Social gaming promotes healthy behavior, reveals new research from USC

April 18, 2013

People who interacted with a playful version of the Wellness Partners program reported more physical activity.

Contact: Suzanne Wu at suzanne.wu@usc.edu or (213) 740-0252

April 18, 2013 (LOS ANGELES, CA)  — Adding social gaming elements to a behavior tracking program led people to exercise more frequently and helped them decrease their body-mass index, according to new research from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC School of Social Work and the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

The project was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio through its national program, Health Games Research. The results suggests that “gamification” may improve the effectiveness of traditional health interventions for motivating behavior change and can lead to better health outcomes.

For the 10-week program, researchers studied young and middle-aged adults across a range of lifestyles, from sedentary to very active. Study participants invited someone they knew, usually friends or family members, to participate with them.

One group of participants was randomly assigned to keep an online diary of physical activity, a commonly used strategy for activity adherence and weight management. The diary is part of Wellness Partners, a program developed at USC to explore the role of socially networked games in encouraging lifestyle changes.

A second group was asked to keep a version of the Wellness Partners diary that included social gaming such as earning points for their exercise reporting, redeeming them for animated activities performed by their virtual character, collecting memories and earning gifts they shared with other participants in their network. After five weeks, the groups switched programs.

The results revealed that a combination of the diary and social gaming helped the participants exercise more frequently, leading to decreased body-mass index, a strong wellness indicator. The effects were stronger in the groups that started with gaming and were sustained after gaming elements were removed.

“A big part of its success is that this program required the engagement of friends and family in tracking open-ended health goals,” said lead researcher Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at USC. “We wanted to see how different people would react to it and the results demonstrate that there is great potential in using even casual digital games to promote healthy lifestyles.”

“The game itself was designed to inspire wellness through participation in outdoor activities. We featured the virtual character participating in activities like going snorkeling, playing in the park, raking a zen garden and many other ideas that could increase physical activity,” she added.

Participants who started with either version of the Wellness Partners program had modest, but statistically significant increases in self-reported physical activity, especially those who started with the version containing social gaming.

Participants also had decreases in body mass index at first follow-up compared to baseline (-0.19). The effects were larger for those who started with the version that contained social gaming elements (-0.26). Interestingly, body mass index did not change at the 10-week mark, which suggests participants sustained the benefits of the Wellness Partners program.

“Wellness Partners: Design and Evaluation of a Web-Based Physical Activity Diary with Social Gaming Features for Adults” is published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research: Research Protocols.

Gotsis led the research study in collaboration with Donna Spruijt-Metz and Thomas W. Valente of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Maryalice Jordan-Marsh of the USC School of Social Work and Hua Wang, who was at the time of study a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and is now at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. John Gaspari, director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life, provided support for recruitment and data collection resources.

About the USC School of Cinematic Arts
Founded in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1929 over 80 years ago, the USC School of Cinematic Arts has fueled and mirrored the growth of entertainment as an industry and an art form. The school offers comprehensive programs in directing, producing, writing, critical studies, animation and digital arts, production, and interactive media, all backed by a broad liberal arts education and taught by leading practitioners in each field. USC was voted the No. 1 game design school in North America for its graduate and undergraduate degree programs by the Princeton Review and GamePro Magazine for three consecutive years.

About the USC School of Cinematic Arts Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center
Founded in 2010 following the success of the USC Games for Health Initiative, the CM&BHC is a unique incubator for innovation in the use of entertainment applications at the intersection of behavioral science, medicine and public health. As an organized research unit between the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Keck School of Medicine of USC, its mission is to increase public awareness of critical issues in mental health and behavioral science and to provide hands-on creativity-based educational opportunities for health researchers and practitioners. To achieve this mission, CM&BHC pursues and develops innovative clinical, research and commercial applications with multidisciplinary teams of faculty, students, staff and partner organizations from academia, industry, government and healthcare.

About the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism 
Located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a national leader in education and scholarship in the fields of communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations. With an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, USC Annenberg offers doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degree programs, as well as continuing development programs for working professionals, across a broad scope of academic inquiry. The school’s comprehensive curriculum emphasizes the core skills of leadership, innovation, service and entrepreneurship and draws upon the resources of a networked university located in the media capital of the world.

About the Keck School of Medicine of USC
The Keck School of Medicine of USC is among the nation’s leaders in innovative clinical care, research and education. Located on the university’s 31-acre Health Sciences Campus three miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the Keck School is adjacent to the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, one of the largest teaching hospitals in the United States. The school’s faculty and residents serve more than one million patients each year at Keck Hospital of USC, USC Norris Cancer Hospital, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, LAC+USC Medical Center and additional USC-affiliated hospitals throughout Southern California.

About the USC School of Social Work
The USC School of Social Work ranks among the nation’s top social work graduate programs, with the oldest social work master’s and PhD programs in the West. A recognized leader in academic innovation, experiential learning, online education and translational research, the school prepares students for leadership roles in public and private organizations that serve individuals, families and communities in need. In 2010, the school launched the first national web-based Master of Social Work program, making it the most rapidly expanding social work graduate school in the nation.

About the University at Buffalo, State University of New York
The University at Buffalo is the largest campus in the State University of New York system and New York’s leading public center for graduate and professional education. Our more than 29,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 400 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, UB is a member of the Association of American Universities.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. The Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio supports innovative ideas and projects that may lead to important breakthroughs in health and health care. Projects in the Pioneer Portfolio are future-oriented and look beyond conventional thinking to explore solutions at the cutting edge of health and health care. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org/pioneer.

About Health Games Research
The Health Games Research national program at the University of California, Santa Barbara works to advance the research, design, and effectiveness of interactive games used to improve health. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, Health Games Research awarded research grants to 21 projects across the US in 2008 and 2009 to investigate processes of health behavior change with digital games and to identify new principles of health game design. For more information, visit www.healthgamesresearch.org.