by Kate Metropolis
Some people see those under the age of eighteen as one target audience for health games. Jori Clarke, CEO of Circle 1 Network, sees them as more: an influential force on the health behavior of others. “Kids are incredible agents of change. Why aren’t we involving them more in making change happen?” she wonders.
Jori Clarke has proved herself to be savvy when it comes to understanding the persuasive power of kids and the potential for reaching them electronically. She launched the first web site aimed at children and teenagers in February of 1995, the same month that Newsweek ran an article titled “The Internet? Bah!” which scoffed at the idea that electronic publishing, telecommuting, and virtual communities would ever amount to anything. Her Kidscom.com site was up and running months before Amazon sold a book or eBay held an auction.
Clarke’s instinct was right: electronic entertainment media have proven almost irresistible to children and teenagers. In 2009, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in collaboration with researchers at Stanford University, about two-thirds of the eight-to-eighteen-year-olds in the United States entertained themselves on a computer on any given day for, on average, an hour and a half, and almost as many—sixty percent—use handheld devices like cell phones or MP3 players for an average of two hours a day. Today, Clarke’s company, Circle 1 Network, develops online games, ads, promotions, and web sites for clients who are especially interested in reaching kids and families.
Clarke’s digital work has been profoundly shaped by her own childhood experiences. She and her sister and their cousin spent large chunks of both structured and unstructured time at the Public Museum in Milwaukee and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where they played hide-and-seek among the exhibits. During the summers, she stayed with her grandmother in rural Wisconsin, where she went hiking and star gazing, built forts, and studied the local animals and plants. Being engaged in a world struck her as profoundly different from seeing text and pictures in books. “We became curious to know more,” she says, “and we were hooked on learning.”
The power of inhabiting a world informs the activities she creates for kids—activities that she believes ideally link the world on the screen and the world they can touch. “I realized early on that one of the benefits of the virtual world was finding like-minded people there, but one of the dangers was forgetting about people in the real world,” she says, so she integrates the two by sending kids who come to her online sites to public places where expert adults can guide them in learning more, as well as bridging experience in the tangible world back to information in the digital world.
In her Idea Seeker virtual world, for example, one goal is to inspire kids to grow, cook, and eat healthy food. A real horticulturalist who has been coming in as an avatar for an hour every couple of weeks has connected so effectively with young visitors to the site that they’ve organized family outings to visit him and the Michigan 4H Children’s Garden where he works. On signs at the garden, Clarke has placed QR codes (quick response bar codes that can be scanned with mobile phones) that instantly give useful and intriguing little chunks of information about the plants. Everyone who passes a quiz on that information is rewarded with a plant to plant back in their virtual garden.
Clarke’s experience is that people will adopt a new behavior when they calculate that its benefits are greater than its costs, so good health games and simulations can help people make healthier choices by increasing the perceived benefit, reducing the perceived cost, or both. It doesn’t work, she says, to say, “Stop eating bacon cheeseburgers or you’ll wind up with diabetes or a heart attack,” especially to kids and teens. The benefit seems low, because it’s far in the future, and because it’s hard for many people at the age where they feel immortal to imagine how good it would be to escape a life-threatening medical situation. On the other hand, the cost could seem high, both in terms of effort (learning to cook from scratch or going farther to get fresh produce) and, especially important for this age group, in terms of status (eating carrots instead of red hots might be seen as uncool). But a well-designed game or simulation can succeed, she believes, if it can make the behavior change appealing (conveying the fun of shopping at a farmers’ market) and socially rewarding (bestowing prestige for becoming an expert cook).
Another important advantage of trying a new behavior in a virtual setting is that it’s easier to discover the social consequences. Clarke believes that if a change in behavior is seen as cool online, kids and teens will be more likely to experiment with it in the real world. To make a change permanent, it’s key to reinforce that the behavior change is valuable in the present, Clarke says: “Kids need to get high status and recognition to get them excited and to get others to aspire to that type of behavior.”
Adults don’t always understand what factors contribute to high status and recognition for kids, so Clarke stresses the importance of user validation research in her development of games and web sites. “It should be a part of any game planning or evolution session,” she believes. She cautions that the first thing that kids say may not fully express their real opinion. “You need to know how to talk and listen to kids to help them voice what they’re feeling, why they’re feeling that, and what they would like to change.” In addition, she points out, their opinions are highly susceptible to being shaped by their peers if the discussion takes place in a group setting.
Good health games for kids, Clarke believes, can have a big multiplier effect, spreading healthy behavior change to their friends and families. “Kids have great powers of persuasion. They are chameleons who know how to adapt to different social situations. They are extremely skilled at persistently lobbying,” she says. “These are some of the reasons they are so good at getting attention from their parents and engineering change in their households and among their peers.”