The Growing Virtual World of Video Games for Health

Whether it’s on the computer, on a mobile device, or a console, video gaming is on the rise when it comes to the field of public health. With revolutionized capabilities at our fingertips, health communicators are getting creative with how they send messages and spread awareness on a variety of issues like public health training, treatment compliance, and basic social determinants of health. 

The Anatomy of Healthy Video Games

Today it is not uncommon to find an online game geared towards public health – because it really works.  At a cognitive level, the gamification of health merges game theory (the study of strategic decision-making) with communication theories like the Health Belief and Stages of Change models to aid in the decision-making process of patients, communities, or professionals adopting a health behavior. Beyond that, interacting with games physically—waving a controller, jumping over a virtual bridge in a living room, navigating complex visuals with the eye—actually challenges the human body to become a more healthful one.

New data from Google, Inc. and Ipsos show that video games are the number one most-accessed content on the web, and that video is the number one way to alter perceptions in teens and twenty-somethings. While this is a growing field, new data studying the effect of video games on health show both cognitive and physical progress, including:

–          People who played action video games a few hours per day for a month improved their visual acuity test results on a standard eye chart by about 20%

–          “Bejeweled” manufacturers recently funded a study to explore mental health benefits of video games and found that volunteers displayed improved mood and heart rhythms

–          Archives of Surgery results showed thatLaparoscopic surgeons who played video games were able to operate 24% faster—with 32% fewer errors—during a simulated surgery course than those didn’t partake in gaming

The significance of this data—and video games’ ability to alter outcomes—cannot be underestimated.

A Game for Everyone

Like today’s popular entertainment video games, health-focused video games can also suite just about any type of user; game types range from “exergames” (games in which the player exercises in order to complete a goal within the game) to strictly educational, and myriad topics are covered like nutrition, brain-training, treatment compliance, and medical skill training. 

Check out this video from Dr. Stuart Smith at the University of New South Wales and how his Games for Health program is adapting video games to help elderly and disabled patients stay active. (Want to join in on the fun that you see? Join me at my Gaming Experience Zone tomorrow at Social Media Day as we take on Fruit Ninja!)

Dr. Smith’s program, and the sampling below, shows that games are being used successfully in a variety of contexts to accomplish a variety of health initiatives:

For Patients:

–          The Pain Squad, a mobile application, was developed by SickKids to use games in order to track the physical and emotional statuses of children with cancer

–          SPARX is a roleplaying game to teach teens with mental health issues self-confidence by leading users through seven realms of battling depression

–          Limbs Alive aids users, like stroke victims, in improving their motor skills through physical therapy in a game in which they imitate circus performers

For Professionals:

–          Outbreak at Watersedge answers the questions, “What is Public Health?” and provides an interactive approach for the player to explore the industry instead of indulging mindless hours into a textbook

–          The Last Straw promotes discussion about the social determinants of health; helps players build empathy with marginalized people and gain an awareness of players’ own social location; and encourages learning in a fun and supportive environment

–          The POD Game was developed by the Center for Advancement of Distance Education of the School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago and “simulates a bioterrorism response focused on training thousands of people to dispense mass amounts of drugs and vaccines in the wake of an anthrax attack”

No matter what channel you wish to access a public health game, there is one to suit your own personal goals and objectives. Gaming is a fun approach to learning more about policies, procedures, current issues, and creating awareness of an infectious disease. With the online gaming market worth $15 billion and 65% of U.S. households playing video games, it is exciting to think about what the future holds.

By Tessa Revolinski

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