Takeaways from Boston’s Games for Health Conference

Several Danya employees from Atlanta, GA, and Silver Spring, MD, attended the Games for Health Conference in Boston, MA, in late June. As I outlined in a recent Danya blog post, serious games and games for health are growing fields and are showing great potential for behavior change and improved health outcomes. After attending the conference, I was further convinced that games can be a powerful (and fun!) tool for both public health and health care professionals. People are currently creating games for nearly every health issue from chronic diseases to behavioral health and for various purposes from personal health improvement and treatment adherence to workforce training. Right now, the possibilities seem unlimited. Here are my five takeaways from the Games for Health Conference.

1. Serious games need to be seriously fun. As a health communicator with a public health background, I immediately think about the outcome the game is designed to achieve when I think about games for health. Games designed to improve health need to be effective, but the very premise of a game is to have fun. If a game isn’t fun, people won’t play it.

Depending on the audience of your game, fun may be even more vital. As Michael Fergusson, game designer at Ayogo explained, “A child’s illness and treatment is serious, but kids seriously need to have fun.” So, while serious games absolutely need to be designed around sound theory and accurate health information, it is just as important that they are also built to be engaging and entertaining to the targeted player.

2. Games can change the world. One of the most interesting sessions I went to discussed two games that use crowdsourcing to tackle huge public health challenges. The first is a game to help identify malaria cases called Malaria Spot. According to CDC, in 2010 there were about 219 million cases of malaria around the world and 660,000 deaths due to malaria. Currently, the process for correctly identifying a malaria case involves a certified health professional counting parasites in a blood sample, which can take up to 30 minutes. Since there are millions of cases, you can imagine the backlog in even identifying cases, let alone getting people treatment. The Malaria Spot concept, designed by Spanish scientist Miguel Luengo-Oroz, transforms this identification process into a game where players hunt real malaria parasites in a blood sample uploaded to the Internet. Luengo-Oroz has done the math and when 13 players hunt the same blood sample for 1 minute, the accuracy of identifying a malaria case is the same as an expert. He has also calculated that only 1% of current video game play time is all that it would take to identify all the cases of malaria worldwide! While there are still several questions to address by way of legality and ethics before this game can be fully implemented, this game could seriously change the world! To help support this creative solution and hunt malaria, visit the Malaria Spot website.

A similar idea was presented by Amy Carton of Cancer Research UK. The country’s leading cancer research center has a huge amount of data about cancer. While some data can be analyzed by computers, much of the data needs to be analyzed by human eyes; with limited human resources, they’ve got more data than they can analyze. To help solve this big data problem, Cancer Research UK is currently developing a game where players will be helping to analyze their data. The catch is, they want to create such a fun and engaging game that you will want to play it for fun’s sake, and you may never even know you’re helping their scientists unlock invaluable scientific findings.

3. The best games aren’t always digital. Another session I attended that really had me leaning forward was about non-digital games. Yes, you heard me right; board games and games like charades are not completely a thing of the past—who knew? The game developer Max Seidman, who works at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab, described a game called RePlay Health, which is a real-life strategy game designed to help people learn about the health care system. Through a guided role-playing game, players balance physical activities and their character’s health. Through different choices players must make that depend on their health, they can learn how all of the different pieces of a health care system work together. This game was designed not only to improve understanding of our (often confusing) health care system, but also to foster empathy among players.

So, while our world is undoubtedly becoming more and more digital, it is important to remember that mobile games aren’t the only option. In fact, one game created by Tiltfactor Lab found that their board game version had significantly better outcomes than their mobile version. The value of face-to-face interaction during a game is something that can’t quite be replicated in a digital game. While digital games often rely on feedback systems using complex formulas, the real-life interaction in non-digital games allows for a game to be fully understood by players, teaching systems thinking and potentially leading to richer outcomes.

4. Games are about an experience. An idea that was mentioned throughout the conference was that games are about creating and sharing experiences. This was most clearly communicated during the keynote presentation by Palmer Luckey of Oculus VR (i.e., “virtual reality” for all you non-gamers). Luckey created a cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) headset that is more lightweight and affordable than previous VR systems and helps draw the player even farther into the simulated environment created by the game. The realm of VR is pretty remarkable; it has the potential to achieve immersion, sensations, and even emotions unlike any other media platform. For example, a VR game can create a falling experience like no other video game. The players feel as if they themselves are falling, not an avatar representing them, and this can elicit a real falling sensation and even the emotional response of fear.

To me, a health communicator and inexperienced gamer, video games aren’t always very interesting because they can seem unrealistic. As Luckey describes VR, this “ultimate medium” has huge potential to achieve behavior change because it can engage a wider range of players with the reality factor and it has the potential to elicit emotions, a powerful behavior change tool. Visit the Oculus VR website for more information on the new headset and the growing realm of virtual reality.

5. Developing a good game takes a team, maybe even an army. While playing some games may be relatively easy, I learned that creating a game is certainly not simple. Especially in the serious games space, creating a game that aims to change behavior and impact health is quite complicated. Not only do you need an experienced game developer, as well as subject matter and behavior change experts in the specific health topic being addressed, but some of the most successful health games also gather substantial input from their target populations.

The creators of Remission2, the recently released update of a game designed to help kids adhere to cancer treatment, spent a significant amount of time talking to children with cancer about how they view cancer, how they view chemotherapy, what they would want to do to cancer, and more to create a game that correctly aligns with player beliefs and desires. While the first version of the game did achieve positive biological outcomes, including increased antibiotics and chemotherapy in the patient’s blood, Remission2 is already performing better in the areas of positive emotions, self-efficacy, and shifts in attitudes, thanks to user input.

Similarly, PlayForward, created by Yale’s Play2Prevent Initiative, is a game to prevent HIV in high-risk youth populations. The creators of the game discussed with teens in depth about their goals, community, and interests. As a result, this game has been shown to effectively improve protective factors among players.

The Games for Health Conference was certainly an enlightening one for our team members, and we’re excited to continue our own research and development within the games and health field. What are some of your favorite serious games? How are they fun, changing the world, or non-digital, and what type of experience do they provide you on your path to better health?

By Katie Mooney


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