NTAE: "Leveling Up" - NMSU Learning Games Lab Feature Story

food poison facts

How It Started

At the Controls Youth played key role in game’s development.

Dial back to 2007, when the United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture fund- ed a multi-state research and education project to teach youth best practices in food safety (2007-51110-03813). Led by Dr. Carol Byrd-Bredbenner at Rutgers University, that research led to the development of “Ninja Kitchen.” The Learning Games Lab—which specializes in translating research-based content into educational tools for various audiences—designed the game in collaboration with food safety content experts. “Ninja Kitchen” was a wild success, with more than 4 million plays. Youth loved it, and data indicated it was effective: A study of more than 900 middle schoolers who played the game showed that it engaged participants and shifted their knowledge, attitudes, and intentions around food safety. But the original game was developed for platforms that supported Adobe Flash, a technology that has become ob- solete. So the team needed to redesign the game with cur- rent technology. “Because it was such a successful way to educate middle school aged youth about basic food safety techniques in the kitchen, our team wanted to recreate the game to meet new WebGL standards,” says Dr. Matheus Cezarotto, researcher and project team member, “allowing it to be played (for free) on modern browsers and devices.”


$15.5 Billion Annual cost of foodborne illness

Million People in U.S. who have foodborne illness annually

Youth are an important audience for food safety education: Kids ages 11 to 13 are the right age to start helping their parents cook and are learning to prepare food on their own. The COVID-19 pandemic increased kids’ interest in food preparation, making the timing of “Theme Park Kitchen” even more relevant. In addition to being the game’s target player, youth also contributed to the game’s development. In a series of Learning Games Lab sessions held during summer, spring, and fall school breaks (2021, 2022, and 2023), the team engaged with youth consultants to explore diversity in games, gain feedback on de- sign, and learn more about their life experiences. The youth consultants played the old version of the game, providing critical reviews, and presented game ideas to their peers and the Learning Lab team. Youth consultants also developed potential world building and character design ideas for the new game, including Nana’s Cocina, featuring an abuela with lots of delicious recipes. “Food safety does not always feel intrinsically exciting to youth. … It’s easy to get tangled up in technical rules and safety procedures,” says Dr. Matheus Cezarotto, researcher and project team member. “That’s why it amazes us to see how completely engaged middle schoolers are with gameplay about cross-contamination, cooking, and storing food at the proper temperature.” This type of engaged gameplay is not new to Dr. Bar- bara Chamberlin, who created the Learning Games

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

deep understanding and representation. Since “Ninja Kitchen” was not designed with this informed cultural lens, we decided that it was best to change the theme and design.” In addition, the team improved the game’s accessibility to support a wide range of user needs—for example, rede- signing the game to be fully playable through a keyboard supporting users with motor needs, removing and rethinking the time pressure mechanic to improve gameplay experi- ence, and including users with specific cognitive needs.

Youth consultants played “Ninja Kitchen,” the previous version of “Theme Park Kitchen” and give the Learn- ing Lab team input into creating the new version.

Lab, led the instructional design of the first game, and serves as department head of the Innovative Media Research and Extension department, which houses the lab. With her “transformational design” process, the professional designers on the teams refined the learning objectives to define the changes they need- ed to see in the user, identify what learners have to do to create that change, and discuss ways that a game can engage the user in the necessary actions. In re-theming the activities and making the game more accessible, the team engages new audiences in important ways. “Learning doesn’t have to be made fun,”Chamberlin says, “because learning how to mas- ter something we didn’t know before is fun. Well-de- signed games provide engaging ways for players to go through those learning activities”

The NTAE Boost

Elevating Cultural Sensitivity

Cezarotto credits the Extension Foundation (EXF) team with helping the “Theme Park Kitchen” team crystallize its goals for expanding the game’s audience. “Our analytics showed us the game was primarily reaching students during school hours, rather than at home or in after-school settings,” he says. “Not all schools include food safety instruction, so the EXF team helped us connect with the National 4-H Council digital media initiatives, and we are exploring exciting pos- sibilities there to reach new audiences of youth. NTAE also has provided an opportunity to expand the game’s reach and sustainability beyond the end date of the original technology. It’s allowed us to work from a place of better understanding the accessibility needs of our audiences.” ➤

The redesign also gave the team a chance to eliminate the original game’s problematic theme. At the time the game was developed, ninjas were a cultural phenomenon and seemed like a fun way to engage players. However, through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, appropriating the culture of ninjas in a “fun way” becomes potentially offensive. “It is inappropriate for us to take cultural artifacts from Japan, and turn them into decorative or playful elements,” says team member Amy Smith Muise. “It’s our responsibility to consider how we use cultural stories, art, and historical characters and make sure that this type of design includes

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