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Interview: Sawyer Talks Games For Health Event And The Road Ahead

The fifth annual <a href="http://www.gamesforhealth.org/index3.html">Games For Health</a> conference was the event's biggest year yet, and Gamasutra talks to organizer Ben Sawyer about the biggest takeaways in the arena where video games meet health care.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

June 16, 2009

5 Min Read

Thanks to the rise of Wii Fit and its ilk, it's no surprise that the fifth annual Games For Health conference was its biggest year yet -- exponentially. "It was in many ways 20-30 percent bigger than it was the year before," says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, which established the two-day event with the aim of exploring how the health care industry can benefit from games and video game technology. Last year, there was a single track devoted to exergaming, and this year's event added a track focusing on using games to improve cognitive health, plus several sessions on games for physical therapy. The physical therapy arena in particular is attracting so much interest that Sawyer says next year's event could feature a third track focused solely on it. This year, Games For Health attendees also examined prior art, and renowned designer Brenda Brathwaite pitched in her expertise on sessions about sexual health. "There are several people doing games about sexual health, and I'm a big believer that you should look at how video games have handled that kind of content in the past -- even if it wasn't necessarily for a health aspect, you should understand how the play mechanics may have evolved," says Sawyer. Prior art is essential, notes Sawer. In his extensive experience in the field of serious games, he has noticed that "lots of people who get involved in the sector don't have all that history -- they didn't grow up playing video games, or it's only been recently... they're not like a game designer, who has to think about everything that's been done." More Collaboration That's why Games For Health can become an important knowledge-sharing opportunity for health care professionals to interface with experienced designers. "I always find that when we share that knowledge, it's some of our most popular stuff," says Sawyer. In fact, if any sessions this year saw fewer attendees actually sitting in, "that was because everybody was standing in the halls trying to talk to each other," says Sawyer. "People were really trying to understand how they could collaborate on research and products, and exploring in different areas, trying to get a sense of where things are at." "To some degree, it represents how important the space is to any variety of health or even game development interest," he adds. "It's clear that health care worldwide is going to take this tremendous shift, to being something that treats you when you're sick to being something that triesto keep you as peak healthy as possible." The Revolution And games are "waking a lot of people up," Sawyer says, as health care companies cannot help but notice a shift in wellness to other companies and industries -- like interactive technology and entertainment. "Any of the large health companies are looking at that and saying it's revolutionary," says Sawyer. "They see both tremendous consumer interest and tremendous health establishment interest." And evidence of the applications of video games for particular health fields is getting more and more concrete, says Sawyer -- for example, rehabilitative care. "Rehab is a major, major area within health care, whether it's recovering from a knee injury or a back injury or a stroke. And if you have people whose job it is to do physical therapy and rehab saying that they're convinced [games are] the future, and these are appointed clinicians at medical colleges, I think that's causing people to wake up," he says. The event's EA Sports Active keynote was "extremely well attended and really well received," says Sawyer -- for example, attendees with less experience in the field of game development were surprised to learn that Electronic Arts built 140 prototypes before settling on the couple-dozen games that are within EA Sports Active. "That was very eye-opening to a number of people," says Sawyer. "I don't think they realize how careful some of these companies are with what they put on a disc." Key Takeaways And The Road Ahead "In general, I think the conference served its purpose: To create an area for people to see the gamut of activity that can be addressed with video games," Sawyer says. "This year was a turning point where I clearly saw people realizing that this was an established area of health, forget just an established area of video games -- it's here to stay, and has quite a lot of potential to grow." So what's ahead for the field? "I think they're going to put more customization in," says Sawyer, "and they're going to start creating little, simple changes to their games so that they can be used more effectively in groups... in conjunction with facilitators -- group fitness instructors, or gym advisors, or physical therapists." "They're not going to turn these things into medical products by any means, but they're going to create the customization that allows them to be used even better than before, to be more malleable." And expect more appropriate adaptation of game design specifically for therapeutic uses, for relevant products -- for example, "putting 'You Lose' up on a video game might seem fine for the average gamer, but for a person trying to lose weight or overcome a physical injury, that type of psychology is counter-intuitive," explains Sawyer. "You don't have to overhaul the game to change the messaging." Health care is built on a foundation of research, and now that the proof of health games' benefits is becoming impossible to ignore, Sawyer says further data will create less tension and more understanding between the fields of health care and game development. But this is happening at a rapid pace, so Sawyer predicts the next frontier for the Games For Health event will be exploring more material opportunities for collaboration. "I think you're going to see a tremendous amount of economic investment in this area," he says. "And we're going to see the conference shift more and more toward being a conference of dealmaking."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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