A founder explains how her team went about creating an app that they hope can get kids to break away from their screens.

By Kylee Ingram (Founder, Team Tap)

Some years ago in Australia, the ABC (our equivalent of PBS) offered a grant for producers to create a “serious game.” They were looking for a game that extended beyond mere entertainment; a game that would also educate kids.

There is little doubt that smartphones, tablets and other tech devices are here to stay. Young people are interacting with them for up to six hours a day, so the ABC were asking the right question: What can we do to use these devices to engage and educate?

My team embarked on a four-year journey to create a game that sat at the cross section between gaming and the real world. We learned an awful lot along the way.

Gaming: It’s Not the End of the World

A lot of fun research out there examines the benefits of gaming. One of my favorite reads is Jane McGonigal’s book “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” She suggests there are numerous takeaways from gaming such as better collaboration between gamers, working hard and learning not to fear failure.

We should try and transpose these same qualities to the real world. Kids who game in America will put in 10,000 hours by the time they are 21. That is as long as they will spend in school. And keep in mind Malcolm Gladwell’s sweet point for being an expert.

So how can we harness the power of games for good?

Kids Help Save the Environment Through Gaming

We wanted our game to have an environmental focus since we knew kids feel disempowered when it comes to environmental messaging. Could we make a game about the environment that would also be fun? We started by asking our target demographic of seven to 12 year olds what games they enjoyed. We also asked them what environmental behaviors they felt they could actually control. There was no real synergy between the two questions, but we wanted to learn how we might be able to incorporate “real world actions” into game scenarios.

Our kids’ focus group identified 51 environmentally friendly real world actions they felt they could control. Some of these included turning off the lights, recycling, composting and conserving water.

We wanted to create a game that would reward kids every time they undertook one of these and other ecologically conscious real world actions. But we needed to go beyond gamifying their behavior and making it a core component of the game.

We invited the team at Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) at Sydney University to develop algorithms that would measure players’ ecological footprint and provide us for the basis of the game’s scoring system. This footprint would measure the players’ land use, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Academics and Developers Learn to Play Nice Together

This is also where building the game started to get complicated. We had a bunch of academics working on real world mapping. And a bunch of game developers who wanted to create an engaging game. Achieving harmony between the two groups seemed impossible.

I knew we needed to make a game that could compete against fun games like Minecraft or Fruit Ninja that kids would actually want to play. But I also wanted to be true to our point of difference in the game — would be these real world actions.

We tasked the developers to make a game that was super fun to play. But they had to ensure the real world missions were properly incorporated.

We were able to design a points system that incentivized players to work towards a 25 percent reduction in their carbon, water and land use. The baseline ecological footprint we used to measure the reduction from was the national average.

Motivating Kids to Get Out and Play

At no time in human history have children spent less time outdoors. Children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of six and a half hours each day engaging with electronic media, but less than four minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. A recent British study found that children at eight years old can identify more Pokémon characters than they can wildlife species.

So we decided to try and reward players for heading outdoors. Players rack up points by visiting landmarks such as the locations around Central Park Zoo, national parks and other iconic sites. They collect virtual pins at these sites, which they can trade with other players around the world.

We think we’ve managed to successfully help gaming transcend the gap to the real world, but we just launched. So hopefully we’ll soon have learnings about the intersection between gaming and the real world.

Do you think an app can help kids spend more time outside? Why or why not?