There’s lots of buzz about addictive games taking up any free time a person has left in a day—Angry Birds, anyone?—but is there a way this modern behavior can be leveraged for the good? That’s a mission of Games for Health, an organization founded by Ben Sawyer, which recently held their annual conference in Boston.

This year’s conference saw an interesting convergence of the basic tenets of positive psychology, social gaming and health promotion.  Dr. Martin Seligman, PhD, referred to as the father of positive psychology, was a keynote speaker. For me, hearing him talk might be somewhat akin to being a raving mad tween fan of Justin Bieber.  Why? Because in my field of psychology, Dr. Seligman brought the power of optimism, personal strengths and positive feelings, like joy, gratitude, and happiness, to the metaphorical therapy couch.  Now, the work of counseling need not focus on all the bad stuff that happens in life, but can and should focus on the good, but often less dramatic stuff, too—the small sustaining moments, positive feelings and daily accomplishments that are the basic building blocks for anyone to heal and create new joys and meaning in life.

That’s also what games can do – bring a sense of success and joy.  Bring on Dr. Roni Zeigler, the Chief Health Strategist at Google, the second keynote speaker of the conference.  He’s trying to use the power of web tools for medical education, decision support, and health information—and to make it pretty cool.  Check out Google Body and see for yourself.  He invited gamers in the room come up with ideas on helping to transform Google Body into its next version, and plenty of ideas were buzzing on twitter (#G4H11).

I wanted to see what was up with games for youth and there’s plenty going on at universities and through the Pioneer program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has invested $4 Million in 21 projects. Of course, there’s lots going on with nutrition and exercise to outgame obesity and teach kids about healthy eating, energy intake, and phycial activity via use of web games and exergames, like Dance Dance Revolution, X Box Kinect, and Wii Fit. A new generation of mobile games to promote multiplayer experience is also emerging, as demonstrated with Monumental, a mobile climbing app created by MeYouHealth or Nexercise, an activity tracker app (both for iPhone), and the use of wireless pedometers for tweens and online rewards, by ZamZee.  These games use incentives, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards (badges, points and virtual gifts vs. tangible rewards like coupons or discounts). It’s what we are trying to accomplish on for teenagers, too. Can we leverage digital playgrounds for the good: can we get kids online to go offline?

The nagging question remained the end of the conference is how to translate these great tools to the general population, support adoption and scale, and affect personal and societal change in health behaviors.  But it’s just the beginning of a new era. Patience is required.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled Dr. Seligman signed his new book, Flourish, for me. My kids, might say, “OK, great Mom. Whatever. Happy for you.”  But I hold the purse strings to the next Justin Bieber concert – now that’s an incentive for positive behavior.


On BodiMojo: Check out fitness gadgets for teens.

See Pulse & Signal write up on BodiMojo.

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