Health and healthcare is serious business. But for a few brief hours on Sunday afternoon, John Ferrara, gamer extraordinaire, showed how it could be turned into a game for the benefit of patients and caregivers alike.
Ferrara is serious when it comes to gaming. But, he's playful, too. His aim is to have fun, and also to spread goodwill in the world.
He made that clear during Sunday's half-day session at the mHealth Summit. Called "Games for Health University," the presentation was part tutorial, part hands-on, as Ferrara urged the audience to explain how a certain game could be better or how it might be more engaging. He also had the audience create their own games.
Ferrara has been designing video games since 2001, and has among his successes a game called "Fitter Critters, the winter of a 2010 Apps for Health Kids Contest sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her "Let's Move!" campaign. He founded Megazoid Games in 2011.
On Sunday, he urged the audience of 20 or so students to put the game first. The game has to be fun and compelling, he pointed out.
To drive his point home - and to engage his audience even more - Ferrara had prepared a kit, a plastic zip-lock bag for every audience member. The bag held dice - green, purple, blue and red - as well as colored plastic chips that matched the colors of the dice, a few pennies, a small stack of index cards that represented the Kong game on paper, images of natural resources like rocks, rivers and trees on small, square card stock and, finally, a calling card of sorts, with Ferrara's name and Twitter address.
"With this kit, you can create a lot of different games," he told his audience. He noted that a paper prototype might be helpful in creating a smart, engaging video game. It may seem counterintuitive, but Ferrara is a fan of the approach.
"Strip off usability and usability layers," he said. "Don't try to represent the entire game on paper. Instead, work on small things."
Several audience members were eager to get started. One was working on managing chronic diseases, another wanted to build a game that was engaging, but at the same time educational – one that could help gamers get used to a healthcare vocabulary that would eventually be of help to them.
Derek Carbonneau, who consults a company that works on reducing hospitals readmissions, readily saw the merit of the games. He's also worked for gaming companies and a video game company.
He would agree with Ferrara that the game has to come first. The game has to be engaging and fun in and of itself.
If that is right, he said, "then pretty much everyone responds to making good health choices."