Personalized Medicine

Scientists are creating video games with health PSAs

Video games with health PSAs

Even if you know little about preventative health-care messaging, you might remember some PSAs that worked, and others that didn't.

Recall the egg cracked and sizzling on a skillet, overlaid with the messaging, "This is your brain on drugs?" "Any questions?" The 1980s public service announcement became a commercial icon. In comparison, less successful health messages have included the late Nancy Regan's "Just Say No" to drugs campaign.

Now an emerging scientific field is focused on virtual reality more specifically video games with embedded health messages such as don't drink and drive, avoid smoking and use condoms during sex. And new research shows video games can work for messaging as gamers feel comfortable in virtual, immersive worlds and are subsequently more relaxed and open to health suggestions.

Other related research has found even seemingly simple visual cues like avatars can influence real-life physical activity among men.

"There's a lot of literature on what's a healthy environment. I think we need to start thinking about what is a healthy virtual environment," said Hart Blanton, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut.

"There isn't any reason why commercials or video games can't think of ways of folding in public service announcements in ways that enhance the gaming experience to make it more real because people encounter public service announcement in everyday life," he said.

University of Connecticut researchers are embedding health PSAs including anti-DUI messages into video games to reach young adults.
Source: Chris Burrows

Blanton and colleague Christopher Burrows have been researching the connections between online gaming and health messages. And recent studies have found receptiveness among gamers when they're exposed to public health issues like drunk driving.

The telegraphed information, by the way, isn't subliminal advertising, Blanton said. In a game, PSAs can be displayed in the form of an anti-DUI poster on the wall of a Department of Motor Vehicles room that, as an example, is under attack in the game. The health messages are in context, transparent and authentic — qualities young gamers prefer.

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The studies by Blanton and Burrows, which have appeared online in the journal "Communications Research," revealed gamers who were more deeply immersed in video games received health messages more strongly than less-engaged people. But why?

A key reason lies in the immersive, participatory nature of video games. Those playing a game have consented to diving into that virtual world. They've made that leap to participate and want to enjoy and accept the entire experience — even if that environment includes health messages.

"When people get wrapped up and involved in these games, they're cooperating with that environment. They want for that experience to be real," Blanton explained.

"And so they're too wrapped up in that experience to also then speak back to dismiss, engage in all those thoughts that would cause them to dismiss a message," he said.

Burrows used game engine design software including CryEngine and Unity to create the games for the research.

Study participants included both men and women, and experience results didn't vary significantly among genders.

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The research by Blanton and Burrows focused on regular video games. Some research in this field already is incorporating virtual reality or VR gaming that can include goggles and viewing a digital world in 360 degrees.

But the science and technology behind successful PSAs doesn't need to be that sophisticated. Data already show that even graphical representations of users, also known as avatars, can influence people's physical activity.

Research led by Jorge Pena at the University of California at Davis focused on the effects of gaming avatars, both obese and normal size, among video game players. Participants using normal weight avatars showed increased physical activity (more wrist and waist movement) compared to gamers who used obese avatars.

Despite the promise of this emerging scientific field, researchers acknowledge gaming has a bum wrap for promoting violence. Is this line of scientific inquiry really the right call?

"I wouldn't dismiss all that but these games do exist and people are playing them," Blanton said.

"There's no preventing these games from being important and a large part of the lives of many young Americans," he added. "What I would say, given that, is we might start thinking about ways in which they might interact with those worlds that reinforce other messages."