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Games Beyond Entertainment: Solving Problems Between Games And Health

Games Beyond Entertainment: Solving Problems Between Games And Health

May 19, 2011 | By Dennis Scimeca

May 19, 2011 | By Dennis Scimeca
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At Thursday's keynote on the final day of the Gamasutra-attended Games Beyond Entertainment conference in Boston, Dr. Roni Zeiger, chief health strategist at Google and the creator of Google Health, suggested the possibility of looking for unrecognized games that already exist in our daily lives, and applying them for a healthier lifestyle.

His suggestions are essentially along the lines of "gamification," or the addition of game-like tools and mechanics to activities which were decidedly not games beforehand. Here, he implored game developers to formalize "games" people play every day, in the interest of health.

Zeiger presented an image of a car, driving past an electronic speed sign. "The reason I like this sign is because when I pass by it, I'm actually on my bicycle," he said. Zeiger has turned his encounter with the electronic speed sign into a game.

"While I haven't yet gotten to 35 miles an hour, I especially like 25 miles an hour because I can hit it sometimes if the wind's blowing in the right direction, and especially [on the sign] that's a tiny bit downhill," Zeiger said.

The sign was not designed for that purpose, but the way Zeiger interacts with it taps into his competitive spirit. The game he invented is making him change his behavior in a way that's good for his health, by inspiring him to ride harder.

"I had an amazing experience the first time I drove my Prius," he said. "I realized that [the fuel consumption gauge] is not wagging its finger at me, it's saying 'Hey, here's what you could achieve.' I like to win. I got really good at making my dynamic miles per gallon as high as possible."

Zeiger says he began playing this game within an hour of driving his new Prius for the first time, and it changed his behavior ever since. "I drive less aggressively," he said, "I accelerate a little less quickly, because I wanted to achieve that [higher score]."

This notion of playfulness is what Zeiger would like to apply to the health field. He presented a print ad from a public health campaign that read "This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness." Zeiger asked for a show of hands, of the men in the room, if they thought seeing this message would make them more likely to get preventive health care. Few hands were raised. "It basically makes me say, 'Who the hell are you calling stubborn?'" Zeiger said.

He put together an alternative message with a couple of friends, and presented a mockup of a new print ad that read, "Bending over can actually save your life," which was met with laughter from the audience. "This makes me think a little bit, and I think it would make me engage. It's a different tone. It's playful. It's fun, and I want more."

After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Zeiger was part of a team sent by Google to see whether their technology could assist in disaster relief. Zeiger was asked to think about the problem of gathering useful information for clinicians and epidemiologists. He found that records were being kept on the floor, on the wall, only sometimes on paper, but mostly not at all.

Zeiger spent an afternoon with an ER doctor who, back in the United States, does research on epidemiology and disaster sites, and asked how they were keeping records at the field hospital in Haiti. They had a pretty simple form with a basic number of fields, like demographics, meds, diagnoses, discharge, and disposition.

"How's it going for you, using your form in the field right now?" Zeiger asked him. The doctor wasn't using it, which shocked Zeiger. "Your day job at home depends on you filling this information out so that there's data for you to study!" Zeiger recalled telling him. But the doctor was seeing a long line of patients who desperately needed his help, and that piece of paper wasn't helping him do that job.

When Zeiger returned home, he worked with Google designer Jeromy Henry to mock up a mobile app, which he shared with the audience, that would only ask for extremely basic information, and on the front page would feature a listing of all the most frequent diagnoses at that moment.

"What you're looking at are the high scores," Zeiger said. "I'm getting something back in real time." Doctors could glean important information about how conditions were changing from moment-to-moment from that high scores list. "I'm going to do a lot more and better documentation on that system than [on current, clunky database management systems]."

All of the presenters at Games Beyond Entertainment Week were asked what video games they're playing right now. Zeiger felt stymied when asked to do so. His first three examples were screenshots of the arcade games Donkey Kong and Xevious, and the pinball machine Taxi, for all of which he almost sounded apologetic.

"But it turns out that there's actually a game I played much more recently," Zeiger said. On the 30th Anniversary of Pac-Man, on May 22, 2010, Google turned its logo into a miniature version of the classic arcade title. "I was one of the people who spent hours not working," he said. "I really don't play video games anymore. It's not that I don't like them, I just have so many things I want to do with my time...but this one just crossed my path. It was in my workflow, and I couldn't resist."

"We need all of you and your expertise to bring the engagement, the fun, the satisfaction, the playing on our emotions in a healthy way, to get us to behave in ways that can really, truly, benefit our health," Zeiger said. "We can inject the kind of creativity that you all can bring, and not make people decide to do something different and play a game, and instead meet your users where they are, and figure out how to make games more a part of our daily lives."


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