There's a nice Q&A with designer John Ferrara on O'Reilly Radar today about how games can be a "force of cultural transformation." As part of that conversation, Ferrara discusses how games can be used to improve health and make healthy behavior more fun (or, if you're a believer in the coming zombie apocalypse, utterly terrifying):
You know, there's so much really inventive work being done right now. Recently, I've been playing a lot of "Zombies, Run!," and I think it's great. This is a game for smartphones that overlays a narrative about survivors in a zombie apocalypse onto your daily run. As you're out getting your exercise, you're listening to the game events as they unfold, and you can hear the zombies closing in. It's a great use of fantasy, and it plays as a true game with meaningful choices and conflict.
The video above, originally produced for its developers' Kickstarter campaign, offers a little more detail about how the "Zombies, Run!" app works. He also touches on how games might play a role in research, citing FoldIt as an example:
This is what's been called "human computation," where a group of people work together to solve some complex problem as a by-product of some other action, like playing a game. Luis Von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon describes games as algorithms that are executed by people rather than machines, and I think that's a really fascinating idea. Foldit is a great example. This is a puzzle game where players try to figure out how to fold chains of proteins. This is a problem that's very well suited to human computation because it requires a type of intuitive reasoning that's very difficult for actual computers. Foldit made a big news last fall when the people playing it decoded the structure of a protein related to a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys, which had eluded researchers for years.
In all, it's an interesting Q&A and well worth reading. And, if you'd like to read more about how games can be used in scientific research, I recommend a 2011 story by my colleague Bruce Goldman about a Stanford/Carnegie Mellon project called EteRNA, which draws on gamers' skills to accelerate biochemists' understanding of RNA. I think this is an absolutely fascinating field.