CDC tries to disrupt public health education with video games

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Dan Baden (Center) with HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr (left) and HHS CTO Bryan Sivak (right) after the 2013 CDC Game Jam. (Credit: HHS) Dan Baden (Center) with HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr (left) and HHS CTO Bryan Sivak (right) after the 2013 CDC Game Jam. (Credit: HHS)

Video games and public health education don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but a disruptive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention event is merging the two worlds this weekend to continue fighting what it calls a winnable battle against HIV and AIDS.

CDC Game Jam launched last year out of the Department of Health and Human Services’ IDEA Lab innovation incubator called HHS Ignite, which provided the hackathon-like event various services, legal advice, coaching, tools and technologies, to become a sustainable venture. Dan Baden, a senior liaison with CDC and the lead on the game jam project, said he and some colleagues had been mulling over the idea of launching the event, but HHS Ignite was the catalyst.

“When we saw Ignite, we said ‘Hey, this is a perfect opportunity,'” Baden said. “We hadn’t really pursued the idea much.”

“Ignite exists as a safe space where people can try out very new ideas that for one reason or another haven’t happened yet,” said Read Holman, a program manager in HHS’ IDEA Lab who oversees the Ignite participants. “We help them think about how does this really become operationalized? They’ve taken this idea that is outside of the general environment, outside the standard way of thinking [and help them] get it into government operations.”

2014_09_Game-Jam-game Egg Defender, a game developed in the 2013 CDC Game Jam. (Credit: SPSU Game Development an Design)

The team came up with two broad goals: to get people with 21st century skills interested in public health and find fast and inexpensive ways of making new, more-effective health education tools. They found a working model in a video-game designing hackathon. HHS Ignite bought into the idea and funded it.

“We were trying to bring together several hundred game designers — both student and professional — and merge them with scientists at CDC and at other HHS agencies,” Baden said. Participants formed teams of designers and scientists to make health-related games. Last year 300 people made 29 games in 48 hours focusing on what CDC calls “winnable battles,” those for which health education can make progress in diminishing or curing. At the time, it was not only the first game jam in federal government, but also the largest in the United States.

In the first year, Baden and his team succeeded in validating the program’s two main goals. “We queried people beforehand and only 12 percent had any interest in public health [careers] before the Game Jam,” Baden said. “Forty-eight hours later, 50 percent had interest in public health careers. So it’s got huge potential as a recruitment tool,” not to mention the 29 games created.

Since then, another game jam has beaten CDC’s in size. But this weekend in Atlanta, Baden expects it to once again be the biggest in the country as participants set out to build games around the issues of HIV and AIDS. And this time, Baden said they have another goal in mind.

“We don’t know if the games that are made through this vehicle are any good,” he said. “So we need to evaluate the impact of a game developed in this manner. We’re actually going to get people in the public to play [the winning] game versus playing a non-educational game and see at one or two months whether or not they have a better understanding of HIV and if they have a desire to change any of their behaviors.” Holman referred to it as a “clinical trial” of sorts.

Through several stages, participating teams will be narrowed to a group of five with a chance to split a $20,000 pot if they each can fulfill design requirements set forth by CDC. One of those five will be randomly selected for the CDC test, but if all complete the challenges, Baden said “they will be joint winners.”

In the end, CDC Game Jam teams will keep their intellectual property, get a chance at some cash, gain the mentorship of CDC scientists in their development and potentially walk away with the chance to say they had their game vetted by the CDC in a trial.

While the CDC Game Jam is a chance to further public health education with video games, long thought to be highly influential due to their immersive nature, Holman said it’s also a way to disrupt the old guard, bureaucratic process of government procurement and operation.

“There’s a larger world of crowdsourcing and open innovation” going on outside of government, he said. “The CDC Game Jam is not only interesting in the gameification of health care and education and public health interventions, but it’s also an innovation in the way to go about developing those games and leveraging the power of the crowd.”

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