When gaming can be good for you: Computer games to support adolescent healthcare

Video games can elicit different reactions in different people. Gamers relish the challenges and fun that it brings to them and how they can fulfil elements of their recreational, relaxation and social needs.

However there are also the concerns about how much time young people spend playing games. The increase in sedentary behaviour associated with their uses as well as the potential to increase antisocial and aggressive behaviours in teenagers.

But are video games all bad? There is a lot of interest in how games can be used to inform, educate and assist young people to understand world events, social issues and their healthcare. Games for Health, Games for Change and Social Impact Games all have examples of how computer games can be used for good.

In a recent interview with Custom PC magazine (Issue 115: pp 103-104 http://www.custompc.co.uk/) we talked about the positives that video games can have.  We have been working with Birmingham Children’s Hospital and the University of Birmingham exploring the use of game based learning and serious games to help young people understand the long term illnesses they may be living with and how game based learning could be used to teach them how to manage their conditions and become more independent and responsible for their own care as they grow older.

Children may experience serious health conditions quite early in their life. These may persist with them as they grow older and stay with them into adulthood. Care initially starts in child and family centred clinics but as the young person grows older they will have to move to the adult healthcare system. This can be an anxious time for the young person and their family. If they are not adequately prepared to manage this transfer their continuity of care can be disrupted leading to poorer health outcomes.

Dr. Janet McDonagh from Birmingham Children’s Hospital has been leading the way in developing care that is geared toward the special needs of the young people. Transitional care involves the purposefully planned preparation for the young person to ultimately transfer their care to the adult healthcare system. It is a process which encourages both health literacy and health promoting behaviours in an age and developmentally appropriate way and involves the active participation of the young person in the process.

Janet has been working with us to see how computer games may help with the processes behind transitional care. To date we have explored some of the successes associated with games to support healthcare [Wilson & McDonagh, 2012].  Games such as HopeLab’s ReMission, which aims to teach young people about cancer and how to effectively manage their treatments, and SPARX a game designed to help young people who are experiencing symptoms of depression, have both been the subject of extensive scientific study and shown to have positive health benefits in young people.





Developing computer games can be a time consuming and expensive process. However the mechanics used in games are now being used in non-game contexts – commonly known as gamification. Gamification has been used in a range of settings including training, education, project management, social networks, health and wellness and in the commercial sector.

Gamification offers the possibility of taking advantage of the fun elements associated with computer games without the same level of development costs. We are currently exploring how gamification could be used to engage and encourage young people to work towards attaining those self-care and self-management skills required for successful transition and ultimately help in their transfer of their care. We are also interested how gamification could benefit the assessment of the competency of young people in these important skills beyond the health care setting, which remains a challenge in every day clinical practice [Wilson & McDonagh, 2013].

This is still early days for our work but we are hopeful computer games will be seen to be a more positive influence on young people rather than the negatives that are normally associated with them and that they can complement existing healthcare processes without negatively impacting on these too.

You can read more about our research here:

Wilson AS and McDonagh JE Moving on: Use of Computer Games During Transitional Care for Young People with Long Term Medical Conditions. Proceedings of the 6th European Conference on Games Based Learning. Cork, Ireland. October 2012. 978-1-908272-69-0 or ISSN 2049-0992.

Wilson AS and McDonagh JE Application of the Principles of Gamification to Facilitate Acquisition of Self-Management Skills in Young People with Long-Term Medical Conditions. Proceedings of the 7th European Conference on Games Based Learning. Porto, Portugal. October 2013 (to be presented)