At a time when children and adults can spend a lot of time playing games such as Candy Crush Saga or Call of Duty on their phone, tablet, computer or TV, researchers are pushing hard to develop captivating games that result in better health.
One of the major players on that front is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which, among other efforts, is in the midst of a contest to award $200,000 to developers that create games making use of health care quality data.
"We know there is some basic evidence that people can change behavior with a good compelling game," says Michael Painter, M.D., senior program officer for RWJF. "We're just trying to be innovative, and create and find some unconventional solutions to problems that people are facing," Painter says.
In addition to designing a game people want to play, developers are required to incorporate health care data from the foundation's initiative sponsoring the challenge, Aligning Forces for Quality, from its County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program or from another source.
The foundation has selected five teams of finalists, who must submit fleshed-out versions of their original proposals by July 29. The winning team will take home $100,000 and be given a presentation slot at the Health 2.0 conference in the fall, while second- and third-place finishers will get $50,000 and $25,000, respectively. Each of the finalists was awarded $5,000 in the first round.
Among the finalists is one that would use evidence-based treatment methods to create a self-help game for people with anxiety and depression. Another would use interactive storytelling that will present a picture of the user's future self and community.
Health games already can be found on smartphones and tablets. The company Mindbloom Inc. offers games that are designed to improve mental and physical health. Among them, Juice is an energy improvement game centered on a juice bottle, and Life Game seeks to improve all aspects of a person's life using a tree as an avatar.
Kids can learn about the medical industry by playing Dr. Panda, which allows each player to administer innoculations and bandage an animal's behind, and to clean the quite-dirty teeth of another.
A more cynical approach to the health care industry is taken by the smartphone and tablet game My Clinic, which has the player running a clinic/hospital to maximize profit. Once the player finishes the introduction to the game, the cartoon nurse says: "Great! Now you understand all the intricacies of managing a hospital. Confidence comes with experience. I'm sure things will work out great."