Playing Games to Improve Health

    • April 7, 2008

Today, digital interactive games and game technologies are going beyond entertainment to shape how we gain new skills and information. What does this mean for health and health care? Games are empowering people to manage chronic illness, pain and rehabilitation; in highly realistic virtual environments, health care providers are being trained in breakthrough techniques that can improve patient care, and; computer games are delivering health-promoting messages to kids and families across the country.

Though the field is still early in its development, recent applications of games to health and health care show tremendous promise:

  • In May, Nintendo®'s new Wii Fit hit stores, expanding ways that its wireless console engages users in fitness play through aerobics, yoga, balance and other activities.
  • Research has shown that players of HopeLab's Re-Mission video game—developed for teens and young adults with cancer—demonstrated higher levels of cancer-related knowledge and better adherence to treatment regimens. In 2007, CIGNA began offering Re-Mission free to any cancer patient who requested the game.
  • University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have developed simulation games that train health and public safety officials to respond effectively to disasters and infectious disease outbreaks.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—which supports ideas on the cutting edge to stimulate and advance breakthrough change in health and health care—has been working to apply the creativity, talent, and innovation of the games industry to health and health care since 2003. Through the Games for Health project, RWJF has supported a range of convening and field-building efforts that have forged significant new connections between the worlds of games and health. The Foundation has also recently launched a new national program, Health Games Research, which supports studies that explore why and how games affect health and promotes evidence-based design practices to health game development.

Games for Health

Games for Health seeks to build the capacity of the emerging and dynamic field that is exploring ways that computer and video games can improve health. For the past several years, Games for Health has held national and regional conferences to bring together game designers and developers, researchers, medical professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and others to share information about games technology and its application to health. The project also catalogs the use of games in health, assists current game development, spreads best practices, shares research results, and explores new game concepts that might improve health and health care.

The first annual Games for Health conference was held in 2004 and drew just over 100 participants. The enthusiasm around games and health was real, but the examples of games being applied to health issues were limited—as were the number of people involved in the field. Since that first conference, the health games field has grown and changed rapidly. Reflecting on the field today, there is an increasingly wide variety of games designed to shape health and health care, together with a growing community of game developers and health care professionals in this space.

The Games for Health project is directed by Ben Sawyer. More information is available at

Health Games Research

In January 2008, RWJF launched Health Games Research: Advancing Effectiveness of Interactive Games for Health, a national program that supports research to enhance the quality and impact of computer and video games that are used to improve health. The goal of the program is to advance the innovation, design and effectiveness of health games and game technologies so that they help people improve their health-related behaviors and, as a result, achieve significantly better health outcomes. Health Games Research will announce their first round of research grantees during the 2008 Games for Health conference. Roughly $2 million will be provided in this first round of funding to support outstanding research projects examining interactive games that increase players' physical activity and/or games that improve their self-care. A complete list of Health Games Research grantees will be posted in May.

Health Games Research is directed by Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., communication researcher, University of California, Santa Barbara. More information is available at

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