Co-authored by Jeremy Vanderlan, AIDS.gov Technical Deputy
Games present opportunities to use technology to address public health problems by building on the emergent experience of gaming and the peer influence that social games present. To further our understanding of the role games can and do play to improve health outcomes, we attended the 7th Annual Games for Health Conference . We joined hundreds of game developers, health professionals, and researchers from across the country and were encouraged by what we heard in the HIV/AIDS space, and beyond.
Dr. Martin Seligman , author of Flourish, gave the first keynote and presented his evidence-based model of positive psychology. He asked conference participants to consider the link between the model and “positive videogames.” Interactive games rooted in social networks to support healthy habits and behavior change build on Dr. Seligman’s model, such as Daily Challenge and Livin’it. Dr. Roni Zeiger, Google’s Chief Health Strategist, gave a specific example of how he integrates gaming into his medical practice: “I prescribe apps to my patients with smartphones,” recognizing the role that health apps and games have in supporting healthy behaviors.
A few presentations highlighted games specifically targeting HIV prevention. Play2Prevent at Yale University is developing an immersive and participatory game to communicate HIV prevention messaging to at-risk youth. Lynn Sullivan , PhD, Associate Professor at Yale School of Medicine, is working to help answer the question, can “aspirational avatars” contribute to real world behavior change? Ben Sawyer, founder of Games for Health and DigitalMill , spoke with AIDS.gov prior to this year’s conference about the creative process behind this game and some of the techniques they will use to overcome some of the challenges with behavior change games. One of Ben’s concerns is that many games only deal with a form of narrative rhetoric– making simple choices such as, “Which is more nutritious, fruit or pizza?” The goal in creating games that inspire real behavior change is to make the game mechanics carry the message– a “procedural rhetoric” that carries the lesson based on how you play the game. For now, the game remains under development, but over the course of the next few months the Yale gaming team will be releasing updates on progress to the community.
In her presentation, “The Psychology of Avatars”, Debra Lieberman , PhD, from the University of California Santa Barbara said, “…we see our aspirations and dreams in our avatars, and that can be reinforcing.” This is consistent with Play2Prevent’s approach- that technology can allow people to tailor characters, making messages more trusted, credible, and aspirational. The lessons that are learned when smart game design meets scientific rigor could help transform the future of how unhealthy behaviors are changed, and quality of life across diverse populations is improved.
Two other HIV games were presented at Games for Health. Leslie Snyder, PhD, University of Connecticut, who led the development of safer sex game “Night Life” targeting young African American heterosexual men, recommended, “To reach audiences, we need to create a game that is fun– so people want to play. This game has a storyline that the audience can relate to– so safer sex is integrated into the rest of their lives.” In another presentation, Protect Yourself 1 presented on their Safe2Live project. Through a free space in Second Life offered to non-profits by TechSoup, they have set up an environment for youth to interact with each other and receive HIV information in a virtual environment.
AIDS.gov plans to follow innovations in HIV gaming, and share what we learn over the next year. What do you think? How do games have the potential to lead to real advancements in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support? And what games are you playing?