Health gaming could prove next big mHealth move

Video games that tackle tough health issues such as diabetes and even cancer may have far more value than previously thought, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article. It chronicles a study of health games that found the games could improve diet and exercise compliance, a patient's understanding of their own condition, and adherence to medication regimens. 

What makes a health game a good choice, rather than just random entertainment? The study says the games must have a narrative that motivates the user toward defined goals, provides clear feedback, awards points, delineates levels of competition, encourages teamwork and trading, and in some cases, uses an avatar to represent the player. The more developed these attributes, the more useful the game will be for health objectives, the researchers found. 

A few games that caught the researchers' eyes: ZamZee, a mobile reward system for physical activity; the Cornell University-developed Mindless Eating Challenge to encourage portion control among teens; and Lit to Quit, an iPhone-based smoking cessation app. Even more exciting, they say, are coming advances in sensors, GPS and other monitoring devices that allow the games to track real movement. At Indiana University, researchers are studying a group of students using sensors to participate in an interactive mystery game that encourages healthy eating and exercise, according to the report.

Some limited hard evidence exists of health games' influence, including a study of Packy & Marlon--an older Nintendo game that allows players to inhabit a character with Type I diabetes, perform glucose testing, make food choice, and perform other activities to manage his condition. A six-month study of participants showed a 77 percent reduction in ER visits related to diabetes, researchers report. 

Another study in last month's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found games don't have to be health-related to improve health. The study looked at newer, interactive video games such as the Nintendo Wii, and found that a segment of six highly active video games provide the equivalent of anywhere from moderate to vigorous exercise, and keep kids off the couch--which is a prime factor in childhood obesity, says a report in MyHealthNewsDaily

Others are jumping on the health gaming bandwagon, too. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created its Health Games Research Initiative to vet health games' effectiveness. Now, the gaming companies seem poised to grab for a piece of the $10 billion set aside in the Affordable Health Care Act for disease prevention and education.

For more information at:
- see the JAMA commentary on interactive games
- view the MyHealthNewsDaily article

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