Author Archives: Paul Tarini

Pioneer's Commitment to Health Games Profiled in New Games for Health Journal

Mar 12, 2012, 10:00 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with Bill Ferguson to discuss the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s pivotal role in health games research for the inaugural issue of the Games for Health Journal. In our talk, I detailed the Foundation’s early investment in the field, the challenges to advancing health games and some grantee findings to date.

Thinking about our conversation, I’m struck by how far the field has come since the early days of our health games support in 2004. Back then, there wasn’t much intersection between the games space and the health space, but Pioneer saw potential. So we worked with Ben Sawyer (@BenSawyer) of Digitalmill to do some community building within the gaming industry around health interests and funded the first-ever Games for Health Conference.   

Now, with seven conferences behind us and the eighth scheduled for June 12-14, 2012, in Boston, Pioneer can proudly claim we helped create and sustain a way for the games and health communities to come together. But we didn’t stop there.

Pioneer expanded its support to the Health Games Research national program, directed by Debra Lieberman at UC Santa Barbara (who is featured in a roundtable discussion of health games experts in the Journal), where we are seeing our 21 grantees test some fascinating ways health games can be optimally designed. They're exploring game features such as competition, collaboration, social comparison, social support, nurturing of characters, immersion in fictional worlds and alternate realities, interacting with a human-like robots to motivate exercise, using a mobile phone game as a substitute for a cigarette, and much more. And there’s more to come.

Health Games Research's work to identify a broad range of features that make for effective health games will help to further expand the creative horizons of future developers. Well-designed and well-implemented games can motivate and support prevention, lifestyle behavior change, and self-management of chronic conditions, and Pioneer is proud to be part of this work. We are excited to see a journal devoted to the research, development, and clinical application of games and health.

Check out the inaugural issue and read about the work of Pioneer’s grantees and others in this important field on the Pioneer Health Games homepage. Tell @pioneerrwjf or @gamesresearch what you think.

Thoughts from Games for Health 2011: Sensors, Opportunity, Scale

May 23, 2011, 6:19 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Here are a few of my initial ideas from the 2011 Games for Health Conference, put on by Ben Sawyer and Beth Bryant:

1. The sensors are coming, the sensors are coming.  Sensors and the software to collect and analyze the data are on the verge of becoming retail products.  Green Goose is one company hoping to grab this market.  What does it mean for health games?  It means that soon we will be able to turn lots of things into data collection and data input devices.  So think about games that use household objects instead of, say, a wii remote.  You could turn your house into the playing field for a game.

2. Better seeds and more fertile ground.  The quality of health games—the game mechanics, the theory underlying design is getting better.  At the same time, the context in which we can use games to improve health is expanding.  We can now embed games in social networks, so think about linking someone’s facebook friends in with their game efforts to lose weight or manage their diabetes.

3. There’s likely more than one way for a game that has an impact at scale.  When we got into this space at RWJF, we were thinking about games as therapeutic interventions for individuals—one person with one game addressing one condition that a lot of individuals have.  But building off item 2 above, given what Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are showing with their research on transmission of health behaviors through social networks, you could design a health game that requires social networks—teams—to play.  Still another level up is a game that could target a health problem that was a function of a system problem.  That is, a game that targeted a health problem that resulted not from someone’s genetics, but from set of processes and systems that are outside of any one individual’s control.  Imagine a game that’s designed to get some producers to make healthier food.

Are We The Source of Knowledge?

Apr 26, 2011, 3:01 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Are We The Source of Knowledge?

We started hearing about it a couple years ago: an ALS member of Patients Like Me had seen (and translated—it was in Italian) a medical conference poster with results showing lithium carbonate could slow the disease’s progression.  That study was a single-blind trial of 16 treated patients and 28 controls.  The results spread through the ALS community and soon, patients began talking their physicians into prescribing lithium carbonate off-label. PLM soon had 348 members reporting on the effects of their use of the drug.

 PLM realized they had an opportunity to study the experience of their members who were—effectively—experimenting with the drug.  PLM couldn’t randomize, so they developed an algorithm and matched 149 treated patients to 447 controls based on the progression of their disease course.

 On Sunday, the journal Nature Biotechnology published PLM’s findings showing after 12 months of treatment, lithium carbonate had no effect on disease progression.  PLM reports that subsequent clinical trials reached similar conclusions.

 What’s important here is to recognize the potential to conduct research using patient self-reported data from an online social community.  PLM’s sweet spot is social communities for ambiguous diseases (that is, diseases we’re still learning about, diseases that don’t have clear, effective treatment protocols) where the patient does a lot of care at home.  To be sure, PLM is a pretty sophisticated community, but it’s intriguing to think about where we might be in 10-15 years.

A couple of us met last week with PLM’s Jamie Heywood and Dave Clifford.  We had a ranging discussion—hard to avoid with Heywood—that included linking patient self-reported data with clinicians, conducting research with this data, and business models.  A fundamental question Heywood is exploring is “whether it’s faster to get to learning health system through the current confines of the health system or through something like PLM.”

Given the growing ability and inclination of patients to capture and share details on their own experiences, how powerful a role is there for the analysis of this sort of data in our efforts to accelerate the discovery of new treatments for disease?

Got Game? Apply for an SBIR Award!

Sep 24, 2010, 2:10 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

The National Institute on Drug Abuse is looking to support a video game targeting relapse prevention in youth with substance use disorders.  See page 91 in the recently-released solicitation from the NIH and CDC.

Here’s the brief description:

Despite advances in the development of treatments for adolescents with substance use disorders, relapse remains to be a concern. This contract topic will support research to develop a video game targeting prevention of relapse for youth with substance use disorders. Video game platforms of interest include computers, handheld devices, and video game consoles. The video game can be used as a single modality or as part of a continuing care program. Phase I will support the development and feasibility testing of the video game for use with adolescents with substance use disorders. If feasible, Phase II will support further development based on Phase I findings, and pilot testing of efficacy in post-treatment adolescents. The proposed project should be theory based and designed to assess the hypothesized mechanism of action of the intervention (e.g., maintenance of skills learned in treatment or motivation to abstain). This innovative technology is intended to attract and engage adolescents in programs designed to maintain treatment gains and prevent relapse.

What Inning Are We In?

Jun 3, 2010, 9:00 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

I was at the Games for Health meeting in Boston last week. This was the fourth year Pioneer has supported the meeting, which has come a long way since its inception.  When I first attended, most of the conversation I heard was an effort by gamers and health practitioners to each understand the other.  From one side, you heard questions that asked, essentially, “What makes a good game?” From the other side, you heard questions that asked, essentially, “Help me understand diseases, therapies, and how health care works. 

And from both sides, you heard, “When you say X, what exactly do you mean?”

The conversation this year was significantly different.  Instead of talking to each other, people were talking with each other, trying to figure out how to solve problems. Attendees were frequently working off a common language, though some are more fluent than others.

Given that much of the conversation has moved from discovery to collaboration, it has me wondering what’s needed now to move the field along?  The funding we provided under ourHealth Games Research national program focused on establishing efficacy and exploring game design principles.  Does the field need more of that?  Some of the ideas I heard at the Games for Health conference of what was needed now included research to demonstrate cost-effectiveness and the establishment of a journal devoted to the field of health games research.

Any opinions?