Critique: “Salubrious Nation: a game-y look at U.S. health”

10 minute read

In keeping with our recent weekly reading about the growing 'gamification' of data, I wanted to focus my critique this week on a map-styled data-driven game made my a group of researchers at Rutgers University called Salubrious Nation. The game attempts to engage users more deeply with public health data by luring them in with an addictive system of points and rewards.

In terms of functionality, the game play operates fairly simply. A map presents demographic data about every county in the 48 states of the continental U.S. The game then chooses one county at random and asks the player to guess a public health statistic about it, like binge drinking, teenage pregnancies, diabetes, obesity rates, etc. The game features two types of interaction: the user can mouse over any county to see demographic data about it (population, poverty rate, life expectancy, etc.), and a slider at the top to enter the player’s guess for the county up for play. As you moved the slider up and down, you can get hints about how close you are by looking at whether the surrounding counties are above or below the value you've chosen. Based upon how close the player's guess is to the actual statistic, the player earns a corresponding amount of points. After eight rounds of the play, the game ends, and the player is told how his or her performance matches up to others who've played the game before. Apparently, I scored higher than 62 percent of other players. Woohoo! Just enough of a dopamine rush to get me to play again.

What's cool about this game is that it makes data something to get immersed in for the fun of it, and you learn along the way. Over time, you begin to notice patterns emerging as you learn the tricks and strategies of the game. You figure out that the Western half of the country tends to have a higher rate of binge drinking. You learn that diabetes and obesity is the worse in the South. As one of the game's creator, Nick Diakopoulous, explains, the gamification of health data provides a good opporunity for users to focus on data they might otherwise ignore: "Considering the selective attention issue, where people are more likely to pay attention to things that they already agree with, this result suggests an opportunity to get players to look at aspects of the data that they might not otherwise be inclined to look at."

I can only find a few possible qualms with the game. One is that it operates off of flash, meaning that it can't be run on most smartphones or tablets. Another is that the yellow-to-orange color scheme seems to be a bit disorienting on the eyes. Perhaps the developers would've been wiser to choose softer colors – possibly even a red-to-green graduated scale with a neutral middle value. Another thing that irked me, although I see little simple solution, is that county-level guessing seems almost so geographically-specific that it's hard for most people (including myself) to have much knowledge of which specific counties in Oklahoma or Kansas have the highest obesity rates.

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