Gaming: Good Medicine?

According to a recent keynote address by Jane McGonigal, gaming has a huge growth potential in the pharmaceutical industry

By Katie Weiler, Managing Editor

For most children, video games play an integral part in their lives. Parents struggle with curbing the voracious gaming appetites of their kids — and maybe even their spouses, too. Some may say playing video games is addicting and a waste of time. My sons’ pediatricians would agree. Instead of elevator music while on hold, they offer a recorded message with tips such as limit the “screen time” of children to one hour a day. I was shocked when I heard that, and then questioned my parenting skills. But that would be viewed as a punishment in my home!

I didn’t feel like as much of a failure when I read an article about Jane McGonigal, a well-known game developer and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Reality is Broken.” McGonigal recently keynoted the University of Washington’s School of Social Work’s 4th Annual Scholarship Breakfast where she said that games can help people solve the world’s biggest social problems. For the past 10 years, she has been designing alternative reality games, and she believes that gaming has a huge growth potential in the pharmaceutical industry — and could even replace medicines one day.

“If anybody needs to be scared of games, it’s definitely the pharmaceutical industry,” said McGonigal, as quoted in a recent GeekWire article. “People are working on games that work better than morphine for pain relief, games that work better than medicine for depression, games that work better for weight loss than diet pills. Being able to play a game to improve your health is really big space, absolutely. Who wouldn’t rather play a game than have side affects from medicine?”

For many in the pharma industry that may be a bit of a stretch, but she has done extensive research on the subject, which included these data points:

  • 92 percent of 2-year-olds are now playing games.
  • Gaming creates 10 positive emotions: joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment and creativity.
  • Gamers spend 80 percent of the time failing. McGonigal says that stat shows an interesting form of mental resilience that gamers are developing.
  • In clinical trials, casual games are outperforming pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression with a dose of just 30 minutes per day.
  • Children who play video games are more creative.

Of course, proponents of Nintendo Wii and its gaming competitors would agree. Since the Wii came out in late 2006, there have been numerous articles about how it has become an important tool for physical, occupational and neurological rehabilitation. It even sparked its own term, “Wiihab.” Because the game brings an element of fun that traditional physical therapy doesn’t typically offer, patients look forward to doing it, while gaining benefits such as improved balance, range of motion, and motor skills, not to mention positive, competitive spirits.

Perhaps many of McGonigal’s predictions will come true, but it’s doubtful video games will ever completely take the place of pharmaceuticals. But her work points to something very compelling, in that the virtual reality of games can support and enhance the efficacy of pharmaceutical therapies in actual reality. Should pharma manufacturers be scared? Probably not; more like inspired, that is to use gaming as a tool to make drugs better.

Published in the May 2013 edition of Pharmaceutical Manufacturing magazine

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