Video games are often cited as a contributor to poor health among youth, but three Ashland Middle School students are using the medium to make a change for the better.
At the sixth annual Oregon Game Project Challenge today in Salem, seventh-grader Dylan Kistler, 13, seventh-grader Jackson McRae, 12, and eighth-grader Alec Meyers, 13, will present a game they developed called "Hungry Hungry Humans." It's a side-scrolling, action-shooting game in which players have to make healthful eating choices as they rise through three levels by fighting hamburgers and fries.
"It's not ordinary junk food. The french fries have legs, and they're sort of like spiders," team coach Bill Meyers said. "And ... the huge hamburger has an evil face."
The game's premise fits with the OGPC competition's theme of developing games for social good.
"It went from being a zombie game to a healthy food game," said Meyers, adding that projects can range from games to smartphone apps, but all have to meet the criteria for social benefit.
"So games are required to have a positive message," Meyers said. "They have to meet that social good."
Dylan, Jackson and Alec all attended a "game jam" in February at Rogue Community College's White City campus. The program gave the boys information about the game-development process and even taught them how to make a pitch.
"At the game jam they have to do something called a 'lightning talk,' " Meyers said, describing a five-minute pitch to prospective developers or business partners.
"It's getting that message really quick and really concise," Meyers said. "I'm working with the boys to help them do that."
Although the Oregon Game Project Challenge is in its sixth year, "Hungry Hungry Humans" is the first submission from a Southern Oregon team.
"When we went to the game jam in February, I was amazed that they hadn't had anyone from Southern Oregon yet," Meyers said. "I was pretty confident back in February that we'd be bringing a team."
Since then, the boys have been plugging away for the competition, using a software program called Game Maker to bring their creation to life. The boys designed the game from the ground up, creating the background and even composing the music.
The project was a hands-on application of the game jam's lessons.
"It's really cool to see something you just made and actually interact with it," Alec said.
"The hardest thing was to get the enemies to try and attack you," Jackson said.
The project also taught the boys some of the benefits and struggles of group dynamics.
"When each of us wants the same thing, we can keep collaborating and driving each other forward," Alec said. "When each of us wants a different thing, it's harder, and we have to compromise."
The boys have spent the past two weeks debugging their creation. The final challenge will be making sure the game — developed on a desktop computer — will play well on a laptop that's less powerful.
"At the competition, we're given a table and a number, and everything has to be running," Meyers said.
Junk food often is fodder for road trips, but the boys will put their message into practice by eating nutritiously, thanks to donations from the Ashland Food Co-op and Market of Choice.
"They'll eat healthy on the drive up, they'll eat healthy at the game jam," Bill Meyers said. "Everyone's been fantastic."
"I thought it would be fun to work on a game and spend time with my friends," Jackson said. "I thought it turned out really good."
"Some of the boys want to be computer programmers and game designers, and this gets them closer to what that career path is going to look like," Meyers said.
Reach newsroom assistant Nick Morgan at email@example.com.