More from our conversation with Debra Lieberman

Jan 14, 2009, 5:06 AM, Posted by

Today, we continue our discussion with Debra Lieberman to learn more about the Health Games Research national program and the work of the program's twelve grantees.


Debra, can you give us an update on the first round of grants?

We selected 12 grantees in the first round of funding for Health Games Research last May. The 12 grantees, awarded up to $200,000 each, are leading one- to two-year studies of games that engage players – ranging in age from eight to 98 – in physical activity games or games that motivate them to improve their self-care.  For example, our grantees at the University of Southern California are testing the role of social support and coaching, delivered on line, in improving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They have developed a game that uses players’ friends and family as coaches.

A team at the University of South Carolina is looking at physical activity games, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit, as therapy interventions for people who have had a stroke. Many patients receive physical therapy for a set period of time after a stroke, but there is a need for continuing physical therapy after the initial therapy sessions are done. Perhaps there is a game-based solution for ensuring ongoing therapy for stroke patients.

A team from the Maine Medical Center is investigating family interactions around the popular dance pad game Dance Dance Revolution with families that have at least one overweight child. The grantees are asking the questions, how do family interactions affect the child’s physical activity and what effects does the child have on the family’s activity? 

What has surprised you about the first round of grantees?

I’m not surprised, but I’ve been very pleased at the diversity of grantees’ areas of expertise and populations of focus. Many of our grantee research teams include medical experts, game designers and researchers so they are well equipped to develop powerful, effective health games.  The populations they are studying range from children to seniors, from people dealing with addictions and substance abuse to those dealing with chronic conditions. One of our grantees is studying seniors’ responses to stationery bikes that enable them to bike through virtual worlds. Another grantee is developing a game to motivate Cystic Fibrosis patients to engage in respiratory exercises and to inhale their medications.  So, I’m very pleased with the variety and scope of these projects and I should add that we are learning a lot from all twelve grantees.

How will Health Games Research impact health and health care in the short term, and in the long term?

At Health Games Research, we are working in the short term to help build the field by supporting high-quality research that will lead to the creation of impactful games. We want to build interest in the creation and use of health games, and we want people to see how much learning, understanding and behavior change can be stimulated by a fun, exciting, well-designed game.

In the long term, we will provide research findings and resources that will enable many more people and organizations to design and produce effective health games – especially on some of the newer game technologies.  For example, games can now receive input from sensors and monitors, such as GPS devices that identify players’ geographic location, accelerometers that record how much walking they have done that day and heart rate monitors that report aerobic activity.  What fun to integrate these kinds of data into the state of a game, with an eye toward health promotion and behavior change! 

I also expect to see our research influence the design of mobile health games and games delivered on electronic toys or robots. Almost any interactive technology could provide a health game if designed with a little creative ingenuity and a solid foundation of theory, evidence, and understanding of the way people respond to games cognitively, emotionally, socially and physically. I believe that our research will lead to better game design and by engaging the health care community, policy-makers and game designers in this effort, our program will potentially lead increase the uses and effects of games for health behavior change.

Tomorrow, we will post the last part of our interview with Debra in addition to the new Call for Proposals being released by the Health Games Research program.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.