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The Possibilities of Video Games and Digital Living for Future Health Workers' Lives

For many children in the developed world, video games are a part of everyday life. They may play video games from the time they get home from school until they go to bed at night, which may annoy their parents and even negatively impact their grades in school. Gaming also has proven benefits. According to Jane McGonigal, gaming guru for the Institute of the Future, playing video games supports “positive emotions—like optimism, curiosity and wonder; collective intelligence; and a stronger social fabric” [1]. Children and adults also learn through the use of video games, and many educational or “serious” games are now being introduced to help solve real-world problems.

A chronic, critical health worker shortage threatens achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in developing countries and delivery of quality service worldwide. To help fill the gap, PEPFAR set a goal of recruiting and training 140,000 new health care workers in partner countries by 2013. What if video games could be used to help solve the health care worker shortage? Wouldn’t that be cool?

Games played on computers and mobile phones can’t replace the skills and experience of real health workers. And no, I’m not suggesting that IBM build thousands of “Watson” doctors and nurses. What playing games can do, however, is help individuals learn critical knowledge and skills that will ultimately help them take better care of themselves and, thus, potentially visit health care centers less often. Video games can also be used to better prepare students for their future roles and even connect health care workers to each other once they start working. Possible applications of gaming include:

  • Giving kids information about health and empowering them to take better care of themselves earlier in life through health-related games that promote prevention. Just make the games interesting!
  • Building hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills that are useful in surgery and other health worker tasks (drawing blood, inserting a catheter, etc.) through video games. In fact, one of the first uses of games for medical education was to teach surgical and clinical techniques for surgeons.
  • Teaching students anatomy, physiology, and the working of the various body systems through online interactive websites or using these sites to build on what they’ve learned in class to prepare for exams. This can lessen the need for face-to-face classroom time and the burden on faculty.
  • Creating a space for students to experiment and be tested in treating virtual patients, which can build both their technical skills and their focus on patient-centered care without any real risk. Playing games with virtual patients can help students prepare for clinical rotations and lessen the “re-teaching” that clinical instructors have to do. And yes, you can program the game so that the student only passes if s/he says “hello” or “how are you” to the patient!
  • Games can also put rural health and community workers in touch with their peers through cell phones or low-bandwidth Internet, which enables them to connect with an online health gaming community (i.e., Second Life for health) and seek information and assistance from their peers when a supervisor or colleague isn’t available.

So how could we turn digital possibilities into realities?

When countries without significant landline infrastructure wanted to join the digital age, they leapfrogged old technology (landlines) and invested directly in cellphone infrastructure. We should encourage using the same approach with health-related technology. When there is a market for information, companies are likely to capitalize on it and make money. And that’s exactly what’s happening with video games and online applications dedicated to health; many “games for health” sites operate subscription services that require a credit card to join and monthly fees to stay connected. This model makes perfect sense when the resource base supports it. However, it isn’t yet practical in most of the contexts where we work.

To fill the gap, we should:

  • Educate ourselves about what’s available in the health gaming market now so that we can be more articulate and more strategic about what is needed in the future
  • Invest more resources into developing Open Source games that can be distributed at a relatively low cost via mobile phones and low-bandwidth Internet connections
  • Work with universities and information technology schools in developing countries to create incubators for health game development and local ownership of solutions
  • Partner with companies and organizations already in the health gaming market (i.e., and encourage them to focus a portion of their corporate social responsibility efforts on growing health gaming in developing countries
  • Encourage donors to put more funding into information communication technology (ICT)resources that help connect health students and health workers to the information they need, thus reducing dependence on already stressed health workers
  • Host public e-forums to explore questions like “How could we support gaming to improve health in the countries where we work?” to help crowdsource solutions
  • Continue to participate and take leadership roles in the electronic and mobile (e/m) learning and e/m health communities of practice
  • Share, share, share.

 In short, let’s get our game on.


1.       McGonigal, J. School of Life Sunday Sermons. Available at: