Video Games: Teen Health & Wellness

Ask teens and young adults what they like to do in their spare time, and one of the most popular answers is usually, “video games.” It can be frustrating for teachers, parents & youth counselors, who want to see teens out in the real world, interacting with real, positive peers and adults.

But what if we could use video games to actually help teens motivate and facilitate a multitude of necessary behavior changes using a wide range of digital platforms? Or  what if we could perhaps engage them in addiction awareness and treatment- through the use of video games?! That time may not be far off.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio was an early investor in the health games space in 2004 with its grant to the Health Games Research and has invested more than $9 million in recent years. Pioneer saw video games as a promising but unconventional area for exploration, with the potential to lower costs of patient care and drive significant improvements in people’s health and health care. Pioneer focused on two areas where it could make the most impact: providing the health care industry with research and evidence on gaming effectiveness and connecting the fields of video games and health care issues.

Grantees have discovered that well-designed and well-implemented games can motivate and support prevention, lifestyle behavior change, self-care, clinical care, adherence to treatment plans, and self-management of chronic conditions.

Health Games Research is now a national program that advances the research, design, and effectiveness of interactive games used to improve health, wellness and addiction issues. It has funded 21 research projects nationwide, with many findings released in 2012 that may contribute to the increasing perception of digital games as an evidence-based consideration in many areas of health care treatment. Researchers are evaluating questions of efficacy as well as principles of game design to determine not only if a game works, but also why it works- to inform effective innovation in the next generation of games to improve the health of our next generation of adults.

The Games for Health Project

The Games for Health project supports a range of convening and field-building efforts that help forge connections between the worlds of games and health/addiction issues. Regional conferences bring together game designers and developers, researchers, medical professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and others to share information about games technology and its application to health.

More than $2 million in grants will enable research teams to help strengthen the evidence base that supports the development and use of digital interactive games to improve players’ health behaviors and outcomes. Funded studies explore topics ranging from the “Effectiveness of Social Mobile Networked Games in Promoting Active Lifestyles for Wellness”  to how people in substance abuse treatment can practice skills and behaviors in the virtual world of a game to prevent real-world relapses.

Previous studies and clinical trials have shown that well-designed interactive games can significantly improve the players’ health-related knowledge, skills, behaviors and outcomes and there is tremendous opportunity to advance in the growing field of games and health, and to maximize its potential to improve the health of teens and young adults.

Examples Of A Few Grant Recipients

1)Indiana University, School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (Bloomington, Ind.)—BloomingLife: The Skeleton Chase is an alternative reality game designed to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles among college freshmen. It involves an interactive fictional story—a mystery that takes eight weeks to solve—unfolding across a variety of media (e-mail, Web sites, phone calls from fictional characters, physiological monitoring) and real-world physical and mental challenges that players must surmount to gather clues. The study will compare the impacts of competitive versus collaborative game versions.”

2)University of Central Florida, College of Medicine (Orlando, Fla.)—Practicing Relapse Prevention in Artificial-Reality Environments [PREPARE]: A Game-Based Therapy Maintenance Tool will investigate role-playing games designed to enable people, 18 to 65 years old, that are diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence to practice skills that can help them prevent real-world relapses. The relapse prevention games are embedded as minigames within an extensive multiplayer online game. The study will compare behavioral and health impacts of treatment, plus access to the game versus treatment without access to the game.

3)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Public Health (Chapel Hill, N.C.)—Presence: Predicting Sensory and Control Effects of Console Video Games in Young Adults will investigate motivations to expend energy during video game play for 18- to 35-year-olds. The study will compare physiological measures of energy expenditure while people play traditional video games (those that involve pushing buttons on a standard game controller or on a Wii motion-sensing controller) versus active video games (those that require physical movement using inputs such as a dance pad, balance board or guitar). It also will explore players’ sense of being present in the game and their intrinsic motivation to play, two factors that are known to increase the amount of time people will spend playing a game. This is the first time that research will identify the impact of these factors on players’ energy expenditure; study results may lead to recommendations for making traditional games more active and active games more compelling.

4)University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles, Calif.)—Effectiveness of Social Mobile Networked Games in Promoting Active Lifestyles for Wellness will use cell phones and the Web to deliver “Wellness Partners,” a character-driven social mobile networked game, to children and adults ages 12 to 44. The game is designed to motivate real-world wellness through a player support system that involves family members and friends, and by incorporating elements from virtual pets, role-playing games and online social networking. A single-player version provides a fictional game character that offers encouragement, reminders, progress checking and communication with others. The multiplayer version allows players to enlist members of their social network to be partners or helpers. The study will examine how various components of the game may motivate healthy behaviors.

It is extremely exciting that we live in a time when innovative projects like these may lead to breakthrough improvements in the future of our children’s health care. For more information about Pioneer’s Health Games Research national program and the research projects it supports you can visit:

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