Ben Sawyer, President of Digitalmill and Games for Health Founder

    • June 8, 2006

The potential: A powerful shift is taking place in media as video and computer gaming has become the world's fastest growing media form; more than half of all North American households purchased at least one video game in 2004.

The proposal: Apply the power of this dynamic medium to find solutions to health and health care challenges.

Sawyer's story: Ben Sawyer is a diehard gamer. He is a video game designer, a video game player, and he writes about video and computer games and the technologies that support this fast-growing medium. Now Sawyer and his firm, which focuses on how emerging technologies are creating opportunities for non-entertainment applications, are known players in the video game industry. Sawyer is using that cachet to spread the so-called “Games for Health” project to forge productive connections between the health and gaming arenas.

“Ben is not our ‘usual suspect' for a grant,” says RWJF Program Officer Chinwe Onyekere. But with RWJF funding, Sawyer is tapping into the growing influence of the powerful new medium for the express purposes of improving health and health care. Just as television and radio influence public opinion and health behaviors, video and computer games present opportunities to shape attitudes and practices regarding health.

Given that video and computer games currently are a growing $40-billion worldwide market, the potential to incorporate health and health messages is huge.

How could video games be used to improve health? For one thing, youth-focused video games geared toward good nutrition and physical activity have appeared on the market. Hugely popular among kids who play on home game systems and in arcades, school officials in West Virginia—a state with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation—recently partnered with game company Konami to add Dance Dance Revolution to the physical activity curriculum in all public schools throughout the state. Messages about exercise or good nutrition can be included in popular simulation games, for example, where the gamer earns points by his character engaging in physical activity, eating well or choosing not to smoke.

Another ripe area relates to cognitive games. Just as doing crosswords and other puzzles can help keep aging brains sharp, so too can interactive, entertaining video games. “This thrust involves the use of games for battling the effects of aging on the brain, including countering some effects of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of cognitive degradation,” says Sawyer.

Still yet another area for video gaming application is as a training tool. Surgeons or other health care providers currently use games as part of their training, just as the military uses interactive video training games.

Sawyer and the RWJF team also see video and computer games as a way to help improve disease self-management, or to train public health officials and first-responders in techniques to contain and respond to disease outbreaks. For example, using videogames such as Sega's Super Monkey Ball and Star Wars Racer, Dr. Butch Rosser, chief of minimally invasive surgery at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, is reaching out to kids to show them how basic videogame skills—including advanced hand-eye coordination and “screen literacy”—relate directly to his job as a laparoscopic surgeon. “A lot of this [work] is talking to designers and getting them to think about this,” Sawyer says.

In addition to educating and influencing game designers, the RWJF grant is helping Sawyer and the Foundation create a research agenda in this area, and map out a plan to improve the provision and quality of health care and public health through the emerging medium.

RWJF promotes fundamental breakthroughs in health and health care through innovative projects, including those from nontraditional sources and fields.