Note: In 2013, Health Games Research completed its work. This web site is now an archive and will not be updated. Please visit the web site of the Center for Digital Games Research www.cdgr.ucsb.edu at UC Santa Barbara to find current information about health games and the broader field of digital games, and to use the Health Games Research online searchable database.

Backgrounder

Health Games Research investigates, informs about, and advances the design and implementation of digital games intended to improve health.

Investigating

Health Games Research is a national program dedicated to funding and supporting research to advance the quality and effectiveness of digital games that are made to improve health. It is a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Pioneer Portfolio.

  • Health Games Research is a 4.5-year program funded by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio. The health games field offers tremendous opportunities to stimulate breakthrough change in health and health care.
  • In 2008 and 2009, Health Games Research awarded 21 research grants totaling $4 million to support research on health games, with the aim of discovering fundamental principles of effective health game design. These principles, based on a solid foundation of existing theory and evidence about processes of learning and behavior change with games and other interactive media, can be used in the design of future health games that will be played by a wide variety of target populations on an ever-expanding range of technologies, media formats, and game genres. This approach to funding and supporting basic research will help improve the design of health games in the future and will help strengthen their impacts on players’ health.
  • The 21 grantee projects are investigating how various types of digital games can be designed to help players improve their physical activity, lifestyle habits, prevention behaviors, self-care, adherence to treatment plans, and/or self-management of chronic health conditions.
  • The research funded by Health Games Research is building an evidence base to help us understand how people respond to various aspects of interactive games – cognitively, emotionally, socially, and even physically – and this will help us understand how to design games that will better motivate, empower and support players to achieve better health outcomes.
  • Some grantee projects look at existing consumer games – including Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Fit, and Rock Band – to repurpose them to achieve health goals. Other grantee projects are designing and testing new games or game prototypes, using mobile technologies, GPS systems, robots, social network games, camera-based games, alternate reality games, context aware games, virtual worlds, multiplayer online games, console games, computer/Internet-based games, and casual games.
  • Among the many ways grantee projects are investigating processes and effects of health games, they are investigating how a challenging and fun game could, for instance, motivate physical activity, enable social support for health behavior change, use virtual characters to encourage and coach lifestyle change, provide performance feedback and encouragement that boosts motivation and success, and use cooperation and competition to engage players in health activities.
  • The studies funded by Health Games Research are exemplary and will provide research questions, methods, measures, and findings that other researchers will be able to use in future studies in our field, building upon the work we are doing now.
  • One size does not fit all when it comes to improving behavioral outcomes with health games. The work of our national program and our grantees will help identify successful game design principles for specific target populations and will help us find ways to use games most effectively with each targeted group. For these reasons, study participants vary in age across the lifespan and they come from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.
  • Research funded by Health Games Research will also help health care and health education decision-makers determine when and how to use games most effectively as components of their behavioral health programs, compared to the other forms of health promotion, health education, and health intervention they already have available to use.

Informing

Health Games Research is a major source of information and resources for researchers, health care providers, game developers and others who are interested in the use of games to improve health.

  • Health Games Research shares evidence about what is known and what is emerging in the health games field. We are a resource for researchers, game designers, game publishers, health educators, funding agencies, and other organizations that are interested in building better health games.
  • The program's web site provides a wealth of information, including an online searchable database listing games, publications, resources, organizations, and more.
  • Health Games Research writes and disseminates informative news, research briefs, and web content for its various constituencies, such as researchers, health professionals, game developers, technology companies, educators, policy makers, funding agencies, and other decision-makers who make, fund, buy, recommend, or implement health games. It issues press releases about its activities and findings. Its staff frequently talks to the general press and the trade press in many fields, such as health care and game development, about the design and effectiveness of health games and where the field is heading.
  • Debra Lieberman, the director of Health Games Research, is an active researcher in the health games field. She conducts studies, publishes her findings in academic and trade journals, gives research presentations at academic and industry conferences, and advises many for-profit and non-profit organizations that are developing or implementing health games. Lieberman is a leading expert in the design and behavioral impacts of health games. A communication researcher in the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research (ISBER) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a lecturer in the university’s Department of Communication, her research focuses on the psychology and design of human-computer interaction and on processes of learning and health behavior change with interactive media and games.

Advancing

Health Games Research provides scientific leadership to assure that the best research evidence will be used to design and implement health games.

  • Health Games Research advocates for advancement in the field in all its publications, presentations, and activities. The program serves as an opinion leader and an example to many stakeholders who have interests in the field.
  • The program serves a teaching and leadership role, advocating for advances in research, game design, game implementation, and policy change.
  • Health Games Research advocates that game producers approach the design and development of health games in the same way that Sesame Street approaches the design of children’s educational television. In the case of health games and Sesame Street alike, experts in research, evaluation, instructional design, learning, behavioral health, and relevant content areas all belong on the design team to work with creative game designers and artists to bring validated, well researched evidence to bear on the design of media that will be engaging, challenging, and effective.
  • Health Games Research advocates for the growth of its field, urging more funding for research and development so that health games can realize their vast potential.
  • Health Games Research has expert knowledge of past studies of health games, and the program shares the findings with their constituents to show that the field has a history of successful work that serves as a foundation for the research being done today. Over the past 30 years, research on health games has found significant impacts of well designed games. For example, a nutrition game increased players' daily servings of fruits and vegetables; brain training games and entertainment games not intended for brain training have improved players’ cognitive skills; a cancer education game improved the way cancer patients follow their prescribed cancer treatment plan; an asthma self-management game reduced asthma-related emergencies by 40 percent; and a diabetes self-management game reduced diabetes-related emergencies by 77 percent. Physical activity games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit also show great promise for cardio-vascular exercise, balance, and coordination, and research has found major improvements in players’ physical activity levels, cardio fitness, and weight loss.