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Five Questions ... for Ben Sawyer

By Lisa Gualtieri / July 2009

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Lisa Gualtieri: What was your motivation is starting Games for Health?

Ben Sawyer: I started the project as an outgrowth of the Serious Games Initiative, which we had put together with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.

When I saw people using games directly as part of helping people be healthier in addition to the expected use of games for training, that's when I realized this is really interesting and different and could use some additional support if we could build community and knowledge base and especially get more top notch game developers interested.

LG: How can a game help someone better understand someone else's experience of illness? Is this one of the best applications of games for health?

BS: Games are an expressive medium, not just an immersive one. So yes, I believe you can visualize an illness to others through a game as well as the emotional experience patients and those close to them feel.

Ben's Game, a project made by Ben Dushkin and Eric Johnston, a programmer at LucasArts, and sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is a perfect example of that. Ben, who was suffering from cancer, created a game with Eric that he could share with his friends so they could understand what he was facing—lots of blood tests, fever, and nausea.

LG: How much realism is needed in terms of the experience and the graphics for a game to be effective, especially as you delve into some of the games like Microsurgeon for Intellivision which came out in 1982?

BS: Realism is sometimes quite important, and obviously today's game technologies are getting really good at that, but as our session on Microsurgeon showed iconic representations and metaphorical representations of health are also really useful. Microsurgeon screen shot

Sometimes realism is in what players do versus what they see. The computer creates an ability for us to create games where the player must understand the underlying message embedded in the rules, logic, and play of the game. That embedded experience versus one that is preached through text is what my friend Ian Bogost calls this procedural rhetoric, and I think it's a strong element of great games.

In the case of Microsurgeon, Rick Levine the designer required four shots to kill a tumor and if you only did one to three shots, you saw the tumor grow back. A simple representation of cancer cell eradication didn't need much "realism" to get a potent point across.

We also saw how a foreign object in the body got attacked by white blood cells which again, for a little kid playing a game like Microsurgeon, he could begin to understand exactly what those cells do in the body. At no time did Rick put text on screen that said, "Tumor cells still left in the body grow back," but believe me the player learns it really quickly!

LG: What are some examples of iconic experiences from games? Do you believe these could be learned as effectively using text or other media?

BS: I'm not sure games are meant to be as effective as other media because that gets us into a one-to-one relevancy when perhaps it's not really about that. While I do believe there are instances where games can outstrip other forms of media, I increasingly believe games are meant to be effective when encapsulated in all kinds of important supporting frameworks. Perhaps it's more important to say games should be used as much as text and other media and sit right alongside them as one more critical tool in the toolbox.

LG: Are there any games that are bad examples in some respect, inaccurate or promoting undesirable or unhealthy behaviors?

BS: That's hard to say. I don't want to single out a particular title at the moment. What I will say is there are lots of just bad games, games that aren't a heck of a lot of fun and which perhaps don't live up to the potential I and others see for games.

What I worry about is the waste of resources they might represent first before I get to their general ineffectiveness.

To not totally dodge the question, there was a recently popular game about the spread of viruses that I think a lot of people played but which did little to nothing to really provide a great experience or one that could have been really informative as people strived to understand the recent H1N1 virus outbreak. That was a missed opportunity that public health agencies should be taking notice of.


  • Tue, 22 Sep 2009
    Post by Ben

    Comments taken to heart - we're in the midst of these changes. We know it's a problem - but we've had to deal with other issues first including securing the listserver.

  • Tue, 22 Sep 2009
    Post by bernice peters

    His web site hasn't worked properly in months so you can get on the listserv ( ) --try it and GOOD LUCK! And neither has the phone listed worked properly (1-888-286-3541) listed at the bottom of the page. numerous people have brought this to his attention but it never gets fixed. he doesn't answer most emails and is too cheap to hire a secretary to take care of this kind of stuff for him and his organization. he's a disgrace to the industry!

  • Wed, 24 Oct 2007
    Post by Bruce Lanctot

    The problem seems to be that the bureaucracy is embedded with leaders and managers of the Stone Age mentality. It won’t be till the digital natives take charge that the status quo will change...

  • Sat, 20 Oct 2007
    Post by marcia simone

    Lisa your article is very interesting in my opinion, I''m writing an article related to this topic. The theme of my article is the use of technology in the process of teaching english as a second language, because I''m a english teacher here in Brazil, and I work with professional education, english courses destined to this field.Althoug schools are not prepared to supply this,as a teacher we have to know how to deal with and also work with all this technology that is taking most part of our student''s life.

  • Tue, 16 Oct 2007
    Post by Marc Goudreau

    In general terms Lisa, I feel most k-12 schools lack the capacity to deploy technology effectively because the focus of many administrators is still on the "technology acquisition" side with little effort spent on teacher training. This is absolutely critical if students are to benefit from Web II and related web-centric tools that allow for far better instructional design and deplaoyement for learners than what was possible 10 or 20 years ago. Obviously, The organizational structure and pathology of planners and leaders in K-12 schools has changed little from the "traditional schooling model" of the early industrial age. Prensky is quite right in his assessment of out students (digital natives" today... they were born and raised in the information age and can barely comprehend the logic of the a learning model based on "teacher knows best". Schools need to put the technology acquisition issue aside and focus on providing teachers the opportunity to retool as mediators to learning with technology, not classroom sages and directors of prepackaged curriculum...