Gaming was once a niche pursuit but has long since become a part of American culture that transcends gender, age, and race. That’s not particularly surprising. The ubiquity of advanced mobile technology in our lives has made it so phones and tablets are never more than an arm’s length away and nearly everyone is equipped with a fairly powerful gaming device from cradle to grave. What is somewhat surprising is that healthcare researchers have zeroed in on gaming as a potential means to some very specific life-saving and life-enhancing ends instead of merely a waiting room distraction.
A growing group of doctors, hospitals, specialists and other providers is looking to capitalize on the power of games to engage patients and help them have more agency over their care. The Games for Health Project is one initiative that is seriously exploring the possibilities of the intersection of video gaming and health in five areas: cognitive and emotional health, patient engagement, physical fitness, rehabilitation and occupational therapy, and provider training.
Gaming as brain training is gaining support in the medical community. Studies show that playing thirty minutes of fast-paced action games a day can improve a person’s ability to learn and actually grow neurons and build new gray matter (which is the part of the brain responsible for forming memories). In patients with cognitive impairments and seniors, playing video games may be able to offset or reverse memory loss and improve cognition. And gaming has been shown to boost functioning in the areas of the brain responsible for motor skills, planning and spatial navigation – possibly making it easier for elderly or sick patients to participate more fully in their own care.
Patient engagement is another area where games are playing an ever-larger role. Right now, there are games helping people manage their diabetes, and the Xbox Kinect is being used to help people recover more quickly from physical injuries and to treat mental disorders in kids. Recently, Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC piloted a program that uses a mobile game to help children with sickle cell disease track and fight memory loss associated with the disease. And the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto developed the Pain Squad app to make the pain tracking that kids with cancer have to do as part of daily treatment easier and maybe even a little fun.
Healthcare professionals are also making use of the thousands of healthcare and wellness consumer apps in their preventative care recommendations, potentially warding off the specter of heart disease and cancer. Gamification can help people make healthier choices and exercise more, and promote healthy habits across demographics. Consider the EveryMove app, which inspires users to keep their fitness resolutions with a system of free rewards. Or UtiliFIT, which makes health social even when a person has to exercise alone,.
So why mobile games in particular? Because apps are more cost-effective for developers and patients, many of whom will already have the equipment necessary to begin playing. Not every patient has a Kinect, but chances are they have a phone or tablet. And those who don’t are benefitting from new initiatives to put mobile technology into the hands of the populations who can benefit most. For instance, IBM, Apple and Japan Post recently partnered to give millions of senior citizens in Japan free iPads pre-loaded with apps to help them remember to take medications and stay connected to their loved ones.
The key to improving healthcare outcomes on a person by person basis seems to be training. Gamification can have powerful effects on people’s behaviors and as a consequence, their health and wellbeing – provided they actually use the apps. Early studies certainly show games as having the potential to empower patients. But it’s likely still too early to tell whether mobile gaming will be a slam dunk for healthcare professionals seeking to improve outcomes or just another band-aid.