Recess and lunch were probably the highlights of elementary school life. An assortment of bright lunchboxes and brown paper bags rustled and banged in a mad dash to the playground. Snacks were proudly displayed and exchanged. Sour Punch Straws, anyone?
Food sharing was–and still is–one of the most basic forms of social interaction. Conversations and friendships are started over meals. When we share food, we share our cultural and familial traditions. Remember those holiday potlucks in elementary school? The buzz over what someone was going to bring began days before the scheduled potluck. So what happens when a child’s ability to bond with peers over food is restricted by food allergies?
Research shows over 30% of kids with food allergies report being bullied, often with threats of food. Why? Well, if we return to the idea that food is social and that connections are built over food sharing, we can reason that kids with food allergies are often left out–or feel left out–from this basic mode of interaction. When a child cannot readily share or eat the same foods as their peers, they are reminded that they are different and separate. On the other end, without a proper understanding of food allergies, kids without the condition may view their allergy peers as outcasts from a social norm, or simply as picky eaters. They may further misinterpret the rejection of food as a rejection of more than just the allergen itself. So how can we educate both parties?
Enter mobile games. The trend of modern technology makes it such that kids as young as 2 are leaving their little fingerprints over digital screens. While parents may worry about this trend, studies show that video games can be both fun and educational, making them a great way to grab a child’s attention on difficult topics. And that’s where we come in–at the intersection of health, education, and games.
We designed Wizdy Diner to raise awareness about various food allergies through Diner Dash-like gameplay. As a waiter in the restaurant, the player has to make sure that all customers are fed the right foods. From one of our App Store reviews:
“I work with educational panels and added this app to my demo… It makes having allergies more understandable and helps to eliminate any stigma that kids may have. The characters are cute and the levels are fun. Even as an adult, I enjoyed the game.”
Eliminate any stigma? I’m all ears. By gamifying food allergies, Wizdy Diner makes the topic more understandable and relatable. The game features a diversity of memorable characters, all with an equal likelihood of entering the restaurant with a food allergy. Having a food allergy is not associated with any particular size, shape, gender–or number of antennas for that matter. (You’ll get it if you’ve seen the characters.) Food allergies are commonplace amidst these characters, but that doesn’t prevent them from munching away heartily on other allergen-free restaurant meals! By portraying food allergies this way, we manage to show kids with food allergies that they aren’t so different after all.
We don’t stop there. When customers are accidentally fed something they are allergic to, the game simulates symptoms of an allergic reaction. The player is prompted to give the customer an epinephrine shot and to send them to the hospital. Using reinforcement theory, the game rewards correct meal selection based on customer allergies and deters wrong selections by emphasizing the consequences of an allergic reaction. Each time customers are given an epinephrine shot and/or flown to the hospital, we deduct a cost from the restaurant’s earnings. Kids learn that food allergies have real risks, both for themselves and for their peers. Bullying and food-related threats can have serious consequences and are not matters to joke about.
At the same time that these lessons are being taught, Wizdy Diner manages to keep kids entertained and engaged with its fast-paced gameplay. Rather than being something purely informational coming from the adults, it is an easily accessible mobile game through which kids can learn independently. Food allergies are serious, but that doesn’t mean learning about them can’t be fun!