

I’m happy to report that I’m at Northwest Media designing interventions for social good based on learning games, We’ve got a number of projects on the go:

  • VSG, a Sims-RPG hybrid game designed to help at-risk kids, especially foster teens, realize the need to develop life skills before jumping into the real world.  It’s a NIH-funded SBIR Phase II, and we’ve got most of a year left to finish.
  • InTouch, a serious game that aims to help foster and birth parents develop a form of mentalization called “Parental Reflective Functioning”.

It’s exciting stuff that combines innovation, simple execution of what is known, and all for social good.  Nice!


Doctoral Dissertation – shipped!

I am so happy to report that I have submitted my doctoral dissertation, back in December.

Here’s the abstract.

This research aims to improve the practice of designing educational video games (“learning games”). This thesis aims to both validate and extend Shelton’s theory of activity-goal alignment, which focuses on the relationship between a player’s activity and the designer’s intended learning goal in any learning game. The thesis develops and evaluates two novel tools. First, an autoethnographic account of a recent learning game project confirms Shelton’s prior findings that activity-goal alignment theory meets an important need in learning game design practice and that Shelton’s theory might be made more accessible to practising designers. The AGA Scoring Tool is developed, and both it and Shelton’s theory are evaluated through analytic discussions of designs of several existing learning games: activity-goal alignment theory is found useful, and scoring activity-goal alignment is argued to be clearer than Shelton’s narrative-based approach. Secondly, this thesis argues that there is need for improved tools for assessment of learning games. A critical review of existing assessment tools yields a list of criteria for any learning game assessment tool.  A basis for a new learning game assessment tool is developed from three theories: Higher Order Learning theory, Gee’s principles of Deep Learning, and Shelton’s activity-goal alignment. These three theories are argued to comprise an important, prevailing position within the learning game design literature. A new tool, the AGA-Based Assessment Tool, is proposed and exercised in critical discussions of several learning games. Important gaps between learning game design practice and theory are revealed using the tool.  The thesis concludes that scoring activity-goal alignment is useful to the learning game designer because it makes an important theoretical position from the learning game design literature clear and simpler to apply in practice.

So good to have this sent!  It’s being examined now, and I’ve been trying not to think about it for that last seven months.  I’ve already had one paper adapted from the autoethnographic chapter, accepted at the Games for Health Europe conference #GFHEU in October, so that’s a good feeling!

interesting thesis on Facebook and privacy

Game designer Kate Raynes-Goldie just wrote an interesting doctoral thesis that examines Facebook and privacy. Her abstract says:


Most academic and journalistic discussions of privacy on Facebook have centred on users, rather than the company behind the site. The result is an overwhelming focus on the perceived shortcomings of users with respect to irresponsible privacy behaviours, rather than an examination of the potential role that Facebook Inc. may have in encouraging such behaviours. Aiming to counterbalance this common technologically deterministic perspective, this thesis deploys a multi-layered ethnographic approach in service of a deep and nuanced analysis of privacy on Facebook. This approach not only looks at both the users and creators of Facebook, it examines Facebook Inc. in the context of historical, cultural and discursive perspectives. Specifically, this thesis details how the company’s privacy policy and design decisions are guided not simply by profit, but by a belief system which which encourages “radical transparency” (Kirkpatrick, 2010) and is at odds with conventional understandings of privacy. In turn, drawing on Fiske’s model of popular culture, users “make do” with the limited privacy choices afforded them by the site, while at the same time attempting to maximise its social utility. As this dynamic demonstrates, Facebook Inc. plays a critical, yet often overlooked role in shaping privacy norms and behaviours through site policies and architecture. Taken together, the layers of this thesis provide greater insight into user behaviour with respect to privacy, and, more broadly, demonstrate the importance of including critical analyses of social media companies in examinations of privacy culture.

Stuff which might be useful for Facebook, social media & privacy researchers

  • In Chapters 3 and 8, I expand on my definition and application of social privacy as distinct from institutional privacy (which I first wrote about in in 2010) — that is, the management of information and disclosure about oneself in the context of one’s friends, acquaintances, co-workers — as an important concept in understanding privacy behaviours and attitudes on Facebook.
  • In Chapters 5, 6 and 7, I provide the origins, manifestations and consequences of the philosophy of Facebook — or what I call “radically transparent sociality,” which essentially explain why Facebook doesn’t want to protect the privacy of its users.
  • Chapter 4 provides a comprehensive chronological overview of Facebook’s history and evolution from 2004 until 2011.
  • Throughout the thesis, particularly in Chapter 8, I show how the idea that youth are privacy unconcerned (sometimes described as the “privacy paradox“) is an oversimplification, and is largely inaccurate.


The full text is here.

The three ways technology reaches end users

In this discussion, I suggest that all modern technological breakthroughs that affect normal people might be understood as belonging to one of three models:

First, I acknowledge the ‘normal’ model: publicly funded research yields technological breakthroughs, which are developed into mass-market tools. The selling of the tool generates profit.  The user applies the tools to generate value for himself, not the entity.

Typewriters –> IBM, Selectric
Mobile phones –> Motorola, Sprint
Smartphones –> Apple, Google, Samsung
eBooks –> Amazon
Video games –> EA, Sony, Valve

Second, the ‘fishhook’ model does not generate most of its value from selling the tool.  These entities develop a technology into a ‘fishhook:’ the tool is free, because the entity extracts value from users’ activity: the use of the tool, not the tool, generates the value.  Any free or advertising-supported tool is using the ‘fishhook’ model.

TV –> NBC, Foxtel, Comcast
Ad-supported Kindle –> Amazon
Video –> Youtube
Collaborative Planning –> Google Calendar, etc
Social science –> Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

The third way are what I call ‘happy accidents’. For example, the personal computer, email, WWW, and torrents were all unharnessed breakthroughs. I argue these were accidents, not the plan, of the large entities that funded their research.  Apple largely failed to exploit the PC revolution with the Apple II. It did not make that mistake the second time with the iPhone.  Many entities today aim to intentionally induce these “accidents”. Free IP, indie media, maker movement, and open-source culture are examples.

I developed this idea during a discussion of consumer media literacy.  If I publish that, I’ll edit this line with a link to it.

I’m looking forward to your reasoned response.

tiny rewards: operant conditioning in video game culture

This post is about conditioned response, triggered by an unrelated video game design discussion (about using sound effects as triggers for data collection for analytics because “[…] all the semantically important moments in a video game have unique sound effects (or patterns of sound effects)” – Marc LeBlanc Facebook post July 16 2012).  One responder I won’t identify replied “I think it says gamers salivate when a bell is rung.”

When games, and their designers, are accused of manipulating players, akin to deceit, Pavlov’s famous salivating dogs are often cited.  I think this isn’t a fair summary of operant conditioning in games. This made me want to explore my own understanding of conditioned response, and how game designers use it.  Hence this post.

A more powerful example is in Jesse Schell’s Gamepocolypse talk, he gives many horrific examples of blatant manipulation of gamer behavior using a “bling!” sound effect for each. A s I watched, I said “no!” but felt “cool!” The sound effect told me I should feel satisfaction of getting points. That “bling!” sound was spending my conditioning capital, earned through game play.  At the end of the lecture, even after some reflection, I felt confused at an intuitive level. Is the Gamepocolypse good or bad? It’s bad, but it’s fun!    It’s good to reward toothbrushing!  It’s horrible if game designers place products in my dreams!  This confused, complex feeling is correct: operant conditioning is not simple. the drooling dogs of Pavlov are not the whole story.

I want to start at the research.  In achieving the conditioned response, Pavlov first identified an inherently rewarding activity (dogs eating).  He then connected the ringing bell to that event.  The final salivating-for-bell behaviour was “borrowing” from the inherently rewarding activity of eating. If he had fed the dogs dirt, would they learn to salivate with the bell alone?  I think not, because there was no inherently rewarding activity.

BF Skinner’s Law of Effect says “behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)” (source).

To measure this I use the metaphor of ‘conditioning capital’:  designers earn ‘conditioning capital’ by providing inherently rewarding activity.  This ‘conditioning capital’ can be spent for various purposes.

For example, when a designer places a “ka-ching” sound effect, they are either predicting the player feels game mastery at that moment (which earns conditioning capital), or rewarding player for doing what the designer wants (spending capital).

In my play experience, games often build conditioning capital with rewards. For example, when I earn a powerup, the game plays a “bling” sound. This is a tiny reward.  It feels like the game is recognizing, externalizing, and acknowledging my tiny mastery of navigation.

Collecting a powerup is inherently rewarding: it improves my options for gameplay.  The “bling” sound is extra. It’s not just audio feedback. “Bling!” is a happy sound in my culture. I enjoy hearing it on its own. It’s a tiny reward. It is also being reinforced. I get something good, I hear “bling”, thus “bling” means good.  The game is building a conditioned response.

If you doubt that effect sounds are more than pure feedback, do this thought experiment: Play a generic 2D platformer in your mind, replacing the powerup sound swith a culturally meaningless ‘tick’ sound.  Would it be just as satisfying as Super Mario’s sounds?  Is it clear how important positive sounds are for effects, and how much conditioned capital is on tap through these sounds?

Of course, designers can use operant conditioning to manipulate the player.  Jon Blow criticizes this (Blow 2011) and asks designers: ““Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?”As a designer, I give these tiny rewards for many reasons.

* guide the player towards designer-desired gameplay (e.g. collect coins)

* to amplify and validate the internal reward (yes, player, that was good!).

Perhaps one could define “bad” game design as spending more behaviorial ‘capital’ than it generates.  For example, if a math-memorization game uses “Boss Killer” achievements and players’ pleasure is primarily a conditioned response accumulated from past experience of killing bosses, then that capital will run out.  It may take a while – a lifetime of gaming has built a lot of capital around certain reward signals – and but it could be a clear basis for judgement of game design.

This ‘conditioned capital’ is so large for certain video game sounds that popular media mocks our helpless responses, even while using it effectively. In the animation “Scott Pilgrim vs” (youtube), at 2:52 Scott hits the boss, earning a “KO” victory sound effect. At 3:13 Scott kisses a girl and gets a “Powerup” sound effect.  It’s not just sound effects. There are many visual effects with cultural capital. In the Scott Pilgrim comic book series, Scott gets a “level up” graphic when he achieves anything major.

I view the conditioning capital around these iconic sounds as a shared resource: a Commons, in the Tragedy of the Commons sense.  Low quality gamification can be seen as a pure “capital spend” of video game reward conditioning. For an extreme example, consider low-quality ‘gamification’ of a classroom: convert grades to “points” and assignments to “quests”, with no other changes.  It is a ‘pure spend’ – it is borrowing the ‘cool’ that kids associate with games – and obviously manipulative.  BK Skinner’s theory suggests it will quickly become less effective, unless there are some genuinely new experiences behind it.

Of course, operant condition isn’t the whole story of player motivation – far from it. Player motivation is complex and multivariant, and behaviorism is only one small part of the picture. For example, in-game achievements are sought for social status signaling reasons (Medler 2011, “Validating Motives” section). These powerful motivations could well trump any motivation from intrinsic reward or conditioned response.  But operant conditioning is a important topic in any reflective game designer’s mind.

To summarize, I believe games designers should build ‘conditioning capital’ by providing players with inherently rewarding experiences, and be aware when they are spending it.


the game should be the task, not the reward.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s so wrong with poor old Math Blaster’s oft-maligned core mechanic (solve an arithmetic problem to progress the game).

Learning game researchers often critique this type of design, using arguments common from anti-gamification (my favorite is “chocolate covered broccoli”). But like gamification advocates, defenders ask: What’s wrong with that? It works, adding motivation to rote learning. While some question the value of extrinsic motivation, let alone rote learning (see wolfram’s TED talk), it does work.  No, there is something else. Something more frustrating.

Nintendo’s Help Cat (see Danc’s insanely detailed critique) runs away from the cursor, making it harder, not easier, to get hints . Since users assume winning yields valuable information, Help Cat winners are predisposed to value the factual knowledge delivered (hints about using the hardware).

After noting how Help Cat exposed hidden assumptions in UX and instructional design, Help Cat implies a question of learning games:

Is game play activity the reward, or the task?

Math Blaster’s design implies that game activity is simple, easy entertainment — a reward for real work of calculation. The “fun” in games is “simple, easy entertainment.”  But games are a form of play, and it may seem strange to say, but video game play is rarely simple or easy. In fact, it has a lot more in common with the frustrations and satisfactions of learning than “simple, easy entertainment”, as James Paul Gee convincinly explains in some detail.

Maybe playful design can help learning game designers disrupt the fallacious tension between fun and learning.  This line of thinking is leading back to one of my favorite design principles: “Find the Fun in the Learning.”  (“Moving Learning Games Forward”, MIT education arcade).


Flow in real-time physical prototyping of video games

Can we achieve flow states by using real-time mechanics in physical prototypes of video games?  I did a very quick investigation and convinced at least myself that the answer is “yes”.


In “Game Design Workshop,” Fullerton et al acknowledge the problem:

People who are not used to physical prototyping might argue that this method does not accurately represent the player experience on a computer. They might think a pen and paper prototype might work for a turn-based game, but not for an action-based shooter because gameplay is integrally tied to the 3D environment and the ability of the players to act in real time. 

Their answer, however, didn’t explain why it’s not often done:

“We are not arguing that physical prototyping replaces those things. What we are saying is the overall gaming system can benefit tremendously in its early stages by building a physical prototype.”

While, for many types of design questions, turn-based is sufficient; however, Csikszentmihalyi notes the player’s skewed perception of time during flow states:

“…in general, most people report time seems to pass much faster. But occasionally the reverse occurs: Ballet dancers describe how a difficult turn that takes less than a second in real time stretches out for what seems like minutes.”

If we could extend the range of physical prototyping to include flow states, I believe it would be very useful to video game designers.

I’m convinced it’s not too hard to achieve flow states with physical prototypes.

A brief search for real-time board games found only these:

  1. Counter – Selfpublished in 2011, it’s a real-time, hex-grid miniature battle – sounds ideal for RTS prototyping. Rules here.  Students and I will build, playtest and report back.
  1. Call of Duty RT is a real-time card game with a map. The video around 8:00 shows a “semi-realtime” play experience. Lots of pauses and rules execution.

These sources are related and useful to real-time prototypers:

  1. There are some wargames that have the player issuing troop controls in a somewhat real-time mechanic (cite and more research needed)
  2. Real-Time Chess (RTC) offers design ideas that could apply to common physical real-time problems (Chaboissier 2009 video)
  3. Hungry Hungry Hippos (video). It has a territory, it’s realtime, and while there’s no real strategy , it’s fun. for kids. for a short while anyway. (OK, I admit it’s not really relevant– I just love it!)

I would appreciate any suggestions for this list, provided they:

1. have some strategic or tactical element;
2. have a map or territory;
3. give a flow experience, like a real-time video game.

I’ve excluded mapless real-time card games. e.g. Jab Frenzy Brawl Fightball; Slapjack, Spit, etc.  I believe the spatial design element is crucial to the RTS video game genre, which these lack.


This project has been done on stolen time, so I used autoethnography as my method. I assessed the flow state by simply noting that I met the conditions for flow and strongly felt flow while playing.  I freely acknowledge that from a scientific point of view, my method is highly prone to bias and is weak on many obvious fronts (sample size, for a start), but I believe it is sufficient to justify further work.

My students and I created two real-time versions of Checkers.  The first version was “standard Checkers rules, except no turns.”  Four students watched and took notes as G and I played.  I estimate that we made 1 to 3 moves per second, and about 90% of our moves had some kind of purpose or plan (neither accidental, nor random / stalling). I recall two “breathers” – five-second periods where neither moved in about 5 minutes of play.

With Version 2 we added two rules:

  1. You must touch your nose after moving a piece one space.  This prevented long, continuous zigzag slides from one end to the other of the board, giving the other player the opportunity to break a run by jumping them, while still keeping most of the flow feeling of a run.
  2. collide=slapjack: If two pieces collide (ie we tried to move to the same place at the same time), then a “slapjack” minigame determined the winner: with the other hand, each player touched a certain spot on the table next to the board. Whoever’s finger was at the bottom, gets the spot.  The other player takes their move back.  Play does not stop during this.

I observed, but did not play, Version 2.  Players appeared to be as deeply engaged as I was.

Data (Realtime Checkers – player experience summary)

As I played version 1, I felt flow from the first move, and continued to feel it all the way until we stopped playing.  The 5 minute playtest felt like 20. My heart was pounding. My brain was in full game-strategy mode.

However, Checkers ruleset is too simple for RTS.  It felt more like novice multiplayer FPS experience: a pretty close match on decisions per second, and complexity of decision-making, to a beginner practicing against NPCs in TF2 or a friendly Unreal Tournament deathmatch.

I can imagine the reader might be snorting at the idea that Checkers could  “feel like multiplayer FPS.”  Here’s what I mean:

I felt the familar burden of low-grade performance stress, trying to keep an eye on the shifting sands of opportunities and threats, peppered with little sharp stabs of joy when I found a good move, and micro-dispair when I missed something important.

Because I was new to the game, I trialed, discarded or improved tactics, all in real time flow state, with little regard to long-term strategy (of which I doubt there is much).  I thought ahead two moves which enabled me to create crude move-jump combos, rather than move-by-move. I tried lame-duck tactics (to tempt her out when she was turtling).

I tried an online single-player version (“extreme checkers”  here …warning: lots of popup ads), but the unnatural speed of piece motion and mouseclicking made the first few minutes frustrating made the experience pretty weak.  The physical experience actually brings the game closer to FPS than the digital version.


I strongly believe flow states can be achieved with physical prototypes and believe there is reason to hope that physical prototypes might be able to model flow states in video games.  This study is far too limited to say much beyond that.

Returning to Fullerton’s observation on the gap between physical prototypes and video games: Obviously, much was missing between a FPS and realtime checkers:

  1. able to see the entire territory (birds-eye view)
  2. no range attack
  3. no theme
  4. no music

Some of these are easily testable. I look forward to future playtests with the stereo cranked and Warhammer figures.

Future research directions

There are two directions that this research suggests.

The first question is: is it possible to achieve a flow state in a map-based tabletop RTS?  While Checkers is too limited in strategic options to offer much insight on this question, I think games like CODRS and Boxing show that realtime play in phyiscal games with deeper strategy are combinable, and I feel there was enough promise to try it.

A larger and more crucial question is:  Does a flow experience in a physical prototype have any relation to a flow experience in the subsequent video game design?   In other words, if a prototype has flow, does this predict anything useful for the digital game?   I would dearly love to find out, though it might requires a much larger effort than a quick investigation such as this. As academics are so fond of saying, this is clearly a question for future research.


The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

This learning game is a fun way to avoid the dull Week 1 lecture, where deadlines and criteria for a new university class (or “unit” in OZ/NZ university parlance) are given.  This game has three advantages:

1. instead of being talked at, students tell each other the most important parts of a new unit.

2. It is a great way for students to meet each other in tutorial, and get some idea of each others’ personalities (in preparation for group work later)

3. It generates a ‘crowdsourced’ list of what students regard as most important elements of the unit guide.

The rules:

The tutor points to the nearest student and announces “Player 1”.  Then the tutor points to the student’s neighbor and announces “Judge.” Next student is announced “Player 2”.  The next is “Player 1” again.  The tutor continues around the room in this manner.  Students are told to group themselves, and arrange their groups around the room.    (Player 1 –  Judge –  Player 2)    — (Player 1 – Judge – Player 2)  — (Player 1 – Judge – Player2).

Tutor tasks are: call out start and stop times, update the list of “Most Important” topics (on a whiteboard, so all can see), and final arbitrar, if needed.

When Tutor says “go”, each player has 30 seconds to picks the most important thing in the unit guide.  After the first round, players cannot choose anything already chosen from the “most important” list.

  • When Tutor says “stop”, the players are given 10 seconds each to explain their finding to their judge. This is usually noisy.
  • Tutor then obtains silence, and asks each judge in turn to report.
    • Judge announces what each player found, and picks the more important one.
    • The winning player gets a point.  These are recorded on a bit of paper they keep with them.
    • Tutor writes down the winning answers as the judge reads them off. Players cannot use these again.
      • Players can reuse their answers if they were not chosen.
      • The players then each award the Judge 1 or 0 points, using any criteria they like (typically awarded for fairness of decision).   Judge writes tallies their score on a scrap of paper.
      • Then, the groups are mixed:

      * player 2 moves one group to the right

    * judge moves one to the left

The new players and judge get settled, share their scores and otherwise introduce themselves, until the Tutor announces that new round begins. 

Once all judges have travelled full circle, points are tallied and two winners (one player, one judge) are declared. Celebrations ensue.

The game takes about 45 minutes for a 14-person tutorial.

Credits: Murdoch Games Design Workshop students and tutor, 2012.  Creative Commons licensed.


Sustainability + Zombies = Learning Game?


If you were asked to design a game about sustainability, that featured zombies, what would you create?  That challenge emerged from our www.yaw-crc.org pilot project. The project is best understood through the eyes of its stakeholders:

  • The nonprofit entity, whose goal is to engage their kids around their mission or topic.   In our case, the teacher was quite satisfied with the project because she saw how it motivated at-risk kids she couldn’t reach with normal methods.  She was delighted to see them attending school, participating in discussions, and writing their game design ideas.  At researchers’ request, she role-played a ‘customer’ with a more specific mission: promote sustainability with a video game.
  • The kids, who passionately embrace the opportunity to be co-creators, and are proud that their video game literacy can open doors to adult worlds. They enjoy playing the games, but they are more motivated by the presence of professional game developers in the classroom. They role-play, learn tools, demonstrate mechanics, consider balancing questions, as well as tease, praise, and generally seek a personal bond with the professional game developers.
  • The developers. Their goal is to understand the kids as end users deeply yet time-effectively, and discover innovative learning game designs that emerge from collaboration. They know that the best games are design for designers, and seek experimental alternatives to typical user/designer barriers in standard playtesting methods.
  • The researchers, whose goal is to discover and document innovative ways to increase well-being and resilience among the kids, through this engagement.

The project is in progress now.  As a byproduct, we have developed an exciting concept for a game: “Zombie Pollution.”   Here’s the concept:

Zombie Pollution is a 2D casual shooter/platformer that seeks to persuade “the 99%” to begin to think sustainably.  It puts the player on a tiny, dirty planet, inhabited by careless zombies who are trashing the place as they live their humdrum lives.   The player jumps over buildings on the slowly rotating world, shooting zombies, collecting coins and ‘cleaning powerups’,  which instantly clean the onscreen bit of the planet (this mechanic is the ‘initial hook’, engaging players in the first minute of play).

Money: The coins first fund player’s progression, then buy important gameplay powerups: The player starts with an old house that sucks money from the player’s moneypile.  As they gather coins, they buy a lovely ec0-mansion, which uses LESS money than the old house.  Their polluting, costly rusty car becomes a Tesla-style electric sportscar, nearly free to drive).  As their lifestyle costs less, and as they get better at collecting coins, their cash stacks up.

Persuasion: However, as play continues and the player circles around the planet, they find their clean areas are dirty again. The player eventually realizes that the zombies are dirtying the planet faster than they can clean it. They need to convert the zombies to ‘good zombies’ to win.   To convert, they must first shoot the zombies, then persuade them to become ‘good’. The shot zombies arise again, but with they’re aware that something’s wrong: with an icon above their head, they continue to pollute, but if the player buys community centers (which are expensive), the zombies will go in, learn how to become sustainable, and emerge ‘good’: they help the player by cleaning the planet offscreen. When enough ‘good zombies’ are present, the level becomes winnable, and harder levels are unlocked.

The game is a learning game.  The learning goal for Zombie Pollution is broad.

This game seeks to persuade low-income, blue collar people (the “99%”) to begin to think sustainably, taking the first step towards including sustainability in their life’s priorities.

Unlike a “skill and drill” learning game, This game has a persuasive goal. If successful, the game will change attitudes, not knowledge or behaviours, of players.   There are many elements of the game that address various aspects of the “sustainability” learning goal.  The top three are shown here.

MESSAGE 1: Being sustainable fits you.

  • Sustainable is common sense. Earn money, eat well, don’t be wasteful, don’t trash your home, and convince other people to do the same.
  • Normal people live sustainably.  Players are rewarded for making in-game choices that both fit sustainability goals, and don’t conflict with players’ existing worldviews.
  • Sustainable lifestyle ideals are cool.  Westerners’ materialistic lifestyle (with a ‘rock star’ ideal) is well established among kids, and usually features unsustainable objects such as gasoline-consuming sports cars, and wasteful McMansions.  This game gives an updated vision of success and wealth:   cool, fast electric cars;  stunning modern mansions with a clever design that uses less resources than normal suburban houses; healthy sustainable food in upscale fancy restaurants (e.g. Chez Panisse).

MESSAGE 2:  It’s up to us.

Unlike many sustainability stories which pit a few brave souls against giant, faceless corporations, this game encourages small, grass roots thinking about both its problems and solutions.

  • Normal people are the problem…and the solution.
  • One heroic person is a catalyst, not the solution.
  • To really solve the problem, lots of people must change their behavior.

MESSAGE 3: We can save the planet.

  • By making the game winnable, players get an optimistic message about the problem of sustainability. Optimistic attitudes are known to boost self-efficacy and increases motivation to engage with a topic.

Sustainability is  broad movement, with various goals, not always aligned.  For example, promoting an eco-mansion, and other fancy material lifestyles conflicts with ‘consume less’ and land use values, and clashes with the typical “hippie” radical lifestyle ideals of the old-school sustainability movement.  We chose it because it serves as a cultural scaffold: To persuade low-income, blue collar people to choose sustainability as a world view, the ‘rock star lifestyle’ message is too well established to attack directly. This game scopes its persuasive mission to redefine ‘rock star lifestyle’ to reflect sustainability ideals. The ‘consume less’ message is left for future work.

Zombie Pollution is exciting concept because it may be a game that many people enjoy playing, Building it is beyond the scope of this pilot project.  I look forward to future projects where we can let kids experience the real payoff in video game design: The shock, pride and connectedness when thousands of people around the world enjoy a video game they co-designed.    I believe that experience could change their lives.

title screen for Zombie Pollution concept