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June 11, 2008

Wellness Partners Game

IMD Lands $200,000 Health Research Grant

By Carl Marziali

A University of Southern California research effort co-lead by Marientina Gotsis of the Interactive Media Division has received a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to explore how interactive digital games could be designed to improve players' health behaviors and outcomes.

Developed by the School of Cinematic Arts, the Keck School of Medicine at USC and the USC School of Social Work, Wellness Partners is a cell phone game that harnesses social networks to combat obesity. In creating the application, the team will probe the effectiveness of mobile games and online social networks to promote lifestyle changes that result in greater physical activity.

“This unique interdisciplinary collaboration is teaching us how to combine elements and theories of cooperative play, social support and social networks into an engaging game that can help families and friends in their quests for better health,” said Gotsis, who is the IMD Media Lab manager and the co-principal investigator of the effort.

IMD Media Lab Manager Marientina Gotsis and USC School of Social Work Associate Professor Maryalice Jordan-Marsh, members of the USC "Wellness Partners" research team investigating how interactive games can improve health.
“Games have always provided a fun way for families to enjoy each other’s company. The emerging obesity epidemic has created an incentive to create games that are fun but also require more physical activity,” said co-principal investigator Tom Valente, a professor in the Institute for Prevention Research and the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School. Valente and co-investigator Donna Spruijt-Metz, also a researcher in the Institute, will represent the Keck School on the project team.

Working with clients from the USC Center for Work and Family Life, the game will use elements from virtual pets, role-playing games (RPGs), and social networking tools that will motivate players to exercise and improve their health.

“USC faculty and staff will be recruited to participate in a cell phone-based health game. Designed to be social and intergenerational in nature, the intervention will combine findings on the potential of the ubiquitous cell phone with serious game technology to create a health promotion experience friends and family can enjoy,” said the USC School of Social Work’s Maryalice Jordan-Marsh, grant co-investigator who also is writing a book on health technology for baby boomers and their family members.

USC joins 11 other research teams supported in this first round of funding from Health Games Research, an RWJF national program established to strengthen the evidence base related to the development and use of games to achieve desirable health outcomes.

Health Games Research is headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The program is directed by Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., communication researcher in the university’s Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research; lecturer in the Department of Communication; and a leading expert in the research and design of interactive media for learning and health behavior change.

Health Games Research is funded by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio, which supports innovative projects that may lead to breakthrough improvements in the future of health and health care.

“This groundbreaking study led by USC will identify new interactive behavioral health strategies to use in the design of future health games and technologies,” Lieberman said. “Together, the 12 studies will help us better understand how people respond to various types of health games, and this will potentially lead to new game-based applications that can more effectively engage and motivate players to improve their health.”

The 12 grantees were selected from 112 research organizations that applied for Health Games Research funding during the first funding call, which focused on games that engage players in physical activity and/or games that promote and improve players’ self-care. In January 2009, Health Games Research will issue its next call for proposals, awarding up to an additional $2 million in grants.

As USC and the other 11 grantees conduct their studies, Health Games Research will provide them with ongoing assistance and research resources.