Can gaming help cure our fear of seeing the doctor?

There’s an anxiety many of us will be familiar with, especially now the days are growing colder and flutters of coughs have begun to crowd our offices. It’s the stubborn feeling that – even if you’re in a lot of pain – you shouldn’t visit your doctor because, well, it’s a bother. You’ll eventually get better. There’s no need to get it checked out.

This week, biopharmaceutical company AbbVie launched a year-long project dedicated to this feeling in adults aged between 40 and 60 years old. The Live:Lab initiative will bring together a range of collaborators including Wallace and Gromit-creators Aardman and the Open Data Institute, to help come up with tech-based ways to tackle calls the project calls the “fear of finding out”.

Simon Bullmore, associate at the Open Data Institute, describes the project as something he feels strongly about. A few years ago he was suffering from a cough that worsened after a course of antibiotics. It was only after eventually being persuaded to return to the doctor that a liver abscess was discovered. If it had been left undiagnosed, it could have cost him his life.

“If you’d said to me: why didn’t you go to the doctor? I would have said to you at that stage it’s because i thought I was going to get better. But the right answer was I was afraid, I was scared. Now, why should I be scared by people with the potential to cure me? That’s what’s really interesting. The challenge will be to unpick that.”

Live:Lab describes this phenomena as “a major psychological barrier which causes people to put off seeing the GP or seeking medical advice even when they have worrying symptoms”. A report published earlier this year found that people – generally men – endure symptoms longer than is needed, despite that fact that there’s an abundance of health information now available. Late diagnoses can cost the NHS a great deal, so encouraging people to be more conscious about their health could be in everyone’s favour.

That’s the thinking, at least. The problem at the moment is that, as the report says, there is a “paucity of quantitative data associated with fear barriers to help-seeking”. Enter the game developers. Max Scott-Slade’s studio, Glitchers, previous connected video games and medical research with Sea Hero Quest. That nautical adventure exported player patterns to scientist studying dementia, with the idea that this could shine a light on how our brains navigate spaces, and in turn improve detection for Alzheimer’s.sea_hero_quest

“There are people toiling away in labs at their computers that are effectively doing game design,” Scott-Slade tells me. “Even if it’s on paper, they’re trying to ask questions which evoke a certain kind of response to get the most accurate answer. To me, that is game design.”

The overlap between patient study and game design is at the root of Scott-Slade’s aim for the Live:Lab collaboration. He tells me that games have a unique potential to gauge people’s reasoning, in a way other media cannot.

“We could test people in one environment then test them in another environment to see how they react differently,” he explains. “That for me is really interesting, about how games can add value. And the game design process really helps drive that conversation because we do that all the time. For us that’s normal. Now we can actually give it a behavioural, psychological objective.”

It’s early days on the project, but Bullmore says he is excited about the collaboration’s potential to “generate data in an area that hasn’t been researched at all”, and potentially establish a model for more frequent data-sharing between the public and medical researchers.

“I believe the challenge, as always, will be in the subtle details that get you the right data and the right level of insight,” he adds. “That’s why you have guys who are developing a game. It’s such an interesting thing because it’s notoriously difficult to ask people questions about why they did things. Gameplay reveals insights you don’t get in other ways.”

For more information on Live:Lab, head over to the project’s website. Live:Lab is also running a series of videos about how it’s working with collaborators. You can watch the most recent of these below.


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