Most kids love PB&J. But they don’t connect the sweet-and-salty yumminess of peanut butter with the farm where peanuts are grown. To keep little kids eating peanut butter into adulthood and inspire some of them to become the innovative farmers and researchers who bring us PB&Js in the future, the industry needs to inspire kids to love peanuts.
Could a video game help kids hold onto their enthusiasm for peanuts into adulthood?
Peanut Hero is a colorful, lively video game designed to pique young kids’ interest in farming and peanut production in particular.
Peanuts are an enormously important crop around the world. As a cheap source of lean protein, they are a staple part of the traditional diet in South America, Asia and Africa. As an adaptive plant that can thrive in poor soil and with inconsistent rain, peanut is resilient in areas affected by climate change. As a shelf-stable protein with fiber and important micronutrients, peanut is used in therapeutic food for children suffering malnutrition, but also goes into the lunchboxes of middle-class American kids everyday. A kid in the U.S. will eat 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches by the time he graduates high school.
But, while more and more studies show the benefits of a plant-based diet, and health-conscious adults are adding nuts and legumes to their diets, peanut consumption has leveled off. Other nuts are gaining market share, while peanut consumption is relatively static.
The peanut industry always had worked hard to promote peanut butter and peanut-based confections with American kids. (See the Sesame Street segments from 1976, at left, and 2019, above.) With consumption leveling off, it’s time for a new communication tool to reach the youngest consumers and keep them enthusiastic about peanuts into adulthood.
Peanut Hero is that tool.
The inspiration for Peanut Hero is my nephew Daniel, a tiny, blond 4-year-old who is often engrossed with games and puzzles on his Amazon Fire tablet. He also LOVES peanut butter. Before he had teeth, he would toddle around the house with an open peanut butter jar and refuse to share.
Today, he’s a rowdy little boy and jumps on the trampoline with his brother, runs around in the yard with his dad and plays board games with his aunt (but I have to let him win). Daniel also will sit quietly for hours with a tablet, either his own Amazon Fire, where he plays dozens of age-appropriate games, or an adult’s iPad, which he uses to complete jigsaw puzzles that should be much too advanced for a child his age.
Daniel loves games and puzzles. He will work quietly for hours and can explain later what he’s uncovered about a game, how the mechanics of the game work and what the characters are up to.
Watching Daniel play on his tablet, I thought: Could a video game get kids excited about peanuts and teach them basic agronomy, even before they can read?
The idea for a Peanut Hero game came to me fairly early in my Emerging Media experience. I started to noodle around with the idea near the end of summer 2017, and some of the classes I took in the following two years shaped skills that I didn’t know I had.
When adults play the game for the first time, they always comment on the graphics. I can scarcely draw a stick figure; seriously, you do not want to be on my team when sides are chosen in Pictionary.
But in my Emerging Media adventure, I’ve spent a lot of time reconnecting with Adobe Illustrator. We were acquainted for years, but Illustrator and I are now on a single-name basis. Sure, we fight from time to time. Now I know where AI is coming from, where he has hidden features within his menus, how to push his quick keys.
Through a digital design class taught by John Weatherford and a class in creating infographics with Bart Wojdynski, I was challenged to create abstract symbols with meaning.
That skill has been hugely important in making simple and engaging illustrations. When I am drawing a cow, for example, I can’t replicate a scientifically exact image of a bovine, but need to stick to basic shapes and work quickly. A body, a neck, a head and four legs can’t be over thought.
As a former journalist, I love to hear and tell stories. Twine, which I learned in Digital Storytelling with Shira Chess gave me a chance to explore how to tell a story while giving the reader some control over what happens.
If you’ve never heard of it, Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” That means it’s a platform to write your own “choose your own adventure” story.
I used the platform to write “The Robbery,” a murder mystery that begins at the end, with a dead body on the floor of the lobby of a bank. The reader/player can choose which main character to be and continue through the day making decisions that compound to determine what type of person the reader/player is. Each time the game restarts, the reader/player can make incrementally different decisions that lead to one of 32 possible endings.
Twine and “The Robbery” challenged me to explore how complex stories become when the reader/player can direct the outcome and actions compound to create ever-more divergent endings.
Learning to code
But, in working through two semesters of New Media Production (which means “building websites and coding”), I learned how to Google, read message boards, take tutorials and begin to trust that I CAN FIGURE IT OUT.
As I began to learn how to write functions to control player movement, accumulate score, destroy elements and randomly create others, a game started to take shape and I realized I really could code.
Testing the game with children was ridiculously fun. To see their eyes brighten at the characters I drew, use their hands to manipulate those characters and ask questions about them … all of it was a pleasure for me.
I had to remind myself that I was watching for the purpose of seeing what DIDN’T work for them so that I could improve it. UX Design with Grace Ahn prepared me to perform user testing, particularly with a vulnerable group like children. In preparing a waiver and explaining it to both parent and child, I was reminded that user testing isn’t about evaluating the person’s ability to use the technology. It’s about assessing the technology’s ability to be discovered by the user. If the user can’t manipulate the technology, it’s the technology’s fault, not the person.
Here is an awesome point where two concepts collided. “The Design of Everyday Things” teaches that technology should be discoverable. You should be able to easily use technology. However, we learned in Chess’ class that games need some tension in discoverability. If you, as a player, can walk right into the fantasy world, find the sword, slay the dragon and save the princess, where’s the fun? I found this with the game. Children couldn’t figure out a feature immediately, but were all the more delighted a few minutes later when they were able to conquer the task. Making a game too easy removes the mystery and the reward for figuring it out.
Give the People What They Want
The beginning, middle and end the process of creating a game (or any digital product) requires you to ask a tough question: Does anybody want this?
I presented the game at the American Peanut Research and Education Society, a conference of 500 peanut researchers held this year in Auburn, Alabama. Alongside dozens the highly scientific posters about genetics, entomology, and soil science, I stood with an iPad and headphones, wondering if anyone would come ask questions and critique the game.
But I got the same response over and over: “When can I download this for my kids/grandkids/students?”
Asking a broader group, I conducted a 13-question Qualtrics survey (a tool I learned in classes for UX design and research methods) and asked a broad group of parents with kids ages 4–8 whether they:
1) Let their kids play with tablets? (Yes.)
2) Favor educational games? (Yes.)
And the big one:
3) Would PAY for a game. (Yes.)
That’s toolkit that it took to make a game. No one skill made it happen.
Design thinking, technical design skills, storytelling, coding, user research — all of it came together in the end to make a game that kids love, parents want and the peanut industry (at least some of the top researchers) would like to see in the App Store.
Oh, and I discovered that kids did get excited about peanuts when they played the game. Whether my 4-year-old nephew — who is toting a peanut butter jar under one arm and an Amazon Fire tablet under the other — will keep his enthusiasm about peanuts remains to be seen.