Developing a Game Prototype to Study Positive Effects on Decision Making

Prevention Strategies and Smashing Boxes developed a low-code game prototype to enhance social skills and decision-making in children aged 11 to 13 through engaging and interactive gameplay.

Key Highlights:

  • Supported study exploring if gamification with an app can improve positive decision making for kids
  • Focused on life skill development through the Markov Decision Process Framework

About Prevention Strategies:

Prevention Strategies promotes the adoption, implementation and sustainability of best practices to improve the well-being of athletes and young adults. The company specializes in translating prevention science into effective programs and policies.

The Problem: Creating an App to Improve Social Skills

Prevention Strategies wanted to focus on improving children's social skills through social skills not typically targeted or measured in drug prevention programs. They wanted to create a study to see if they can teach children to make social connections amongst their peers that have the potential to have a positive influence on them. In the same vein of thought, they also wanted to make sure that children could disconnect with peers that have a negative influence on personal development.

In order to test this theory, Prevention Strategies needed a development partner that specializes in creating apps for studies such as this one. They turned to Smashing Boxes due to our experience working with research studies out of Duke University. For this project we needed to create a game where the target group of kids from 11- to 13-year olds will have the ability to befriend different NPCs. In order to keep the project as a prototype, we had to be very selective about the activities that would be available in the app. Although we couldn’t build a full video game experience, we wanted to make sure that the game experience was an actual game, not an academic study masquerading as an app or an app that doesn't actually contribute to the study. Lastly, we needed to make the game fun and engaging so the children would want to play it.

The Solution: Creating a low-code prototype 

We created a low-code prototype as a first step in exploring effective prevention strategies, designed for playability testing with our target group of 11 to 13-year olds. In order to create the prototype we made several assumptions about the concept outlined below:


To make the app more exciting to our target age-group, we wanted to focus on exciting settings and storylines. We wanted the game’s world and theme to draw players in and communicate these concepts to the players tactfully, dramatically, and with quality to help give the game an authentic feel.


Dialogue was a critical element to this game since a player’s actions would equal results of the study. We placed a huge emphasis on content creation and built accurate decision trees and consequence maps for changes to the world, player, and progression. We also mixed dialogue with gameplay additions to make the game more engaging.

Providing Choices

Choice in this game provided us an opportunity for greater engagement with task oriented achievements and acted as a guide through UX elements such as important dialogue, activities and challenge events. By rewarding players with these achievements, we thought they would be more likely to continue playing the game and have the decisions they made reinforced through positive feedback.

Adapting Activities to Goal-Related Tasks

We gave players multiple goals to choose from when playing the game. Once a goal is selected by a player, they must complete tasks and activities associated with that goal. This setup allowed us to create a varied experience that would increase the game’s playback value.

Building the Game Out

Once we understood our assumptions, we led Prevention Strategies through a workshop to define the world, characters, and behaviors we wanted to focus on. We also aligned on the decision-tree logic and decided on existing systems and patterns. After these decisions we assigned owners to the content, visuals and music that would bring the game to life.

The prototype focused on engaging content, interactive NPCs, and activities that promote life goals like creativity, intelligence, fitness, popularity, talent, and wealth. The development process emphasized the game's playability, educational value, and engagement. We carefully chose activities that would resonate with players and encourage positive behavior. We kept paths for further development open based on the player feedback they received during the study.

Impact on Research

The prototype marked a significant step in Prevention Strategies’ research by giving them a whole new medium to test a different group of social skills they don’t normally focus on. Prevention Strategies was able to launch its study and measure if a game can enhance young people's lives through evidence-based programs. \

Early Gameplay Flow

The website with the game loading preview. Account sign-in is active. 

Character customization with naming and avatar. 

Action and decision-making matrix controlling end score. 

Enemy battles and player rewards, including additional avatar gear. 

Overall map with actionable items for the player to interact with, including play timer. 

The final game score preview after play time equals zero. 

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