Whyville, the virtual gaming world for tweens, is partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House on a project called Apps for Healthy Kids, which challenges game developers and students to create games and software tools with a nutritional focus.
Whyville has created a special section of its game arcade where developers can upload their games and kids can play, rate and submit feedback about them. Developers are not required to upload their games to Whyville to compete in the Apps for Healthy Kids program, but the USDA is promoting the opportunity as a chance to hone submissions with the intended audience.
Dr. Jim Bower, CEO of Whyville parent company Numedeon, said Whyville wanted to be involved in any attempt by the government to reach kids through gaming.
"This is the first foray by the USDA into what is a very powerful form of connecting to kids," he said. "We're very happy...to tell them what we know and have them experiment through us."
He also noted that no one on the board that would be judging the submissions were anywhere near the age of the intended targets.
"The awards are going to be determined by a very impressive panel of people from the digital world," Bower said. "However, none of the people on the panel are 12-year-olds. What we wanted to do was provide a way for kids that are actually the target of this campaign to have a voice."
The Apps for Healthy Kids contest is part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation. Mrs. Obama launched the campaign in February, concurrent with President Obama's creation of the Task Force on Childhood Obesity.
Whyville already has a history of advocating healthy food choices for kids: The site's avatars can develop diseases such as diabetes or osteoporosis if members don't feed them properly. Bower also said that any food brand looking to participate in Whyville is required to upload its menus and nutritional information, a policy that has discouraged fast-food chains from getting involved.
"We've been approached by major food chains about launching something in Whyville, and we just declined because Whyville is interested in bettering the health of kids," he said.
Technically, a company such as McDonald's or Pizza Hut could submit a game for the Apps for Healthy Kids competition. But Bower was confident that his site's policy would intercept any attempts to take advantage of the competition for corporate means.
"There's nothing to stop a kid from trying a 'Supersize Me' and seeing what happens to him on Whyville if he only eats from that one restaurant," he said, referring to the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary.
The deadline for uploading games is June 30th. Bower said the games will go live as soon as enough are submitted and approved.
Follow Douglas Quenqua on Twitter at @DQuenqua.
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Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.
March 19, 2014