VIDEO games are mostly associated with teenagers killing virtual bad guys and colonising space – but could they be the key to helping Scotland kick junk food for good?
That is the hope of two video game companies based in Dundee who have created Sim City-style simulations designed to help lawmakers and policy pundits decide tactics to improve Scotland’s health.
The first, CityBox, was designed by Malath Abbas’s team at Biome Collective in conjunction with the real-life Hilltown residents – one of the most impoverished areas of Dundee.
The other, Nesta Playbox was created by Jamie Bankhead’s team at Konglomerate Games. It allows users to simulate their own towns, creating different areas and allowing control at a granular level such as setting the average calorie count for a meal in a local takeaway.
Innovation foundation Nesta made an open call to creators to make the games and wants to create virtual “food environments” which they say are as important, if not more so, to healthy lifestyles as individual choices. This encompasses everything from the number of takeaways in a certain area to the level of government restrictions imposed on people’s diets.
The CityBox game gives players ten years to lower the average body mass index (BMI) of Hilltown by introducing policies such as banning junk food advertising and incentivising healthy takeaways to open in the area.
Residents shared their stories with Abbas’ team to create characters based on their real lives who live in the game.
“Video games are empathy machines,” said Abbas. He hopes by playing the games and seeing how certain policies could improve or make worse the lives of ordinary people, lawmakers will think more deeply about how they should tackle obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.
But as well as trying to bring down the area’s BMI, players must also grow trust with the local community. The policy options are split into categories – some are faster and easier to implement but can damage the relationship between the player while others foster trust but are harder to implement.
Abbas said: “Trust is really paramount in terms of how you get the public behind a policy.”
All the actions taken by players in the game are determined by huge reserves of data which are attached to each option. The different characters have different health profiles including medical conditions, how much money they make and how old they are. Building a gym on a street will make some characters who have been designed to be inclined to join do so, whereas others will not.
Abbas described his game as being like a “3D map” of data that policymakers could refer to.
Bankhead’s game – in which players create the community from scratch – allows policymakers to predict the outcomes of policies over generations.
He said the game can “mimic how real people make decisions” by changing the characters’ incomes, preferences and lifestyle as well as what is available to them – such as a shop close by selling cheap healthy produce versus a calorific takeaway on their doorstep.”