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A buxom heroine blasts away cancer cells // soldiers in recovery from combat injuries enjoy golf // ...and World of Warcraft characters spread a pandemic // are all, healthwise...

Game Changers

By Linda Keslar // Photo Illustration by Sanjay Kothari // Fall 2008
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Games in health care

Like motion pictures a century ago, video games have leaped into public consciousness as an entirely new medium. And just as millions flocked to see projected images in the early film palaces, an entire generation of game players is now poised before much smaller screens, not merely watching but participating, often in competition with other enthusiasts. Yet although games entertain, they have other purposes too, and in the realm of health care, they are taking on an astonishing variety of roles.

Players can take aim at cancer cells or social inhibitions. Or, if they’re going after more traditional targets—asteroids and spaceships—it could be with a twist, engaging an autistic teenager, say, whose decisions about when to shoot and when to hold fire may help develop impulse control. Nutrition, fitness, rehabilitation—all are now being packaged as games.

Then there’s the really serious stuff, such as disease outbreaks in a game’s cyber population that teach researchers what might happen during an actual pandemic. Or a game that challenges amateurs to pursue research objectives that have so far escaped professionals in the rarefied field of protein folding. “This could be a whole new way of doing science,” says the lead developer of Foldit, the protein game, whose progenitors can envision an AIDS vaccine or a new drug for Alzheimer’s.

None of these games, of course, is going to become the next Grand Theft Auto IV, which grossed $500 million during its first week on the market last summer. But within this niche of health and medical games, the majority of which are being funded by nonprofits and government grants (totaling about $50 million per year by 2010), sales and profits tend to be much less important than behavior change or research gains.

“The potential applications of games to improve health care are significant,” says Chinwe Onyekere, a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which recently awarded more than $2 million to help 12 university research teams study whether games can help players make healthier lifestyle choices. “Games are in so many people’s homes, and they cut across lines of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.”

Considerable academic research is already attempting to document the effect of health games as learning tools, and although results so far are inconclusive, advocates are convinced that games’ addictive nature, together with their physical and mental requirements, can be put to persuasive use. Even insurance companies are getting into the act. Aetna and Humana are experimenting with what the industry calls “casual” games, episodes that last just 15 to 20 minutes and are so easy to control that they can be played on cell phone keypads. And Cigna is exploring the use of Second Life, a virtual world in which players create characters, places and events and interact with one another, as a forum for educating members about health and nutrition. Debra Lieberman, director of the Health Games Research program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks such innovations are only the beginning, and that many more will follow as success encourages funding from both the public and private sectors. “Momentum is picking up fast,” she says.

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