free-ranging conversation with melanie lazarus (healthgamers and playnormous)

December 7, 2009

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators),health games,wellness


this interview is part of an ongoing series of conversations on wellness with wellness managers, providers, and innovators. free-ranging conversation’s first guest was greg matthews, director of humanas consumer innovation group.

melanie lazarus is the director of marketing for archimage, inc. and playnormous, llc, the editor of healthgamers and author and editor of monster’s blog, playnormous’ corporate blog. healthgamers is a community forum that provides reviews, articles, and up-to-the-minute playLogo-transresearch and news. playnormous is an online health gaming community for kids ages 6 to 15, parents, and teachers and was just nominated for marketer of the year award by the american marketing association.

i invited melanie to be a guest out of purely selfish reasons: i know precious little about health games—beyond wii games—and i’m sure i’m not alone in that. yet health games are serious business and they’re getting serious attention. just this past month, the robert wood johnson foundation’s health games research national program dedicated $1.85 million in grants to study their effectiveness.

sitting in front of a computer to improve health seems counterintuitive to me. whats the logic behind health games?

we’ve worked with the medical research community for many years to base our health games on sound scientific theory. for example, bandura’s social cognitive theory—a well-respected and highly used psychological theory—tells us that enhancing people’s skills and confidence can help them change. so, say you want a child to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. using a game can teach a child not only how to identify those foods which count as a serving, but also how to incorporate them easily into the day (such as substituting a side at lunch) and even buy them on a small budget (such as frozen or canned).

for behavior change, knowledge is necessary but not enough. we really believe that to change behavior, it has to be fun. health games are fun. they’re also immersive and emotional—users become invested in a story or in trying to get a higher score and compete with their friends. this keeps their attention, a necessity for changing people’s behavior. games are interactive and provide a safe zone to experiment and to practice what you want to achieve. in some games, you can see how characters work through health problems—role-modeling, in other words. and games are tailored to the user. users can create avatars based on their ethnicity, age, [and] bmi, which gives games more meaning.

can you give me some examples?

i focus on children’s health games, so i’ll share some of these. in archimage’s games, like nanoswarm, escape fromDiab_ThroneRoom diab, and squire’s quest! 2, users first learn how to reduce obesity and avoid type 2 diabetes by watching how a character acts. they then set their real-world health goals and their real-world actions affect the goals of the game.

other good examples are glucoboy and me2universe. glucoboy is a game for kids with type 1 glucoboydiabetes. kids can hook up the glucoboy meter, which reads their blood levels, to their nintendo gameboy®. they get points, or glucoreward points, for testing and maintaining good levels. these points unlock more advanced games or can be converted into game currency. playing the game changes kids’ attitudes about monitoring their levels and teaches them to be more independent. me2universe is a physical fitness game that connects kids to a 3-d world. using a handheld device, similar to a pedometer, kids perform physical activity. every step they take powers their avatar, and they earn powerpoints by doing things like run up stairs. their game performance depends on how active the person is in the real world.

what results are these games producing?

in a pilot study of 3rd–5th graders, children who played food fury more than once increased their knowledge about what constitutes a healthy choice by 60%. the longer they were exposed to the game, the closer they came to 100% correct identification. after playing squire’s quest!, kids increased their fruit, juice, and vegetable intake by one serving a day (huge!).

do you see games moving more into the forefront of our health conversation?

many health games are still research-based. they’re put on the shelf once the research is complete, either because they’re outdated by the time the research is complete or there’s no funding to distribute them. i think that groups like the robert wood johnson foundation keep funding new projects because they don’t realize there are many good ones already out there. i hope this changes in the future.

with our employer-based insurance system, are insurance providers including health games in their services?

humana has humana games for health. and i’m starting to see more interest from other providers, such as kaiser permanente with their school-based health game, the incredible adventures of the amazing food detective.

how can companies leverage health games or the ideas behind what makes them successful?

most companies don’t know the average game player is 36 years old. companies can use games to support their interests in prevention and maintenance, exercise and nutrition, tobacco prevention, heart health, [and] stress management.

i highly recommend adding a section of interesting free health games to a corporate benefits or wellness website (check out how university of texas is doing it). if a company’s really serious about using health games to their fullest, they can invest in creating their own suite of health games or licensing existing ones that fit their corporate culture. if there’s a particular game they want and can’t find, a health game design firm like archimage can build one from scratch or re-skin an existing game with a health theme. whichever route a company chooses, it helps to associate the company brand or logo with whatever’s offered to employees (such as licensing games to put on your own site versus just sending out an email with a link). employees are more likely to actively use health games if they feel their hr department values them enough to put their name on it.

if you have a question youd like to ask melanie, ask awayshell respond on the blog.

if you want to keep informed on health games, healthgamers is an excellent resource, as is health games research, which will soon have a searchable research database.

Leave a Comment

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

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