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Scholar in the spotlight: Interactive games for health

Interactive games for health are becoming more and more popular as technology advances and the number of video game platforms on the market increase. The national program, Health Games Research, has established itself as a leader in the field of interactive games for health. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, Health Games Research provides support and leads initiatives that aim to expand upon the existing research, models, and effectiveness of the digital games and technologies that are being used to promote health.

The use of interactive media for health promotion is something that Dr. Debra Lieberman, Health Games Research Director, is passionate about. Her current research focuses on learning processes and behavior change mechanisms that can work in collaboration with interactive media to promote health and well-being.

In an e-mail interview, Dr. Lieberman gave us insight into the current health games research that is being conducted and a peek into the future. Knowing that people generally agree that games are fun and that games have the power to improve players’ health behaviors and outcomes, Health Games Research seeks advances in this area through provision of resources for grantee research projects across the nation. A list of grantee projects can be found here, but Lieberman gave us a big picture view,

Increasingly we are seeing games that are designed to motivate and support health behavior change, using many interesting design strategies.  This is an improvement over the more typical emphasis on knowledge gain or, worse, on simply quizzing a player’s existing knowledge.  Knowledge is not enough to lead to better health outcomes.  Health media and health games can deal with  a lot more than knowledge gain, such as improving people’s attitudes, risk perceptions, self-concepts, social interactions, and skill development and rehearsal, ultimately to lead to better health behaviors and outcomes.Sony Playstation

With this encouraging news in mind, anyone working in the field of public health, or even academia for that matter, might wonder- how can these increasingly effective health games compete with the for-profit games being turned out at such an incredibly high rate and with state-of-the-art technologies? Although there are ideas about potential funding sources, part of this questions still seems to remain unanswered,

What is the business model for health games and who is going to pay for them?  Consumers?  Health care providers?  Insurers?  Commercial sponsors?  Foundations and other donors?  We don’t know who will pay enough to ensure a product’s commercial success.  However, two areas that are seeing substantial profits are physical activity games, such as dance pad games and the Wii and Kinect, and brain games that are designed to improve memory, attention, and other cognitive skills.  I am optimistic that demand for high quality health media and health games on a wide variety of health topics will rise enough to create a successful market.

This does not seem implausible to me considering ‘Just Dance!’ remains one of my favorite Wii games. And as for the future of health games? Dr. Lieberman suggests that the sky’s the limit,

The future of interactive games for health is wide open with possibilities.  New technologies ranging from smart phones to robots to medical devices are enabling us to deliver new kinds of games just about anywhere and anytime, and in new contexts.  I see a wider spectrum of people playing health games and I see the field advancing to the point where there are a rapidly increasing number of well researched, effective games available to play.

And for those who have a passion for health, health communication, and interactive media, Dr. Lieberman offers a list of a host of places where you can begin looking for jobs designing and researching health media and games: universities, federal health agencies, and for-profit agencies that design, develop, and publish health media. So although the Pioneer’s Health Games Research national program is no longer awarding grants, you too can still become a pioneer in the field!

We thank Dr. Debra Lieberman for her insight and encourage you to tell us what you think about interactive gaming for the improvement of health.