The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently-announced Apps for Healthy Kids
directive could open a lasting relationship between the video game industry and Washington, White House chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra told Gamasutra Thursday during the Game Developers Conference.
The Apps for Healthy Kids contest, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, will have developers creating tools and games that are meant to encourage healthier eating and exercise habits among kids, and educate parents on their childrens' diets. The challenge offers $40,000 in cash prizes.
"We're hoping this might strengthen the [game industry's] ties with Washington," Chopra said. "...This might be the beginning of a longer collaboration." Games industry figures have already been working with the White House on the project, and the judging panel for the contest includes Mark Pincus, CEO of FarmVille
creator Zynga, and Mike Gallagher, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association.
Chopra was featured in a video that played to attendees of Thursday night's Game Developers Choice Awards. In the video, he said around 40 game industry figures had been collaborating with the White House, discussing ways to advance "national priorities" that include combating child obesity.
"This program was very important to [USDA] secretary Tom Vilsack and the First Lady," Chopra said in the interview. The directive, initiated last fall, has roots in the government website MyFoodapedia.gov, which hosts a database that includes 1,000 of the most commonly eaten foods. By entering a food type, the website can calculate how many excess calories users are consuming in their diets.
The USDA later decided to post the website's nutritional dataset on data.gov, making it available to anybody as a free download. For the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge, which offers prizes in "tool" and "game" categories, participants will be required to implement that food dataset into their projects, Chopra said.
He expects that entrants will submit three different types of games: games that are aimed at being commercially viable, games that are already existing, but retrofitted with health-related functions, and entries that are from students trying to break into the video game industry.
The healthy video game directive is part of the Obama administration's Let's Move! campaign, which urges young people exercise regularly and eat healthier. In a letter, Michelle Obama said, "Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled. Nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese."
Speaking directly to game developers, she added, "You know better than most the power of games to deeply engage our nation's youth. Today I'm asking you to dedicate your creative energy skills to address one of America's biggest challenges and help make healthy living fun, exciting, and relevant for kids."
Chopra said in his video address, "It is our hope, through the Apps For Healthy Kids competition, that you will take full advantage of that information and build it into new games on-line, new programs that are built within the games you’ve already established, and to have those of you in the audience today participate in new and creative ways to help advance this national priority."
Entries must be submitted between March 10 and June 30 this year. In addition to prize money, winners will be honored at a White House event in Washington. More information on the program can be found at www.AppsForHealthyKids.org