JAMA: Time to take mobile health games seriously

By Brian Dolan
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ZamThe Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a paper that argued health-focused video games, including those for mobile platforms, now deserve "serious attention."

The commentary by Dr. Leighton Read of Alloy Ventures and Seriosity, Inc. and Dr. Stephen M. Shortell from the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley chronicles the popularity of video games and the promise that the popular form of media holds for teaching the public to make healthier choices. While people doing jumping jacks in front of their Xbox may prove entertaining, the real news is how Read and Shortell see mobile devices playing a big role in the healthy gaming world.

The authors see promise in mobile gaming thanks in part to GPS, accelerometers, advanced wireless sensors and mobile hotspots, which could revolutionize healthy gaming through location-based activity tracking, movement monitoring and even vital sign recording. While Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution get kids moving in front of the TV, the authors point to a more mobile option:  Zamzee. This startup is using a unique approach to getting 11- to 14-year-olds to be more physically active with the combination of a mobile pocket activity monitor and an online reward system where healthy changes mean real life gift cards and virtual prizes. Another mobile game mentioned in the paper is "Lit to Quit." Columbia University is trialling this mobile smoking cessation game where users blow into their iPhone microphones to reduce their cravings for cigarettes. Cornell University has teens sharing mobile phone photos of portion sizes and ingredients with their friends in the Mindless Eating Challenge. Indiana University has students participating in an "alternate reality" game promoting healthy eating and exercise. Health insurance provider Humana has also been playing along with their Games for Health initiative featuring a brain exercise game that has users searching out colors (and taking mobile phone photos) in their surroundings as well as a walking game that lets users power a virtual gold prospector with every real-life step they take throughout the day.

While health-based mobile games are still very much an emerging trend, opportunity is knocking for those getting into the game. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for whom Dr. Read has consulted, is promoting and evaluating games aimed at health through their Health Games Research Initiative. And, the authors noted that the $10 billion set aside in the Affordable Care Act for disease prevention and health promotion over the next 5 years could be directed at companies with proven successful mobile health games.

For more, read the commentary over at JAMA.