Games for Change 2017 (Part II): A Healthcare Market Researcher’s Perspective

This is part 2 of a 4 part report on the 2017 Games for Change Festival held in NYC (July 31-August 2). Click here to see Part 1. Click here for Part 3. Click here for part 4.

The average healthcare market researcher’s toolbox is unlikely to contain games-- maybe a collection of techniques for gamifying tedious surveys, but no games. This is not to say, however, that games are alien to the world of healthcare. It is almost 10 years now since Wii Fit hit the US market with promises to provide a fun way to get physically fit. In a more professional vein, game formats have been employed in the training of medical students and the delivery of engaging on-line CME programs. Kognito, a “health simulation company”, has assembled a significant base of evidence that its game-like, virtual human role-playing simulations can positively impact health related conversations-- as well as health outcomes. And one of the first talks at this week’s Games for Change (G4C) Festival entitled, Can Gaming Play Nicely with Pharma?, highlighted yet another frontier in which the potential of games in healthcare is being explored.

In this presentation, speakers from Amblyotech, a digital media therapy company, and Ubisoft, a video game developer, described their collaboration with McGill University in developing a smartphone and tablet based game designed to treat amblyopia, or “lazy eye”. A recent trial of Dig Rush among 28 children with amblyopia found greater improvement at two weeks in the Dig Rush game group versus those treated with patching, the current standard of care. According to Amblyotech, a submission to the FDA for Dig Rush is currently being prepared.

But Dig Rush is not the only game with aspirations of FDA review. NeuroRacer, a game in which players speed around in a car while picking out road signs has demonstrated an ability to increase cognitive control in older adults and is being considered as a potential treatment for ADHD, depression and PTSD. Highlighted in another G4C session was an augmented/virtual reality game utilized to treat chronic intractable phantom limb pain. A Lancet article published in December 2016 on this treatment concluded, “Our findings suggest potential value in motor execution of the phantom limb as a treatment for phantom limb pain. Promotion of phantom motor execution aided by machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, and gaming is a non-invasive, non-pharmacological, and engaging treatment with no identified side-effects at present.”

For researchers curious about games but concerned that they are too frivolous to gain traction in the healthcare industry, these examples should provide some comfort. But the “so what” for healthcare market research itself requires a bit more discussion. So consider Foldit, an on-line game credited with crowd-sourcing the critical insights that revealed the structure of a protein-sniping enzyme essential to the reproduction of the AIDS virus. Or Sea Hero Quest, which was showcased at last year’s G4C Festival. In this smartphone game, players join an animated narrative in which a father and son navigate the seas while trying to recall past shared experiences. Players are challenged with memorizing a map as they help the father and son navigate from buoy to buoy along a predetermined path. Funded by Deutsche Telekom and created in collaboration between Glitchers, a game developer, and Alzheimer’s Research UK, University College London and the University of East Anglia, Sea Hero Quest gathers and analyzes game play data to establish population norms for spatial navigation skills with the ultimate objective of creating a diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s Disease. At the end of 2016, the game was reported to have been played by at least 2.4 million people and to have generated over 9,400 years of lab-based research data.

Here is how, at a theoretical level, games should become interesting to market researchers. Through the creation and analysis of data derived from activity in digital game environments, new knowledge can be created—not only about protein structures or spatial navigation skills, but, potentially, about thoughts, feelings and behaviors—the foundations of much of our market research interests. And if this data can be created more quickly and efficiently through games than through traditional research techniques, all the better. The key question, of course, is how closely data derived from games reflects data derived from the “real world”. This is a topic I’ll tackle in my next post on Games for Change 2017.

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