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Who's Got Game?

For those of you not watching, video games are not just for entertainment any more. A field of serious games has been developing for some time, and one of the most robust areas is games to improve health.
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For those of you not watching, video games are not just for entertainment any more. A field of serious games has been developing for some time, and one of the most robust areas is games to improve health. Today and tomorrow in Boston, more than 400 game developers, designers, health professionals, researchers and investors are gathering at the Games for Health conference to talk about where the field is and where it's going. Exergames such as Wii Fit have the highest profile in the health space, but more and more, we're seeing games that are developed as therapeutic interventions. And the field is getting extremely creative.

Research supported by the Health Games Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio is exploring a variety of games intended to improve health and help patients manage chronic diseases. These include dance pad games to help patients with Parkinson's reduce their risk of falling by increasing their balance, strength, endurance, motor coordination, and visual-motor integration; a game that controls play with a breath controller to improve cystic fibrosis patients' self-administration of inhaled medicines; and, a game for your iPhone that is intended to be an alternative to smoking, with the goal of reducing or eliminating tobacco use in players' lives.

It's increasingly clear that video games present a real opportunity to help people learn about health conditions and treatments in a way that's much stickier than a pamphlet. Games can also keep people engaged longer and more consistently with their therapy, and they can go one step further to collect information that can be used to modify a therapeutic regimen or track disease progression. Think about someone with Parkinson's who uses that dance pad game every day--the game saves their scores. If that person's scores trend down over a couple-week period, that data could serve as an early indicator that medications need to be adjusted. The day is coming when your Wii scores will be stored in your electronic medical record.

The games industry has seen the potential. There's a strong business model yet to be developed, but it likely involves creating long-term relationships with people who want to use games to stay healthy or have a chronic disease that needs managing. The entertainment games industry has already more than figured out how to create a business model that generates a healthy income stream. Case in point - as of December 2008, the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft had 11.5 million paid monthly subscribers.

Currently, more games are focused on wellness and prevention, but as noted above, they're moving strongly into chronic disease management, putting the games industry on a collision course with the health care industry.

What will happen when they collide? In one scenario, the games industry has so much momentum that it is able to disruptively capture a huge chunk of revenue--and activity--from health care. In another scenario, health care starts embracing games faster than it currently is, creates strategic partnerships, and even begins to develop games on its own. Both scenarios have their benefits, most apparently for each industry. The more important question is which scenario has the greatest benefit for patients?

While it might take a while to figure out the answer to such questions, what seems pretty certain is that games for health will see big opportunities for growth within this rapidly changing health care environment. With the passage of health care reform and the heightened emphasis on prevention and wellness, preparing the workforce to treat the expanded ranks of the insured and finding effective ways to improve the quality of care while cutting costs, opportunities for game-driven solutions abound. What big challenges do you think games and game technologies need to tackle next?

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