Games and Health: Q&A with Brian Primack

At TEDMED 2014, Brian Primack, Clinician, Professor, and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Research on Health and Society at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, shed light on how principles learned from video game design can be used to create more effective health behavior change. We caught up with Brian to learn more about his work and his experience at TEDMED 2014.

How healthcare can learn from video games. Jerod Harris, TEDMED2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.
The video games industry is really good at getting people to perform certain tasks and to stick with them for the long haul.” Expert design including instant reward, social networks, and intermediate milestones can effectively improve patient outcomes. Photo: Jerod Harris for TEDMED.

Personally, what do you prefer: “old-school” video games, or the most recent technology? Why?

I prefer old-school video games. Part of it may be nostalgia. However, I also think that sometimes, simpler graphics and can translate into a richer imaginative experience. For example, I still sometimes play old Infocom games. Infocom created brilliant text-only interactive fiction games starting in the early 1980s.

Do you encourage your children to play video games?

My kids (ages 7 and 10) play video games, and I often play with them. Some of our favorites are logic, simulation, and/or physics games such as Civiballs, Meeblings, and Bloons Tower Defense. What I encourage even more than playing, however, is creating video games. Both of my kids can do basic programming on MIT’s Scratch platform and have created simple games of their own.

Beyond health and medicine, what other applications or fields do you see gamification having a large impact on?

Gamification may be very valuable in education. I think there is an important balance to be struck, though. I think it’s great to leverage the tools we have now to make learning more engaging. However, we also want to encourage people ultimately to learn for its own sake, not just because they are getting points or incentives. I don’t think these positions are mutually exclusive, but balance is important to think about as we develop new educational tools.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I really appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with some past colleagues; it was also invigorating to meet people whose work I had admired from afar. I caught up with Lee Sanders, MD, MPH, Chief of the Division of General Pediatrics at Stanford; he’s well-known for his work on promotion of child and family health via health literacy.

What’s next for you?

Our Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health continues to research both the positive and negative influences of media and technology on health outcomes. We develop and test interventions to support positive attributes of media and technology while also buffering their potential negative influences.