Halloween is, without a doubt, one of the best times of the year. When else do you get to let your imagination run wild, dress up as a favorite character (cosplayers, you get a free pass here), watch a steady stream of horror movies and indulge in endless sweets and treats? Well, considering some of the health issues facing our country, that last part may require a little bit of creative thinking.
But here’s a radical idea – why not extend the definition of “treat” into a non-sugary (but just as awesome) thing, like a game. Genius!
PopCap and the American Dental Association (ADA) have done just that, by teaming up and creating a decidedly awesome campaign featuring the Plants vs. Zombies cast designed to help kids (and their families) have a Halloween that’s both happy and healthy. Offering PvZ game downloads, trading cards, and other goodies that parents and kids can pass out when it comes time to trick or treat, it’s all part of the effort to get oral health higher up on kids’ lists of priorities, especially on the official toothache holiday.
For NBC Universal's Healthy Week, we were able to chat with PopCap co-founder John Vechey and Dr. Jonathan Shenkin of the ADA and find out just what all this “Stop Zombie Mouth” buzz is about.
John Vechey, co-founder, PopCap Games
G4: What was the genesis of this campaign? Did you approach the ADA, or did they come to you?
John Vechey: We've done quite a bit of research regarding the potential for video games - particularly casual games like the ones we at PopCap make - to provide benefits beyond entertainment. Studies with several universities, more than a dozen national and international consumer surveys, and so forth. This is a natural extension of that philosophy: finding ways for video games to do good. We approached the ADA, suggesting that one of our games could be used to help modify consumer behavior with respect to oral health, and together settled on Halloween as a holiday in need of change from an oral health standpoint, and Plants vs. Zombies as the ideal game for a Halloween-themed campaign that could raise awareness of the importance of oral health, particularly among kids, around a holiday that results in tens of millions of kids getting more candy than is good for them.
G4: Plants vs. Zombies is a pretty natural fit for a Halloween campaign. How did you come around to the particulars (offering game downloads and trading cards as "treats")?
JV: Again, this involved a fair amount of brainstorming between PopCap and the ADA… we felt that providing parents and other adults who host trick-or-treating kids on Halloween with a fun, tooth-friendly alternative to candy was the right place to start, and Plants vs. Zombies was the right game to use. Then we extended that idea to include trading cards, which kids could enjoy and share while also absorbing some important oral health messages.
G4: Likewise, where did the amazing "stop zombie mouth" idea come from?
JV: Well, we needed a slogan, and zombies do have pretty abysmal oral health, generally speaking. That, and it's a simple, somewhat offbeat concept that hopefully gets people, especially kids, to stop and pay attention.
G4: It seems that the gaming community is recently much more open to the idea of charity and promoting wellness (I'm thinking here of the prevalence of Child's Play, 24-hour gaming marathons to raise funds for health organizations, etc.). Do you think this is accurate? Do you feel that it's important for successful game studios to give back in some way?
JV: We certainly believe in giving back - we've worked with dozens of charitable organizations over the past 10 years or so. Yes, the gaming community has become more receptive in the past few years, perhaps in part due to the maturation of the audience -- everyone plays video games now, as opposed to 5+ years ago when the gaming audience generally skewed younger.
G4: Finally, an easy question - which do you think is more addictive: a well-designed videogame or a bucket of your favorite candy? You should probably also tell us what that favorite candy is.
JV: Candy, like many other things, can be a problem if not consumed in moderation. Is candy "addictive"? I don't know if that's true, or has been scientifically proven. But it can definitely be eaten in quantities that aren't good for you. Of course, playing video games for 10 hours every day have some negative physical - and perhaps mental - effects on people too… I think it's probably a matter of personal makeup. Favorite candy? The sweet kind!!
ADA spokesperson Dr. Jonathan Shenkin
G4: What made you interested in working with PopCap on this campaign? Did you have Plants vs. Zombies in mind from the outset?
Dr. Shenkin: The American Dental Association was approached by PopCap with the idea of using their Zombies to educate families about oral health. The fact that PvZ has a reach that stretches into the millions, and is a family friendly game hooked us. No doubt it seemed unusual from the onset, but it just makes so much sense. It has been really easy, and a lot of fun in developing this campaign.
G4: Have you worked on healthy Halloween initiatives before? If so, how this compare?
Dr. S: Halloween is a holiday that dentists are often sought after for by the media to inform parents of healthy options for kids. This campaign is truly unique in its scope and reach to families. I've never worked on a campaign where we have collaborated with an outside entity to help share advice to parents and families about improving health habits. To say this is an exciting venture would be an understatement.
G4: What is your desired outcome for this campaign? For kids and parents to think of "treats" as more/cooler things than just candy?
Dr. S: The primary goal of the campaign is to utilize a unique platform, PvZ, to improve oral health literacy of families and subsequently improve the oral health of kids. Our challenge is that sugar consumption has exploded in the US, and if we can help in finding satisfying and fun alternatives for kids during Halloween it will be a resounding success of an effort. Not only are we trying to educate families about alternative to candy, we are educating families about the importance of brushing for two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Only 44% of kids brush twice a day, and we are hoping our efforts with PvZ will help improve that statistic.
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja in San Francisco.