Finalist 2021

Gooey Gut Trail Demystifying Human Gut Health Through Board Game Play

Nandini Pasumarthy / Yi Ling Tai / Dr Rohit Ashok Khot /Dr Jessica Danaher

Demystifying human gut health through board game play

Gooey Gut Trail (GGT) is a board game designed to raise awareness on factors that influence human gut health. GGT introduces players to real-world scenarios and activities that influence gut bacteria through the design of the game components such as card decks, meeples, factor tokens and the game board.

The game extends players’ understanding of gut health through the lens of food and beyond. Utilizing design fiction, the game is made relatable to the players and creates a space for self-reflection to foster a closer understanding of human-microbial interaction and its influence on gut health.

Design Brief

Gut health is currently a widely used term in social media, however, the understanding of factors that influence gut health is still at a nascent stage, amongst the general public.

Furthermore, the traditional information sources on gut health like journals, blogs, news articles are often scientific, complex to comprehend and rarely appeal to the larger population. We approached this challenge through the lens of play and designed GGT, a research product from the HAFP Research Lab- a multidisciplinary team of researchers nested under the School of Design, RMIT University.

We used “research through design” methodology to develop the game. The iterative process resulted in three versions over a duration of 8-months. A field study of GGT revealed that important facets of our game design contributed towards an increased awareness in participants, causing some participants to reflect upon their personal habits that influence gut health while motivating behavior change in others.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The design of GGT is informed by scientific literature from the fields of gastrointestinal health, food science, game design, psychology, sociology, product & UX design.

The game was designed in the following process:

  1. Mapping of scientific literature on gut health,
  2. Identifying real-world contexts which influence gut health,
  3. Identifying key design elements and designing their features,
  4. Crafting game rules,
  5. Prototyping and testing conducted as a cyclical process.

The game was play-tested by the research team during the design phase using hybrid tools i.e., part-physical and part-digital. The components of the final research product were partly printed at home and partly through a commercial vendor. Other components like game meeples, food plate, wedges and component trays were handcrafted at home.

The game was designed using sustainable materials such as cardboard, air dry clay, MDF board, linen bag, brown craft paper, magnetic sheets and repurposed cardboard containers to hold game components. The design goals of GGT were in alignment with the design ideals of our team that is focused on reducing the impact of our design choices on the environment.

The final research product is fully-functional, aesthetically-appealing and reflective of the theme which resulted in a seamless user-experience and meaningful feedback from users.

Testing the final game through a field study revealed that users gained a new-found understanding of the intricacies involved in gut health. The user-experience of the game was positive and users reported having an enjoyable experience that conveyed scientific insights through game mechanics, interactions and aesthetics.

One participant said “The unboxing experience was good. The vibrant colors and the design aesthetics of the components really appealed to me. The card decks and other small elements looked really interesting and I was excited to go on the journey”

Design Excellence

Gut health is a complex topic that involves a multitude of factors that influence each other, making it challenging to understand it in isolation. GGT demystifies gut health and explores alternative ways of visualizing human-microbial interaction supported by the visual and graphic design of the components, the use of contextual narratives in the game cards, tactile-based visualizations through the physical game components and by crafting the game mechanics, dynamics to engage players through reflection in action.

Our design exemplifies “learning through doing” by embracing board game play and inspires designers to use playful contextual tools to engage with complex science topics. The game adopts the use of elements from a physical dining setting to contextualise the game.

These elements include the conversion of dining mats to game boards; the inclusion of ingredients from the pantry into the design of the Food deck - to bring the players’ attention to gut-friendly and unfriendly foods, the design of food-inventory display - to mimic the experience of choosing from a buffet or an aisle at the supermarket; design of the food plate and color-coded wedges - to drive the importance of consuming a balanced meal with diverse foods for gut bacterial diversity.

Players reported gathering of new insights in relation to environment, diet and lifestyle factors that caused them to pause and reflect upon their personal habits and activities that influence their gut health.

GGT inspires the use of contextual elements based on the design topic to engage users in a memorable experience that creates value through interaction. Future designers can adopt the use of specific design contexts while designing for complex topics such as climate change, health, environment, diet, lifestyle factors and leverage on the use of natural accessories from these contexts as tools of inquiry and to foster user-engagement.

Design Innovation

GGT innovates through a playful approach to deconstruct science information. The design of the game components facilitate learning about the influence of various factors like mode of birth, early microbial exposure, genetics, age, diet, lifestyle and environment and the real-world scenarios that influence gut bacteria and thereby gut health.

GGT sensitises players on the microscopic interactions we engage in, and we do this by bringing players’ attention to the real-world scenarios through the game components. The game is designed to be explorative and does not force learning upon the player, instead, it creates a space for players to explore their curiosity and engage with insights that are interesting or less known to them. We currently live in a time where the prevalence of auto-immune diseases is at an all time high.

It is important to find alternative ways to engage with serious scientific information. GGT embodies “learning by doing” and stimulates meaningful discussions surrounding health and lifestyle practices through social play. Interacting with the game led to social collaboration and learning through shared-experiences.

Quotes from participant interviews: One participant said, “I didn't know going on a road trip with my friends and interacting with each other and the environment would be a good microbial experience. Or spending time in urban indoor spaces doesn't do much good to your gut health.”

One participant reflected, “I would have never learned that much of what I learned from playing the game, because my information source would be an article and I would have never gone that long reading so much, compared to what I got to learn from playing the game. It was also fun to be gaining information while playing, which was great.”

Design Impact

The game was tested through a field study in Melbourne in early 2021. The playtest was conducted as board game meetups with participants who knew each other and they were briefed on the rules of the game. Participants’ interactions with the game were recorded and a post-game interview was conducted to follow-up on the user-experience and player engagement with the game.

Players reported learning about factors that influenced their gut health through the lens of diet and beyond. Players reflected upon their personal values, habits and choices that shaped their gut health and post-game interviews uncovered that the game acted as a “nudge-tool” and served as a “reminder” to help make gut-friendly decisions in many. GGT has instigated curiosity and motivated people to spend time outdoors in natural environments to benefit their gut health.

The game has contributed to design strategies that can benefit future designers while designing for complex health topics. GGT acts as a playful tool to engage adults with insights that can be used to tackle real-world problems and help people make meaningful decisions informed by science.

GGT encourages social and environmental connections by introducing more reasons for Victorians to step out into natural environments and interact with biodiverse landscapes to build a closer relationship with their gut and replenish friendly bacteria from the air, the ground and the plants they interact with.

One in five Australians suffer from allergies and auto-immune conditions; and this only continues to be on the rise. Being empowered with information can enable people to be in control of their health instead of outsourcing their health to an overburdened medical system. Interaction design offers tremendous opportunities that can facilitate a space for conversations to unfold resulting in insight sharing thus fostering social learning.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

A professional design process and execution can elicit meaningful feedback while testing the design through user-studies. This is important as it allows the designer to gather a well-rounded feedback on the different elements of the design that influence the user-experience and the insight gained in relation to the form, fit, finish and the extent of their influence on the user-experience.

Having said that, designers also shoulder a huge responsibility with respect to the impact of their design choices on the society and the greater environment. We believe, it is important to factor-in sustainability as a design goal and make design decisions accordingly as much as possible to reduce our footprint on the planet.

The design goals of GGT were in alignment with the design ideals of our team that is focused on reducing the impact of our design choices on the environment.

The game is designed using sustainable materials such as card-stock, air-dry clay, MDF board, linen bag, brown craft paper, magnetic sheets and repurposed cardboard containers to hold the game components.

GGT is currently a research product with three copies of the game inventory. Upon the completion of our research study, we intend to repurpose parts of the game components to design another game. We believe in the creation of a circular economy and its importance in building a sustainable future.

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