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Vol. LXV, No. 1
January 4, 2013
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When Games Are Serious
Editor of ‘Games for Health Journal’ Visits NIH

Videogames have taken on serious purpose.

Games for Health Journal editor-in-chief Dr. Bill Ferguson pitches the peer-reviewed journal as a new place to publish.

Games for Health Journal editor-in-chief Dr. Bill Ferguson pitches the peer-reviewed journal as a new place to publish.

“There’s real power in using games,” said Games for Health Journal editor-in-chief Dr. Bill Ferguson during his recent talk at NIH. “It’s in wanting to get better and managing your own care.”

Hosted by NICHD’s Division of Intramural Research, Ferguson introduced the peer-reviewed journal as the first of its kind. In a freewheeling talk, he encouraged his audience to submit their manuscripts for publication.

Good timing. NIH Games4Science, a new group on campus, is creating a network for interested colleagues. Jeremy Swan, who helps coordinate the group, suggested these uses for games:

  • Disease prevention, self-management, adherence

  • Cognitive, emotional, behavioral health

  • Games in home-to-clinic telehealth systems

  • Nutrition, weight management, obesity

In a literature review of randomized controlled trials, Games for Health concluded that most articles show promising results in use of videogames, with exergames—like those played on Wii—as the top choice. Games also show potential for physical rehabilitation, pain management and education.

“But we’re not just interested in dissemination to patients,” said one audience member. “We want to get ideas and information back from them.”

NIDDK clinical fellow Andrew Demidowich added: “If our goals include the elements needed for behavioral change, then it’s not just spitting out dos and don’ts. We want to change the culture surrounding a
disease.”

Ferguson is flanked by NHLBI research consultant Dr. Katherine Wood, who founded and coordinates NIH Games4Science, and NICHD's Jeremy Swan, group member and assistant coordinator.

Ferguson is flanked by NHLBI research consultant Dr. Katherine Wood, who founded and coordinates NIH Games4Science, and NICHD's Jeremy Swan, group member and assistant coordinator.

Photos: Jeremy Swan

For example, children with type 1 diabetes may need fingersticks up to 8 times a day—not easy for anybody, especially a young child.

“So many people lack medical literacy,” Demidowich continued. “Doctors lack the time to educate.”

But a videogame can normalize fingersticks, as well as create a cohort of friends getting the same message, he said. This can improve adherence.

Ferguson embraced these ideas.

“I’m here not only to share the journal, but to ask you to shape it,” he said. “We have a real opportunity to create a product for you…I’m really intrigued in expanding our mission from games-for-health to games-for-science.”

Good timing. NIH Games4Science, a new group on campus, is creating a network for interested colleagues. Jeremy Swan, who helps coordinate the group, suggested these uses for games:

  • Building a virtual maze—for mice

  • Creating 3-D monkeys—for other monkeys

  • Teaching algorithms—for game developers

  • Crowdsourcing to nonexperts—for example, gamers using Foldit, an online game about how proteins fold, helped solve the structure of an enzyme involved in the reproduction of HIV. Foldit gamers shared author credit in Nature.

Interactivity is key. But what about metrics?

Games with avatars—visual representations of the players—seem to work, Ferguson said, as long as you can identify with the avatar. “But there has been very little research on metrics. This is fertile ground for study.”

We know that video games appeared in the 1980s, and by the next decade they were a national trend. In 2009, as the White House launched initiatives on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, President Obama asked STEM to examine what makes an effective video game. Design competitions took off and in 2010 came the National STEM Video Game Challenge. In November 2011, the Federal Games Guild, led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was launched.

Meanwhile, the NIH database RePORT currently lists more than 50 separate research projects using video games, with total funding over $38 million.

Two-thirds of American households now play video games and 40 percent of gamers are women and girls—a large, diverse and engaged cohort.

Even as Ferguson rushed off to catch his train, folks lingered in an impromptu meeting: What would we need to plan a successful game jam? A conference on games? What makes a game fun?

The group ranged from medical to techie, including Dan Henry, visiting from USAID.

“Something I did as a kid actually has social value,” he said. “Now I’m interested in more hard science.”

For information on Games for Health Journal, visit www.liebertpub.com/g4h.


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