Two Dundee-based studios have won £45,000 each to develop video games that explore how food environments shape access to healthy and affordable produce.

In a bid to help close health inequalities, Konglomerate Games and Biome Collective will build virtual neighbourhoods which allow players to test ways to increase the availability of nutritious food.

They will use the prize cash, which comes from a joint project between Dundee-based R&D centre InGAME (Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise) and Nesta – the UK’s innovation agency for social good, to develop their initial ideas into playable proof of concept games.

The Virtual Healthy Neighbourhoods Challenge called for Scottish video game makers to pitch ideas for developing virtual food environments, including high streets, supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

Both concept games will be designed to provide data and insight about food environments that can be applied in the real world. Nesta, InGAME and Scottish health and policy experts will work with the games developers to ensure the prototypes can produce viable insights about how food environments shape people’s opportunity to be healthy.

It is anticipated that the proof of concept games will be played through by researchers and policy makers, who will be able to use the resultant data to inform the design of real-world solutions, rather than consumer gamers. 

Konglomerate Game’s winning idea involves building an environment in which players can build a city and adjust the food environment by building or moving takeaways, supermarkets and restaurants with different health and affordability ratings, set how different citizens interact with the food outlets and introduce blanket policies that affect the whole city.

Biome Collective’s idea is a management simulator in which players manage resources for a virtual version of the Hilltown area of Dundee. Players will be able to make changes such as adjusting infrastructure or reformulating food products in a bid to improve the provision of healthier food options.

The virtual environments will use real-time 3D game engines and elements of popular resource management video games, such as Minecraft and SimCity.

Jamie Bankhead, chief executive of Konglomerate Games, said: “We are very excited to be working on a game with a potentially huge impact on health and the way we think of food and food environments.

“Being able to work with such a great team of experts in Nesta as well as the chance to work on such an innovative challenge means we cannot wait to get started. Hopefully the outcomes and progress of this project will help shine a light on how games can be used in new ways to solve real world global problems.”

Malath Abbas, director of Biome Collective 

Malath Abbas, director of Biome Collective, said: “The team at Biome Collective is super excited to work with Nesta and InGAME on this unique opportunity to make positive change through playful media.

“Play provides a sense of freedom, connection, ownership and agency. It can simplify complex systems and generate new perspectives on existing challenges. It’s how we all learned to learn. Nesta research indicates that obesity is a major challenge to society and the data shows our relationship with the food environment is core to this. It’s a multi-layered challenge but we know that games can engage people in complex problems. 

“Our goal is to make a playful experience that clarifies some of these challenges to help policy makers and the general public better understand the food environment and empower them to make a positive impact on the public health landscape.”

The companies were two of five games developers shortlisted and awarded £5,000 each to develop and pitch ideas after an initial open call was launched in October.

Adam Lang, head of Nesta in Scotland, said: “Nesta’s healthy life mission is to increase the average number of healthy years people live and to narrow health inequalities.

“Across Scotland and the UK, the floodgates of unhealthy food are open wide, and these options are overwhelming families which is having a hugely detrimental effect on our health.

“We are delighted to be able to support Scotland and Dundee’s vibrant and creative video games sector to take this experimental approach to understanding public health interventions that help us ensure healthy and appealing food options are accessible and affordable for everyone, wherever they live.”

Sean Taylor, director of InGAME said: “The standard of pitches from all five companies was incredibly high and highlights the talent found in the Scottish games sector. We are delighted to be funding two Dundee-based studios to develop their ideas further and supporting our partner, Nesta, to prove how game technologies can drive positive change.”

InGAME and Nesta will engage with high-value funders and investors to encourage follow-on investment.