When it comes to health care, video games do not typically come to mind. There has been some research about the positive impacts on the brain, or scientists developing smaller research games. While this suggests positive signs, the overlap between video games and science is not well-known. Nevertheless, here are three video games that aid global health.

Borderlands 3

In recent years, Borderlands 3 made an impact on the science community with the introduction of Borderlands Science in 2020. An arcade cabinet in the comedic first-person shooter game allows players to try out Borderlands Science. Each level has a target score and players get rewards as in-game accessories if they achieve this score or higher.

The minigame works to map out the microbiome of the human gut. It does this by translating each strand of DNA as a color or block, then players solve puzzles involving these blocks and colors. The goal is to use this data to combat disease, as some microbes in the human gut are associated with diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and much more. Scientists may be able to treat these diseases with more insights about which microbes are the underlying factors. This could save scientists many hours of research and also assists genomic sequencing. Player behavior demonstrates the most effective way to solve these puzzles, which is being studied for its ability to help the task of genomic sequencing.

In developing countries, there is much difficulty with accessing health care for the aforementioned diseases. There is a combination of poor access to care and high rates of disease. For example, there were 309,000 prevalent cases of Parkison’s in the Middle East and North Africa in 2019. This was alongside 80% of diabetics and 58% of people with dementia living in developing countries. Diseases like Parkinson’s have no known cure, whereas the risk for Alzheimer’s is highest in countries with challenges in access to education.

Finding treatments for these diseases could lead to better health globally, especially in countries with difficulties accessing health care. For this reason, Borderlands 3 has become a popular example of video game that can aid global health efforts.

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a multiplayer online roleplaying game, where players are given free will in an immersive setting. A 2005 update introduced an infectious status debuff known as Corrupted Blood which caused players to lose health over time. Originally, this debuff only existed in one area of the game and would be deleted when players left the area. The problem was that players could have pets and they would retain the debuff, infecting players outside of that area.

This situation has drawn the eye of many scientists as a way to study human behavior, as every player reacted organically. Since gamers are invested in the world, which John Kirkland described as an “economy,” it created pandemonium. While this specific instance was uncontrolled, many scientists investigating video games that aid global health still use it as a reference.

Professor Jodie McVernon noted the similarities between how players reacted to Corrupted Blood and how people reacted to COVID-19; some ran, some went to densely populated areas and some tried to help others. Ran Balicer considers it a place to study the spread of disease and others related it to Avian flu. National Science Foundation (NSF) believes the behaviors exhibited during the Corrupted Blood pandemic will be similar to real-life scenarios.

Epidemiologist Nina Fefferman believes partnering with video games to simulate real human behavior is an excellent idea since it reveals factors not initially considered in epidemiological modeling such as empathy or curiosity. She continues to study similar virtual spaces to model infectious diseases in her lab.

Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that encourages players to go outside to capture Pokemon and battle each other. It quickly became one of the most popular mobile phone games. People were quick to ask if it had a positive impact on health.

From a review, 76% of tweets suggested that the app had a positive effect. It benefitted physical health with players increasing their step count by 25% to 35% and they were more likely to engage in physical activity like walking their dog. The social health benefits include players strengthening bonds with friends and reducing their anxiety. Mental health benefits were considered more neutral, though still skewed positive as it reduced anxiety and improved cognitive performance.

Looking Ahead

As video games continue to become a popular form of entertainment, there are growing questions about the global health implications. Institutions like McGill University see the value of using video games to collect difficult-to-gather data. Scientists find value in its ability to model human behavior. These trends suggest that video games carry the potential to advance global health efforts. 

Lachlan Griffiths

Photo: Flickr