Game On

Ok so I have to admit that in many ways, I am way behind the times when it comes to entertainment technology.  The last (and only) game system I owned was Atari. And my favorite video game is still Tetris.

Thank goodness there are people at the other end of the spectrum.

Gaming has become more than a past time. It’s a part of our everyday lives. Angry Birds, Words with Friends, Wii Fit.

And many are taking the entertainment and social value of gaming and applying it to health.  In fact, researchers like Debra Lieberman of Health Games Research have been studying the use of video games to change health behaviors for over two decades.

I have been in the behavioral science field for over a decade myself, but I’ve honestly mostly envisioned using games and entertainment as a passive vehicle for health education – a way to “trick” the user into learning important health information that could eventually, somewhere down the line, improve their behavior. 

I’ve never really thought of games as an active pathway for change. But I came across some examples recently that demonstrate how games can be a powerful avenue – not just for changing knowledge, but actually changing someone’s motivations, actions and their health outcomes.

Lieberman helped develop a Super Nintendo diabetes self-management game for teens and children which was studied in a randomized clinical trial. Results showed that the game reduced healthcare utilization, and improved participant knowledge, self-efficacy and communication.

Some researchers at Union College in New York tested the impact of virtual reality-enhanced exercise on older adult’s motivation to exercise and on their brain health. They found that older adults who participated in “cybercycling” two to three times a week for three months “had significantly better executive functioning than those using a traditional stationary bike.”

Health-related games aren’t just changing patient behavior. Stanford University has developed an app for physicians that combines health gaming with CME. The app called “Septris” utilizes a case-based format and teaches physicians management of septic patients.

And I’d be remiss not to share my favorite recent discovery. This takes health gaming to a whole new level for me. A woman who lived in France for a period of time shares her experience of participating in a postnatal program there. The program uses games to help women strengthen their perineum muscles in the weeks following child birth. You just have to read about it to believe it. I won’t ever be able to play Pac-Man again without thinking about this.

I have to say I don’t see video games as just a passive past time anymore. There are a number of powerful ways to connect with people in their everyday lives and help them make positive changes. We just need to look at the ordinary in a new way. And I think I’ll start by trading in my Atari.

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