Games and Health

Games and Health

By Wanda Gregory

When I tell people that I work in the video game industry and teach game design, what immediately comes to mind for those folks is the dark or negative side of games— images of young men or women thumbing away at a remote control that manipulates digital bloodshed, ultimately causing players to become desensitized to violent content. Others immediately think of the addictive nature of games, and envision pale players spending hours indoors, disconnected from what’s real. However these perceptions are beginning to change.

Like other forms of media, games elicit different emotions in their players. It is, in part, the role of the game designer, writer, artist, and producer to decide on the direction their game will take. Games are being developed for different genres of entertainment or for other purposes, such as education, training, business, social and political activism, and of course, health.

Additionally, industry reports show gamer demographics is shifting. Today, the average gamer is over 30 years old and have been playing games for 13 years. 45% of all game players are women, and this group, over the age of 18, represents a larger percentage (31%) of the game-playing audience than boys age 17 or younger (19%)!

A changing audience means new explorations for game designers.  Jen Chen, for example, is the creator of these unique games:






















All of these games explore new gaming experiences that can be offered to a diversified community of game players.

Games are designed to encourage players to solve complex puzzles and problems as they travel along self-willed or predetermined stories. Players, playing solo or collaboratively with others, are given the opportunity to experiment, to fail, to will, to reflect and try again until they have solved the tasked problem. Players are rewarded for their efforts and they celebrate their wins or morn their losses. It is rare that a player gives up.

Game play and dealing with an illness are similar. After identifying the illness, the clinician suggests behavior changes or treatment for healing. The patient decides how she will incorporate those options, and deal with her diagnosis. Perhaps she’ll go it alone, or seek help and collaboration from friends and family. They can help fuel her fire, to get up and try again.

“Games are rapidly becoming an important tool for improving health behaviors such as healthy lifestyle habits and behavior modification, self-management of illness and chronic conditions, and motivating and supporting physical activity. Utilizing games for health changes the patient care model by involving the patient in his or her own health care with fun, monitored, and managed, technology-enabled preventive and corrective interventions.”   -Bill Ferguson, PhD

Games for health is a new and growing area for consideration by both clinicians and patients. The use of games, and game play, encourages new exploration into ways to experience one’s condition, potentially moving on and healing.

Some of the best game developers are joining forces with leaders in the health care industry to improve health and delivery of treatment. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports this effort through various challenges like the   and sponsorship of the

These are the innovative winners from the 2013 Challenge announced at the Health 2.0 Conference:



Fantasy Healthcare

Digital games have been used to address various health-related issues such as chronic diseases, lifestyle problems, and cognitive/neurogaming. Games are being used to aid in physician training through simulations, improving medical compliance and self-efficacy among patients, aiding in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, improving cognitive skills and reducing depression and anxiety. Though Ayogo Games’ Michael Fergusson cautions that planning games people will play for the rest of their lives is unrealistic. Instead, games for health are used temporarily, to overcome a condition – and to heal.  In that moment, players find ways to satisfy and maintain emotional and psychological well-being, and in some cases of third-degree burn victims, can become temporarily distracted from overwhelming pain.

There are multiple types of games that address different health care issues. We will explore a different topic each week, and look at how the gaming industry is uniquely reconfiguring treatment with fun and patient-empowerment.

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