Jun 29, 2009, 11:55 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team
We continue our guest blogger series with Nedra Weinreich.
Nedra Weinreich is a social marketing consultant who helps nonprofits and government agencies strategically promote health and social issues through her company Weinreich Communications. She is the author of Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide, writes on social marketing issues at the Spare Change blog and is the director of Social Marketing University. Nedra has an MS degree in Health & Social Behavior from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Games for health intrigue me because they have such potential for achieving the behavior change-related objectives we in public health often struggle to reach - changing awareness and attitudes about an issue, educating people with key facts, building necessary skills, and even the holy grail of engaging in healthful behaviors during the course of the game. Health gaming shares the roots of its success with other entertainment education approaches (like health topic "product placement" in television plotlines) by engaging its players emotionally, embedding learning opportunities within fun activities, and allowing people to try out new skills (either vicariously or in actuality).
Forward-thinking people in the behavior change business know all this. Unfortunately, many others hear the words "digital health games" and either say, "Ho-hum, how exciting can a game about health be?" or immediately conjure up the negative stereotypes of video games as a cause of violence or sedentary behavior. Whether it's parents, teachers, children, health professionals, game producers or funders, all need to be on board for these products to be viable. Let's explore how to market the idea of games for health as a serious intervention for many different public health and medical challenges.
Good marketing is always based on research with the target audience, so a key first step should be to learn more about how each group views digital health games for children. What do they see as the key benefits? What would stand in the way of their adopting or supporting them? How might games for health best fit into their personal or professional lives? Clearly, each of the groups listed above would need different approaches to persuade them of the merit of these products. In fact, within each audience may be several subgroups; for example, parents of young children likely have very different concerns and experiences with digital games than those with teenagers. Teachers at each grade level have different learning objectives for their students. In any case, the more individuals from each audience are involved in the actual development of the games, the more likely they will be successful.
Let's look at the product itself. The way health games should be framed depends on to whom you are talking. For health professionals and funders, positive research results are the key. Focus on the games as an intervention that has demonstrated success (and work hard to accumulate the hard evidence to back up your claims). Parents and teachers will respond best to an emphasis on learning and skills building that will serve to help the kids stay healthy as they navigate through life. For kids? It's got to be all about fun. If it's not fun, the game needs at least to be interesting enough to capture their attention. And game producers will be concerned with one thing: are games for health marketable? The Wii and Wii Fit have been game-changers (pardon the pun) in their popularity and may open up many more doors in this direction.
We also need to determine the main barriers that stand in the way between each audience and its unbridled support and use of health games. Adults will need to give up their views of what games are and what they can be. Many may feel that information conveyed in the form of a game means that the importance of an issue is being downplayed, or may worry about these being just another video game with negative behavioral effects. Again, the way to break down these barriers is by emphasizing results in the form of health outcomes, compliance, patient satisfaction, or positive changes in other measures of knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. For kids, the kiss of death for any activity is if it's perceived to be boring, especially if it's billed as "good for you." Health games must be banana splits, not broccoli, and promoted to kids with the emphasis on "game" rather than "health."
From a marketing perspective, let's think about how best to fit games for health into people's lives. What are the times and places they will be most able and interested in playing or prescribing these games? Some key ideas, many of which are already being implemented, include making them portable so people can use them anywhere, making sure that the games fit with the consoles or equipment they already have, and finding ways to combine digital games with real-life situations. Health professionals need to know what games are available for various health conditions so they can match their patients with the right interventions, perhaps via a centralized database. And when the idea comes from their doctor, a parent can feel more comfortable with letting their kids play.
Promoting the concept of health games will also have to be targeted to each audience. Perhaps they will become more acceptable as a health intervention as more "clinical trials" of their outcomes are published in peer-reviewed journals. Skeptical parents, teachers and children may become more convinced of the benefits of games when given the opportunity to try them out themselves. Many a person has been convinced of the exercise value of the Wii after trying it out at a friend's house and realizing their muscles are sore afterward. Game producers may need specific incentives from funders or investors to move into what they perceive as less robust markets until they see the demand from consumers.
Working with organizations and public agencies to craft policies friendly to these new interventions can help create fertile ground for health games to bloom. For example, when certain games have been proven to improve health outcomes would health insurers extend coverage for purchasing them with a doctor's prescription (and send a Wii-fund as reimbursement)? Can we increase the number of school districts that have incorporated Dance Dance Revolution into their physical education curriculum?
Finally, building partnerships that reach across categories will be beneficial to all involved. Working with trusted organizations or familiar characters creates games that start from a strong position with consumers in all categories. Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for cultivating these alliances with key partners and building the foundations for games for health to emerge as a pillar of health interventions.