May 19 2011

Games For Health Conference: A Q&A with Dan Baden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


The 7th Annual Games for Health Conference is underway this week in Boston. Over 400 participants are attending and presentation topics at the conference include use of games for a widening field of both consumer health and disease prevention and health care professional instruction including physical therapy, health behavior change, cognitive health and much more.

The Games for Health Project, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, began in 2004 with its goal to research and implement use of cutting-edge games and game technologies to improve health and health care. NewPublicHealth spoke with Dan Baden, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Public Health Practice, about gaming for health.

NPH: You’re a panelist at the conference. What will you be speaking about?

Baden: I'm talking about an overview of CDC and some of the activities that we've done in the past. We have several simulations that I'm going to focus on. One is for people training miners--how they can safely evacuate mines during emergencies. We've got a health policy game that I'm going to highlight. And we have some flu activities for people to participate in, such as giving out information about flu vaccines.

NPH: What is the critical mass that you need in order for the games to be able to deliver public health messages?

Baden: I think that they can be used to deliver public health messages at any size. But actually the number of people involved in games is enormous. The organizer of the conference was speaking in the same panel as I was in earlier today and was saying that of all demographic groups, only males over age 55 indicate that they watch more TV than use the computer. All the other demographic groups say they use the computer for multiple purposes and more than they watch TV. And the largest group of people to use what are called "'casual games" is women between the age-mid 20s to mid 50s. There are lots of people that are doing this right now.

Back to the other part of your question, an individual game I think can have an impact. There is one called Madden Football. It's a video game where you have a football team and you run them through different games. But for this year's version they are incorporating a new concussion policy. So if your player has a concussion during the game, your player is out for the game, and you're not allowed to bring them in. Whereas in the past you could bring them in the next quarter. [The new rules of the game are ]consistent with current concussion therapy.

NPH: Can you think of other examples where the game isn't set up to be a public health game--but what you can do is incorporate appropriate, correct, accurate, vetted public health messages in almost any game?

Baden: There are many. There are lots of car race games, for example. And you can have people in the race game who are using seat belts and restraints or helmets. Or if you want to twist it the other way--I don't know if this is out there--but if you have a game where someone's driving around recklessly in their car--if they don't wear their seat belt--maybe they have a higher chance of being ejected from the car and having consequences from not following that preventive measure. There's many ways you can incorporate public health messages into these games without converting or corrupting the game itself.

NPH: What's something at next year's conference you'd like to see--a game that has a larger message or a particular message--maybe HIV prevention?

Baden: I would like to see games that focus on other winnable battles that CDC has priorities such as tobacco control, improved nutrition, increased physical activity and tobacco control, for example.

NPH: You were talking about men over 55 not being a particular demographic group that uses computers more than they watch television. But that is a demographic group that could use some of the benefits you have shown in the games--like seat belt protection, safe driving, safe sex. Will that be a goal for you do you think? To figure out how to engage men in that age group in using these games for positive impact as well?

Baden: I think we'll probably stick with our traditional methods for now. We're already having outreach to them--rather than try and drive people to games. Though they're probably going to go there eventually on their own, and at that point are likely to find even more public health messages than now.

Read previous Q&As with newsmakers and difference makers in public health.

Tags: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public and Community Health, Q&A