My colleague Margaret Simons wrote an interesting article recently asking whether online games could be a useful tool for public interest journalism.

She noted that the sales figures for online games “are truly mind-boggling, outranking just about any other media content product you can think of”, and asked: “What if we bring the utility of high quality journalism — facts, context, integrity, story telling, caring, speaking truth to power — to a game?”

Many of the games that she mentioned have a bearing upon public health, including:

Darfur is Dying. Developed by the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis group, it is based on the experience of aid workers in Darfur. The user takes on a refugee role, and negotiates the forces that threaten the survival of his or her camp.

• Hurricane Katrina is a free-to-download game designed to educate people about what happened in New Orleans.

Macon Money, created for the Knight Foundation, attempts to break down socio-economic segregation in the United States city of Macon, Georgia, by encouraging residents from different postcodes to work together. Players must use social media and online communications to find and meet each other before they can redeem their reward, Macon Money, a real-world local currency that can be spent in participating local shops and businesses.

Simons also cited the Games for Change Annual Festival, which has just been held in New York City, exploring the potential of games for social change.

So when I saw a note in the latest RaggAhmed newsletter about the potential of games for public health, I was keen to hear more. Thanks to Mae Hurley for providing this account for Croakey readers.

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Gaming for health

Mae Hurley writes:

Bad posture, exposure to violence, poor eating habits, repetitive strain injury. These are some of the conditions associated with playing video games for too long. But can playing video games ever be good for your health?

Over the past decade, there’s been real attention from the gaming industry on developing serious games – games designed for something other than just entertainment.

For those of us working in healthcare and health promotion, games present a new medium to get our message across to targeted audiences in a more engaging and interactive way.

Gaming has become part of the mainstream, with two-thirds of Australians regularly playing video games, according to a Bond University study in 2008.

The applications for health appear limitless. The Inspire Foundation created Reach Out Central,  a game aimed at building young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Players start out as the new kid in town to play out real-life scenarios and test the consequences of their choices.

For those who want to quit smoking, researchers at Columbia University are creating a game on iPhones where smokers puff into a microphone rather than on a cigarette. Called Lit to Quit, it even has settings for ‘rush’ or ‘relax’ breathing to reduce cravings.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxfWFiUFxNo[/youtube]

And what started out as a game to empower young cancer patients against their diseases, Re-mission was also found to improve treatment adherence.

Video games create a virtual reality for players to engage with. They’re fun and can help build skills like logic, hand-eye coordination and self-esteem. Players can interact with each other too and develop social connections and support.

Moreover, games can provide a stimulated environment that otherwise wouldn’t be available for practice in real life. Training in surgery, dentistry and many other fields can use video games to their benefit.

Research is starting to catch up on the impact of health video games and there’s growing support from government.

Last month, Boston hosted the 7th Annual Games for Health conference and the first European conference will take place in October later this year in Amsterdam.

It’s great to see an industry branching out from pure entertainment towards improving healthcare and knowing that we’re only at the beginning.

Links:

An ABC online archive of serious games

Article in The Age with stats on gamers

2009 Interactive Australia report (PDF alert)

Health Games Research

Games for Health

• Mae Hurley is editorial services manager with RaggAhmed

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Update: 6 July

This study by a doctoral student in California argues that some online games should be seen as social media.

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Peter Fray
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