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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.

Health Games Research Profiled by Inside Healthcare IT

Feb 17, 2012, 12:26 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

The Pioneer Portfolio is committed to supporting trailblazers who are changing the way we think about health and health care.  Debra Lieberman, PhD, director of Health Games Research, a national program of Pioneer and headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is breaking ground by using health games to transform the way prevention, self-care, and health care are practiced.

The February 9 issue of Inside Healthcare IT profiles Lieberman’s research on how video games can be used to improve players’ health behaviors and health outcomes, and thereby reduce the cost of care.  After two decades of research on games that improve health behaviors in areas such as smoking prevention, diabetes self-management and asthma self-management, she has found that some games can have a dramatic impact on health.

“Video games can change people in fundamental ways that can lead to better health behaviors,” Lieberman said in the article. “Well-designed games can change people’s perceived risk for experiencing serious health problems, their sense of self-efficacy, or self-confidence, that they can carry out specific health behaviors successfully, and their perceptions of social norms. These and many other changes in people’s attitudes, emotions, understanding, and skills can tip the balance toward behavior change. While games can be fun and can teach health facts, they can do a great deal more to motivate and support better health.”

Check out the article to learn more about Lieberman’s research on health games and tell @pioneerrwjf or @gamesresearch what you think on Twitter.

Defining and Understanding Violent Video Games

Oct 26, 2010, 12:12 PM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

Guest blogger Maria Chesley Fisk, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, which funds research to advance the innovation and effectiveness of digital games and game technologies intended to improve health.

On November the 2rd, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Software Association.  The court will hear arguments for and against the state of California’s yet-to-be-enacted law banning the sale of violent video games to youth under the age of 18. Under the law, violent video games would be labeled 18 and those who sell them to minors could be fined up to $1000. Games used as examples include Resident Evil 4 and Tom Clancy Rainbow Six 3. The California law defines “violent video game” in 150 words as, in part, as “a video game in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”

On October 22, at the Meaningful Play conference at Michigan State University, I facilitated a lively and thoughtful discussion about this case and its implications. A couple of themes emerged, and I will surely flavor them with my own opinion as I describe them here.  One theme was that whether there is an enacted law or not, parents should monitor their children’s gameplay (play with them even!) and teach their children positive strategies for handling conflict and frustration.  In short, parents should proactively take responsibility. 

A second theme of the discussion was that video games are powerful teachers. They teach whether they are designed for education, change, or entertainment and whether the teaching is intentional or unintentional. In other words, video games have effects on players. We as a society would benefit from honest, informative conversations about the nature and extent of those effects, as well as from more research that informs those conversations. 

A third theme was that parents should take into account the ratings assigned to games by the ESRB rating system in addition to their own evaluations of the appropriateness.  At least some participants wished we could use the resources consumed by the court cases that led to the Supreme Court case differently— informing parents about the rating system and the potential positive and negative consequences of playing games.  Game reviews from organizations like Common Sense Media are other tools that can help. 

I support a simple definition of violent video games:  Violent video games are those that represent violence as the best or only way to resolve conflict.  And I wholeheartedly agree with the discussants that parents are in the best position to monitor and help children process the messages they get from video games and other media.  Processing messages from media involves noticing them, evaluating them, and considering alternatives. In the case of violent games, an alternative is a peaceful approach to resolving differences. I hope the upcoming Supreme Court case will raise our country’s awareness and fuel productive, healthy conversations about the implications, responsibilities, and opportunities associated with children’s use of media.

Posting from TED: Health, Design and Game-Changers

Feb 7, 2009, 1:10 AM, Posted by Susan Promislo


Sorry for the lapse in TED posting…never have I seen an event program as packed as this.  It’s made getting back to the hotel a challenge, and throw in some tenuous wireless connections…well, you get the point.  But here’s a recap of RWJF’s luncheon at TED, held Thursday. 

We had a packed room of 60 TEDsters--including the creators of and, heads of design schools, the president of user experience design firm Adaptive Path (developer of the Charmr, from an earlier Emily Culbertson post), execs from venture capital and game development firms, David Pogue (technology columnist for the New York Times and one of my favorite writers) and the founder of DNA Direct (a genetic testing and management company)—with about 30 who lined up to attend, but unfortunately we couldn’t accommodate due to space limitations.


Pam Omidyar, founder of HopeLab gave a great recap of the inspiration behind and clinical outcomes linked to Re-Mission, the video game developed for kids battling cancer.  There were cheers when she showed the results, which demonstrated that kids who played the game had higher levels of treatment adherence and more knowledge about their disease ,and were more empowered to fight back.  She showed amazing MRI imagery that showed players’ brains on Re-Mission.  Areas tied to emotional processing lit up, which was key to internalizing the lessons underlying the challenge and excitement of the first-person shooter game.  We were honored to have Taylor Carol and his dad, Jim, with us – Taylor is now in full remission from leukemia, played the game during his six months in the hospital, and is the star of our promise story on Re-Mission. 

John Maeda, president of RISD, outlined distinctions in mission and change vision between designers and artists, and called on more designers to apply their skills, thinking, creativity and ingenuity to save the world.  Having given some of the more popular TED Talks in years past, he provoked the group to think differently about the potential of this space.


The group then turned to the game jam, led by Ben Sawyer and game designers Noah Falstein and Larry Holland.  The crowd first decided to tackle the issues of chronic disease, and then refined the challenge further to focus on actions and behaviors.  Some of the ideas they proposed that seemed promising to the game developers included:

  • Addressing metabolic syndrome, using a game approach to help navigate the different associated conditions and co-morbidities, trade-offs among treatments, and patients’ abilities to manage aspects of their condition.
  • Developing a realistic, action-based approach to the immunization debate that can inform decisions around vaccine safety.
  • A game focused on how to manage depression…when asked why that intrigued them, the developers replied, “Because it seems hard.”  
  • Helping patients better navigate health care systems and services.

Noah and Larry continued to work through these possibilities in to the evening on Thursday and all day Friday.  The results of their concept development will be unveiled at our TED Lab exhibit space this morning.

We’re grateful to Pam, John, Ben, Larry and Noah for joining us and shining a spotlight on the potential for games to spark big change in health and health care.  I think people came away with a sense for that potential to touch people’s lives and help them pursue health goals and make informed decisions in uniquely powerful ways. 

Ben and his team are going to see where these ideas may go from here, so let us hear your input on how this exploration can lead to the next breakthrough health game.

Debra Lieberman on Health Games Research's new Call for Proposals

Jan 15, 2009, 4:00 AM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky


Debra, can you tell us about the types of grants that will be available through this Call for Proposals?

The focus of the Call for Proposals (CFP), both during the first round of funding and now, is on research that will discover principles of health game design. This year the funding limit is higher: $300,000.  The money must be used primarily for research and only a small percentage of the grant – no more than 25 percent of the funding – is permitted to be used for developing game software or technology that will be used in the study   Also, like last year, the research must focus on a physical activity game that motivates people to get up and move, and/or on a self-care game that motivates people to engage in prevention, lifestyle improvement, self-management of chronic conditions or adherence to their treatment plan.  As we saw last year, these guidelines keep the program focused, yet they are not so restrictive that we don’t see a wide range of research issues addressed, game platforms used, game genres, research questions or study populations in the funded projects.

Are there specific things that you’re looking in this round of grantees?

We are looking for projects that focus on physical activity games and self-care games. The games may appear on any platform, with any genre, but they must be well designed and have theory or evidence demonstrating the game’s effectiveness.   

How can people learn more about this funding opportunity?

The complete Health Games Research Call for Proposals is available at  Additionally, there will be two optional web conference calls for potential applicants on February 11, 2009 (3 p.m. ET) and February 19, 2009 (4 p.m. ET).  Proposals are due by 3 p.m. ET on April 8, 2009. The conference calls are great opportunities for potential applicants to learn more about the program and to ask questions about the CFP requirements.

 Are there any tips you want to share with potential applicants?

The best tip I can give is to encourage applicants to read the Call for Proposals carefully and make sure that all the criteria and requirements have been met. Make sure your research team has the skills required to carry out the proposed project and that you are realistic about the budget and time line. Be sure to provide a good theory-based justification for your research plan, too. What are your hypotheses? Are they based on any theoretical knowledge and findings that already exist, and how are you taking your study to the next level? And be sure to include a dissemination plan for your work and explain how your findings will help us improve health games in the future

Thanks so much to Debra for taking the time to talk with us.  Health Games Research is taking on some really exciting work and we look forward to following the progress of the project's grantees.