With the emergence of any entertainment medium comes an inevitable flood of those seeking to capitalize on it and reach new audiences. While the gaming industry has been the target of commercial interests since as far back as the Atari 2600 days (anyone else remember the Kool-Aid Man game?), it’s only relatively recently that interactive entertainment has been in the crosshairs of those seeking social change. While some abuse the community, seeking to sensationalize youth-oriented fantasy, others are doing things the right way, working as a force for good, engaging the audience rather than alienating them.

At New York ComicCon this past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from the Legacy for Health (you probably know them better as the group behind the powerful truth anti-smoking advertisements), and learn about how they are helping people learn about the dangers of smoking and tobacco. For the first time, the nonprofit organization established as part of a settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 had a presence at the enormous public-facing event, and when I visited the booth, it was filled with fans. They were there to see a free mobile game called Flavor Monsters, which seeks to educate about the tobacco industry’s practice of sweetly flavoring more than 45 types of products, even though they can no longer do so with cigarettes.

Where the Legacy for Health succeeds is in its respect for the audience. Groups like PETA sensationalize their message for cheap thrills, but the anti-smoking group seeks to build a long-lasting relationship with youth to keep them away from the harmful effects of smoking and related habits. It’s for this reason that the messaging in Flavor Monsters isn’t heavy-handed.

More importantly, the game is fun and engaging. A combination of tower defense and turret action, players employ a variety of weapons to protect regions of the country from a variety of grotesque mutations designed around the different flavorings used in tobacco products. After each stage. a fact about the dangers of the habit is presented. This approach helps drive the point home without feeling overbearing or oppressive.

If you have any doubt about whether smoking is a problem in our country, you need only look at the statistics. Last year, nearly 20% of male high school students and over 15% of female high school students self-reported that they were smokers (according to the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance in 2011). If that isn’t scary enough, the middle school statistics are even more terrifying. In 2009 (again according to the CDC), 5.6% of male middle school students and 4.7% of female middle school students reported being current smokers.

The evidence is overwhelming that drumming the anti-tobacco message in early is the key to life-long avoidance. 99% of smokers start by the age of 26 and 90% are hooked by the time they are 18. The reasoning behind using a game to deliver the message is sound. It also is the logic behind using youth to help share the facts.

This summer, truth toured to more than 80 cities in 31 states with stops at major conventions including Gen Con, Dragon Con, Baltimore Comic Con and amusement parks. Staffing the tour were college-aged adults manning a “truth truck.” The bright orange vehicle (the color adopted by the campaign), gave visitors a chance to try the game, learn more about the genesis of the idea and participate in a video experience featuring the cleverly designed creatures. All of this was on display at NYCC, and it was lighthearted, but still to the point; a perfect balance for the intended audience. Having peers share the facts with those their own age is far more effective than having adults lecture.

In addition to the game and the booth, the Legacy for Health scored a fantastic partnership with SyFy. You may be familiar with Face Off, a reality show that pits makeup designers against one another in a series of challenges. One contestant, Rod Maxwell, was chosen to bring to life a character from the game, the Strawberry Flavor Monster. Tour member Edwin Contreras was transformed, and you can see the vignette on the SyFy channel (we’ve also got a clip below that condenses the seven-hour process into seven minutes). Maxwell and Contreras were on-hand at NYCC, and I had the chance to see the process firsthand as they recreated the character with an unbelievable amount of foam latex.

Of course, all the games, makeup jobs and fancy booths don’t mean a thing if they don’t help prevent tobacco addiction. While it’s far too early to know the impact of the Flavor Monsters campaign, Legacy for Health’s history has earned them a great deal of credibility, especially with the CDC who helped fund this latest endeavor.  According to the Journal of Preventative Medicine, the organization was directly responsible for keeping 450,000 teens from starting to smoke in just the first four years of its existence (2000 – 2004).  Last year, the group reached that same number.

Based on what I’ve seen, the Legacy for Health is likely to serve as a model for pairing social messaging with interactive entertainment. Not only is the content sound, but the game stands on its own as an enjoyable experience. Want to try it for yourself? You can download it for free here for iOS and here for Android. You can also learn more about the truth campaign and the Legacy for Health on their website.