Innovations for Healthy Kids Game Challenge
The USDA, always eager to tell kids what they should eat, wants to spread its message through a more effective medium than “Know Your Farmer” trading cards. The department is soliciting feedback for a contest to reward creators of online games that teach kids about nutrition.The games must be based on USDA data.
MyPyramid Blast Off Game is the only game I’ve found on the MyPyramid.gov website. It’s cute and colorful, albeit inflexible. Players are supposed to select a day’s menu from a list of foods. The game doesn’t take into account differences in nutritional needs, so every player is scored as an average American. A kid who is lactose intolerant has to choose dairy servings anyway, and a kid with Celiac disease has to add whole grains to the rocket ship’s “diet.” Players see a message that their rocket ship didn’t complete its mission if they go over the recommended calorie limit, even if they go just a few calories past the target with an extra serving of vegetables.
The contest will probably inspire new games that improve on MyPyramid Blast Off. Developers could start from the same premise but add complexity, allowing nutritional targets to vary. There would be no need to solicit personal health information from kids — players could be asked the design menus for hypothetical people. Changing targets would also make the game more fun to play repeatedly. In the current game, once players create menus for themselves, there’s nothing more to do.
I’m less confident that an online game can change a generation’s eating habits. Is it worthwhile for the government to sponsor a nutrition contest that may not have a large effect on public health? As usual, the USDA has lofty aspirations, and I’m left wondering whether we’re all really better off because of its actions.