Games for Health 2010

Games for Health 2010

We attended the Games for Health 2010 Exit Disclaimer conference in Boston, Massachusetts to learn more about how video games and virtual worlds are being used to increase physical activity, train health care providers, and advocate HIV/AIDS information and prevention methods among youth. Now in its 6th year, the three-day conference was developed in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Exit Disclaimer to convene public healthcare professionals and providers with game developers to bring innovative solutions to everyday issues in public health.

We talked to Lynn Fiellin, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine Exit Disclaimer. Dr. Fiellin is Principal Investigator for a NIH-funded project to develop a behavioral changing HIV prevention video game. We asked her to tell us about her project, why she chose video games as an intervention for HIV and what advice she had for the HIV/AIDS community.

Lynn Fiellin, MD

Lynn Fiellin, MD

“The goal of our project is to provide young teens the opportunity to practice and acquire skills in order to avoid or reduce their risk behavior. The hope is that this reduction in risk would then translate to preventing new cases of HIV. In order to accomplish this goal we are developing and will ultimately test a video game that will be specifically designed to present risky situations to the player so that they can rehearse refusal and negotiation skills that help them to make better decisions in real life.

We decided to use a video game as a “vehicle” for our HIV risk reduction and prevention intervention because it has become abundantly clear that young teens (as well as many other age groups) are already engaged in video game play. If this is where they are, then they are a captive audience and why not bring the intervention to them as opposed to requiring them to come to the intervention? Video games possess several advantages as a method of delivering an intervention including that they are engaging, they allow the player to repeatedly practice or rehearse a new skill, and they are transportable—potentially traveling with the player via cell phone or some other mobile device.

I think there are enormous opportunities for the HIV community in the realm of gaming—both in terms of optimizing prevention efforts and improving treatment outcomes. Through video games we can impact the players’ knowledge and skills around HIV prevention as well as potentially improving HIV treatment by targeting behaviors such antiretroviral medication adherence or secondary prevention. There are also myriad potential applications of gaming for improving HIV outcomes in international settings. Given that in developing countries where the HIV epidemic continues to have a particularly significant impact on morbidity and mortality the majority of individuals have cell phones, there are opportunities to transport a video game about HIV prevention or medication adherence to a large segment of the population in order to impact HIV outcomes.”

What do you think about using video games and virtual worlds to increase awareness or change behaviors in the fight against HIV/AIDS? Do you know of any groups or organizations that are working with games to do just that? Let us know your thoughts.


  1. Our lab (and our prior NIH funded work) shows that interactive media for changing HIV risk behavior works for younger high risk men! We’ve found in two randomized controlled trials (one NIH funded) that interactive media (that can be disseminated over the web) can be very effective for targeted populations of young African-American, Latino, and Caucasian men (18-24) in reducing risky sexual behavior. In our SOLVE approach (socially optimized learning in virtual environments), we focus on changing skills (e.g., negotiation skills), and problematic cognitions as in conventional one-on-one interventions. But, virtual environments also make it possible to intervene in an emotionally challenging context where decision-making is more automatic instead of deliberative: Prior interventions haven’t done that. Our messages, designed for our target populations, appear to assist users in changing emotions that might derail safer choices. On a current NIH grant we are building on this SOLVE approach, using intelligent agents (with goals, beliefs and guide their behavior) in serious games to change risky behavior. One exciting thing about that type of approach is we can modify the agents’ goals and beliefs and thereby change (for the user) the interpersonal challenges that they encounter. And, we can change the interventions for the user (using ones most suitable to that user and changing interventions as we learn about new ones that are more effective for that user). In short, the game can not only be personalized to the user’s choices but improved upon cumulatively over time….enhancing our science as well as the effectiveness of our interventions (and the ease with which new interventions can be “rolled out” once they have been found to be efficacious).

  2. Robert Reinhard says:

    You may already know of the wonderful nonprofit in California called Hopelab also supported by Robert Wood Johnson which has developed wonderfully creative youth oriented interactive health games for serious illness. Its team has a strong background in HIV programs

  3. This is the first time I have heard of intervention attempts through the virtual world of video games; however I do believe it is a highly valuable approach. With the plethora of cell phones in developing countries, this is a great idea on how to quickly spread this intervention message to those who need it. A great benefit of virtual world technology is that of easy measurement. I think it would be important to make the games popular and addicting in effort of getting users to play the games within different intervals of time and program the capability where the software collects the users’ score. If the user submitted their game play score at different times throughout each year, the user intervention message can more accurately interpreted as improvement, digression, and/or sustainability. This could easily be tracked for each user whereas the scores would be submitted to a centralized database (via cell phone waves). This database of user interactivity with the game could then be easily monitored which would give understanding that the project is successful or not. For example, the project team could find out that users are not playing the games and as a result the project leaders with partnership of country officials could incentivize users to play the games by offering some sort of cell phone bill discount for users who play the game at least 5 times per month. Since all game play data would be submitted to the central database, this information could easily be tracked.

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