Gaming the Field

Jun 12, 2012, 8:30 AM, Posted by Ben Sawyer

Ben Sawyer

Today starts the eighth annual Games for Health Conference - a big week for those in the health games field. For three days (June 12-14) game designers and developers, researchers, medical professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, and policy-makers will come together in Boston, Mass., to discuss and share information about the impact games and game technologies can have on health and health care.

Founded in 2004 with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, the Games for Health Project exists to make large breakthroughs. Initially that just meant increasing belief in the notion that games could result in healthy outcomes. We tried to build a greater sense that games could improve health, and then integrate others into the fold, resulting in the emergence of new work in this field. With this in mind, I thought I’d take a moment to look back on how far we’ve come in the past few years and reflect on where we need to go.

Health Games for Everyone

Throughout 2010 and 2011 we looked at new ideas in the games for health space with the potential for large-scale impact. We looked at what existed, what worked and what didn't, and discussed building a model for where health games might be headed. This work included a number of conversations with experts and many interesting health conferences like TEDMED, Connected Health Symposium, Mayo’s Transform event, and more.

Four key thoughts that emerged from this research were:

  1. The games for health space had several successes, but barely any that experienced both commercial success and large-scale health impact.
  2. A new strategy had to anticipate where personal health trends and health care are headed and need to head versus where they are today.
  3. We needed a strategy that optimized the consumer orientation of commercial game success while also focusing on health without being specific to a particular disease state or specific patient population-state model.
  4. Thinking about commercial games and who was playing them, we realized these days it’s nearly everyone, and those that weren’t playing soon would.

Today, games for health as a field and practice is accepted. The past eight years of the Games for Health Conference have shown its attendees and the public that games can play an effective role in improving individual health. That doesn't mean the work is done; more proofs and larger successes are needed. What seems missing in this ascendancy, besides success at scale, is a larger idea about how we build a new form of public health that includes a meaningful role for games we can all rally around.

These ideas and more will be discussed at this year’s Games for Health Conference, and I encourage you to register and attend. Participants will hear from experts such as Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who will discuss the opportunities for videogames to address national challenges, and Bill Crounse, senior director of worldwide health for Microsoft, who will explore how Microsoft and its partners are merging its information and game technologies to create global solutions for personal health and professional health care.

We think there is grand opportunity still largely unrealized in the development of positive health assets, generated through meaningful gameplay, by millions of players across dozens, even hundreds, of games that strengthen individuals and those around them. This is where we want to head next with the power of all we’ve learned over the past eight years.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.