This week, as part of our Conversations with Pioneers series, we talk with Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., Director of Pioneer’s Health Games Research national program. Debra is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and also a researcher in the university’s Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research (ISBER). Her research focuses on process es of learning with interactive media, especially in the areas of health communication, interactive games for learning, and children’s media.
This Thursday, January 15, Health Games Research will release its 2009 Call for Proposals. The CFP will provide an opportunity for universities, government agencies, medical centers and nonprofit organizations to submit proposals for research projects that will investigate how health games can be designed and used to improve players’ health behaviors and health outcomes.
We thought this would be the perfect time to check in with Debra to learn more about the program, the first round of grantees and her expectations for Health Games Research’s new grant solicitation. We will feature our conversation with Debra here on the blog over the next few days.
Debra, can you tell us a little bit about the background and mission of Health Games Research?
Health Games Research is a national program of the Pioneer Portfolio aimed at advancing the research and design of digital games intended to improve people’s health. About $2 million was awarded to 12 grantees in the first round of funding in 2008, and our second round of funding – awarding roughly another $2 million – will be announced this Thursday.
Our mission is to improve the quality and impact of interactive games that are designed or used to improve players’ health-related behaviors and outcomes. To reach this goal, we support research that will identify evidence-based principles of health game design, which can then be implemented in future health games. Our current grantees are investigating a variety of design principles involving, for example, (1) how best to provide performance feedback, from a game and from other people, to players who are trying to improve their eating habits; (2) methods for engaging players in interactions with fictional characters and immersing players in a compelling story, to motivate them to get more physical activity; and (3) strategies for using an “exergame” such as Wii Fit or the dance pad game Dance Dance Revolution to help stroke victims develop better balance and range of motion. In addition to awarding and supporting grants, Health Games Research provides information and resources related to health games, and serves as a champion for and builder of the field.
How did you become involved in the health games field?
I have always been passionate about the use of media for learning and behavior change. I have worked in this area for 35 years, beginning with educational television, when I worked and trained with the Sesame Street researchers and producers while studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the early 1970s. There, I learned about the Sesame Street approach to designing educational media, which integrates researchers into the design process. In this approach, there is respect for both the art and the science of media design. The creative team is free to be creative and the research team contributes its expertise about the capabilities and interests of the audience, and how they learn, and it conducts research during the formative stages of design to make sure the audience is learning. Together the team develops a product that is not only entertaining and fun, but also evidence-based, field tested, and educationally effective.
I worked in educational television in the ‘70s, and in the ‘80s I worked in educational software and got my Ph.D. in communication research at Stanford. After a short time teaching at Indiana University, my life circumstances brought me back to Silicon Valley where, in the early ‘90s, I became involved in health games, joining a company as their VP of research to help them figure out how to design Nintendo games that would improve players’ prevention and self-care behaviors in areas such as diabetes, asthma, and smoking prevention. This work brought together so many of my interests in learning, behavior change and interactive media in ways that could potentially make a difference in people’s lives. And our games were successful! Our diabetes self-management game, Packy & Marlon, reduced players’ diabetes-related urgent care and emergency visits by 77 percent.
As I see it, games are the most interactive form of media we have today. A good game gives players a great deal of control, more than many other forms of interactive media, and feeds back information to players about all the actions they have taken and choices they have made. Games engage players by offering a challenge to reach a goal, and players often get hooked on that challenge, striving to get a better score, trying to get their character to the next level, or developing strategies to beat their opponent or whatever it is that really gets them involved…it’s that challenge! Interactive games are popular because they are deeply engaging. These days, we spend more money on games than we do on movies. And people willingly spend a lot of their leisure time playing them. This is where many people live, and it is in an incredibly interactive and rich environment for learning, skill development, skill rehearsal, and other activities that, when well-designed – remember the Sesame Street approach – can motivate and support significant health behavior change.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Debra.
About Debra Lieberman
Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., is a communication researcher at the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Her research focuses on processes of learning and behavior change with interactive media, with special interests in interactive games, health media, and children's media. At UCSB, Debra directs the Health Games Research national program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio to advance the design and effectiveness of interactive games intended to improve health. Debra has published widely and she consults for health organizations, education agencies, and media and technology companies to help design and evaluate interactive media for entertainment, learning, and health.