A Brief History of Healthcare in Videogames

“…health-focused video games, including those for mobile platforms, now deserve serious attention.”

Interactive Games to Promote Behavior Change in Prevention and Treatment: The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), March 2011

A lot of attention is being paid to gaming at the moment. Rightly so. Game modeling’s place in the toolkit of marketing is still in its infancy, but should and will gain traction in the months to come. I’ll be writing more on the subject in a later post (reprising a presentation on the subject I gave about a year ago) but thought it would be of some interest to trace the history of how health gaming evolved into the state that it’s in today.

In the beginning…

In 1971 Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger developed a game called Oregon Trail. If you’re around my age, no doubt you spent countless hours playing it. For those who are uninitiated, Oregon Trail is an educational simulator that was written to help teach students at Carleton College in Minnesota the details and events of the great westward expansion. To add to the realism, players could contract all manner of illnesses, including measles, snakebite, dysentery, typhoid, cholera and exhaustion. You could also drown or break a limb. It was the first video game where managing the overall health and wellness of your player (and family) was a key element of gameplay.

Oregon Trail

In 1978, Atari released Brain Games, a collection of cognitive challenges designed to help improve various aspects of mental function, like memory and problem solving. While the game was a commercial flop, it set the stage for a whole collection of games designed for mental fitness.

In the arcade, health-games took a bit of time to materialize. While most games used the concept of hit points, the number of times you could receive damage without dying, health and healing didn’t become a core element of mainstream arcade gameplay until 1985 when Atari introduced Gauntlet.

"The wizard is about to die."

“The wizard is about to die.”

In Gauntlet (Gauntlet II pictured here, relax nerds), players could manage their health by eating meals (hams) or drinking potions (booze). It changed the concept of hit points by using the metaphor of health and healing, potentially adding realism to the game.

The first true attempt at what would later be called exertainment or exergaming was the Atari Puffer project  in 1982. The game included  an exercise bike that would hook up to an Atari 400/800 or 5200 system. The game never reached the market as Atari soon filed for bankruptcy and scrapped the project.

In 1986, Atari introduced a new controller that would usher in the next leap in health games. Foot Craz, which was the first of the ‘Dance Dance‘ style controller, utilized a foot-pad to interact with the gaming experience. While not health focused, it opened the door for the entire genre of mat-controlled games. About a year after the release of Foot Craz, Nintendo released the PowerPad Family Trainer which used the same kind of mat-style controller, but this time with an exercise focus. The pad shipped a game entitled World Class Track Meet, which allowed players to use their legs to control the pace of an on-screen runner. It wasn’t until Konami ported Dance Dance Revolution from the arcade to the Playstation in 1998 that the exergaming genre reached mainstream status.

In 2003, things kicked into high gear when Bill Gates introduced an entire line of exercise-oriented gaming peripherals at that year’s Consumer Electronics Expo. Three years later, Nintendo introduced the Wii, and the living-room-exergaming experience reached maturity.

While exergaming was evolving, cognitive games were also maturing. In 1991 Sierra Online introduced the Dr. Brain series, designed to challenge players to think in new ways and improve problem solving skills. By 2005 Nintendo released its now famous Brain Age series and cognitive games had come of age.

Where we go from here

I’ve probably left out a number of important evolutions in the process, but you get the gist. I’ll expound up this topic more soon, but the impact on the entire industry is one we all ignore at our own peril.

According to Doug Goldstein:

“It is clear that Health eGames will be part of accelerated growth in the overall video games market, with projected value nearing $7 billion in the next 12 months. Today, there are more than 300 consumer focused Health eGames offering an active, multimedia video experience across multiple platforms […] And rapid growth in adoption is being driven by some unexpected demographic segments, including mothers, seniors and even toddlers.”

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    [...] Bill Evans from "Dose of Digital" wrote this interesting article about Health in Videogames. To be completed.  [...]