Serious games for health are games that have a “serious” purpose pertaining to healthcare. They are aimed at improving the physical, mental and well-being of individuals.
Serious health games were embraced early by medicine. Some of their applications in healthcare are described below:
Create awareness about healthcare issues and use in intervention programmes: several games have been used to create awareness about healthcare issues. For example some of the edugames4all (http://www.edugames4all.org/) games have been used during the 2012 Global Handwashing Day UK campaign (www.globalhandwashingday.org.uk/) aimed to improve handwashing behaviours as a means of preventing diseases. They are also used in other settings such as weight loss intervention programmes that promote physical training (Lyons & Hatkevich, 2013).
Skills acquisition: due to the inherent ability of games to simulate real conditions in a safe environment, they have been embraced for training medical professionals especially in the training of surgical skills. They have been also used to train doctors for situations that are rare to reproduce, but are critical, such as how to respond to epidemics and natural disasters (see for example Burn Center (Kurenov et al., 2008) which simulates a mass casualty disaster). Research has also shown that the time spent playing some games could enhance patient psychomotor skills (McConville & Virk, 2012), visual attention, processing speed, and statistical inference (Bavelier et al., 2011).
Treatment and Rehabilitation: currently, games are used for patient rehabilitation, typically recommended by a physical therapist in a hospital setting for those with balance impairments (Ravenek et al., 2015). Some positive effects have also been shown when using certain types of games for the treatment of mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia (Bavelier et al., 2011) or bulimia nervosa (Fagundo et al., 2014). Moreover, serious games are used to help improve medication compliance and adherence (De Oliveira et al., 2010).
Disease detection: researchers are also looking into how games can be used to detect healthcare problems such as mild cognitive impairments or for the screening of dementia (Bavelier et al., 2011).
Informing existing research: Phylo, the game developed by the McGill Centre for Bioinformatics uses non-expert players to align multiple DNA sequences, that could help in further advancing research into the causes of genetic disorders and evolution.
However, despite the positive results, the research on the effects of computer games on health is still in early stages. There is still more to be done before being able to fully understand how to effectively use the power of games while at the same times obtaining the desired healthcare outcome. Both indirect positive and negative effects of playing games have been noticed. For example playing computer games that have a direct positive effect might reduce the time necessary for studying or exercise.
The research performed in this field is also highly complex, these complexities being related to the complexities of the human body, game design or the complex social, cultural and historic context in which we are living. The research in this field involves interdisciplinary teams that could tackle each aspect of this research that leads to other challenges in communication and cooperation between various experts.
There are also certain methodological limitations of existing studies that make the results highly dependent on the context and often cannot be generalized. As games have been shown to be a powerful tool there exists a need to harness their potential and therefore maximize their benefits.
Bavelier, D., G., & Irwin, J. (2010). Active video games to promote physical activity in children and youth: a systematic review. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 164(7), 664-672.
Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Han, D. H., Renshaw, P. F., Merzenich, M. M., & Gentile, D. A. (2011). Brains on video games. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12(12), 763-768.
De Oliveira, R., Cherubini, M., & Oliver, N. (2010). MoviPill: improving medication compliance for elders using a mobile persuasive social game. In Proceedings of the 12th ACM international conference on Ubiquitous computing (pp. 251-260). ACM.
Fagundo, A. B., Via, E., Sánchez, I., Jiménez-Murcia, S., Forcano, L., Soriano-Mas, C., … & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2014). Physiological and brain activity after a combined cognitive behavioral treatment plus video game therapy for emotional regulation in bulimia nervosa: a case report. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(8), 1-16.
Kurenov, S. N., Cance, W. W., Noel, B., & Mozingo, D. W. (2008). Game-based mass casualty burn training. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, 142, 142-144.
Lyons, E. J., & Hatkevich, C. (2013). Prevalence of behavior changing strategies in fitness video games: theory-based content analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(5), e81.
McConville, K. M. V., & Virk, S. (2012). Evaluation of an electronic video game for improvement of balance. Virtual Reality, 16(4), 315-323.
Ravenek, K. E., Wolfe, D. L., & Hitzig, S. L. (2015). A scoping review of video gaming in rehabilitation. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, doi:10.3109/17483107.2015.1029538 (in press).