I’m writing this as I arrive at the Game Developers Conference. For me, this is an annual reunion with some people I admire, respect, and enjoy. (I also hope to go to some sessions.) As happens with our annual milestones, I instinctively compare myself to my last-year iteration. I’ve a different business card and self-identity. And I’m part of three projects and teams that I enjoy:
- A smoking-cessation game: BreatheFree. (Funded by NIH SBIR 1R44DA036252)
- A balance intervention for fall prevention: Innovations in Balance. (Currently planning initial trials.)
- A pediatric respiratory biofeedback game venture: RespirGames. (Sample application: Cystic Fibrosis.)
I’m starting with a personal note, but I’ve some thoughts on a new medium: During the last year, I’ve happily transitioned from “game executive who’s looking into different areas” into an enthusiastic “health games executive producer”. I had been advising a couple projects, and as they gained momentum, I gained insight into the peculiar needs and opportunities of this space. It reminds me of the first years of we later called massively-multiplayer games: it’s the frontier. Me, and my fellow expatriates from traditional games, don’t yet agree on the best creative approaches or business models, but we share a confidence that this stuff will work. I mean: These can work out nicely for the companies deploying these games, and can work for the people playing these games. (Our players, or should I say “patients”? Or maybe “customers”? During our testing they are “subjects”. But I suggest we avoid the game-industry’s “users”, shall we?)
And, as with MMOs, we’re grappling with a new context that makes new demands. The only reason for health games to exist, indeed the only motivation that justifies developing any “serious game”, is the opportunity to provide superior results from a clinical, behavioral, or educational perspective. I don’t remember the word “efficacy” being uttered ever, let alone regularly, in traditional-game product-planning meetings. I call myself an executive producer, which means I am likely to identify and contract the development team, to ensure a convergence between an engaging game design and an efficacious intervention strategy, and to manage and support the funder/developer relationship. As E.P., I am certainly focused on delivering a successful product, and on forming the partnerships or relationships necessary to success. For my current projects, “success” mean revenues and commercial leadership.
Heath games have not included very many commercial successes, with important exceptions in a couple sectors. Specifically: fitness, and mind-training or “brain games”. I think there are reasons for the limited successes: Few health games have started from a clear understanding of why a *game* should be the best delivery mechanism. Few well-motivated projects include experienced, proven game designers, without which any game is unlikely to be fun. And few of these are conceived and initiated with a clear understanding of how they will go to market, and of who will pay for them, and of why the payors should be expected to do so.
The odds appear to be long, which is only a problem if you are making a fair bet on a level playing field. I don’t play roulette. I will happily enter any contest with a rich, long-shot-style, payout, but only if I’m playing with a team of ringers.