Hungry Red Planet is an innovative computer simulation produced by Health Media Lab, under a grant from the National Institutes for Health. The program teaches about healthy eating by placing children in charge of menu planning for a group of settlers on the planet of Mars.
In this game, Mars has become habitable because it collided with an icy comet. Players travel to Mars to become the Governor and are assigned the task of colonizing Mars by establishing healthy, food-producing settlements. As a secondary goal, players explore Mars for a previous settlement that has been lost.
Loosely similar in structure to strategy games like Sid Meier’s Civilization II, this turn-based simulation requires players to make a series of decisions.
To keep the settlers healthy and thus able to work at their potential, players must plan healthy meals. To succeed, kids will learn to interpret FDA Nutrition Facts labels found on the 300 real foods available for menu planning. They will also learn about the Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid and its Healthy Eating Index so that their menus can conform to these guidelines.
In addition to meal-planning, players must also manage food production and expansion. Kids choose from 12 different types of food-related buildings to construct including various farms, ranches, labs, and factories. The player needs to consider these building decisions carefully before committing his limited resources, because each building costs money and needs people to work in it.
The simulation can be played on three levels of difficulty. On the easiest level you must survive for 15 turns—the hardest goes for 25 turns. The player must wrestle with limited money and people, food shortages, viruses, and strange attacks by mutants (these are the earlier settlers who turned into mutants because of poor nutrition).
If the players can successfully run the settlement for the requisite number of turns, produce enough food to feed the settlement, and send extra food back to Earth, they win the simulation. If they find the lost settlers their win is even better.
This clearly educational simulation impressed our kid-testers because it was so much fun. They confessed to learning a tremendous amount about nutrition. The game comes with excellent tutorials and a Nutrition Reference; but for those children who love to jump right in without instructions, the game is intuitive enough that kids can learn by doing.
Hungry Red Planet is available in a home edition as well as a school edition; and it plays well in both environments. By putting kids in charge of nutrition in a way that is meaningful to them, you get through to them. You might even hear them say: “Pass the skim milk, please!”
All tech products are judged on a five star scale by looking at the following factors: fun, education, ease of use, value, and technical.