Kati London: Creating Online Games That Educate and Instruct

For more than a decade a public-service television campaign from the U.K.'s Transport Dept. has relied on cartoon hedgehogs to teach street safety to kids aged 9 to 13, the group of pedestrians most likely to be killed or injured by autos. The hedgehogs urge kids to look both ways before crossing the street. Pre-teens largely ignore them, however, and the statistics haven't budged.

So in 2007 the British government turned to Kati London, a producer at game-design studio Area/Code in New York City. London is a leader in the small but growing field of people "interested in games for engagement rather than escape," as she puts it. A recent winner of Technology Review's 2010 Young Innovator award, she uses real-world data in online games that are meant to educate or change off-line behavior.

For the U.K., London and her team built a game called Code of Everand, which launched in 2009. Everand's 170,000 users play as Pathfinders navigating a dangerous fantasy world. The game is filled with subtle cues to encourage street safety. Pathfinders crossing a road-like "spirit channel" must look in both directions to check for monsters with outlines that resemble those of some autos; the Mossy Zichlid, for instance, looks like a cement truck in profile. The monsters' speed and frequency are derived from traffic data recorded at U.K. intersections. The idea is to "mimic the natural rhythms of traffic," says London, "and train the brain to adopt the same look-and-wait behavior in real life." The government has commissioned an independent evaluation of the game's impact that is due in spring 2011.

A different project promoted Discovery Channel's Shark Week with a game in which users captain research vessels on the lookout for sharks. The game sharks' paths were determined not by algorithms but by GPS data from real sharks tagged by scientists. The goal was to help the couch-bound better understand the long hours and luck required for scientific discoveries (and get them to watch more Discovery Channel).

London has an analog background: She studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design before enrolling in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program in 2005. There she experimented with ways to blend the online and off-line worlds. One of her projects at ITP was Botanicalls, a small electronic device that measures the moisture level of potted soil and posts a Twitter update—in the voice of a plant asking to be watered—when the dirt dries out.

London says many remain skeptical about games as practical tools for businesses and governments. Clients, though, seem happy. Says Robin Bennefield, who oversaw Sharkrunners for Discovery Communications: "The game made sharks personal. It was just the kind of buzz we needed."

Background

Studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design

Early Project

Botanicalls, a device that lets thirsty plants twitter

Goal

To build games "that help users engage with the real world"

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