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Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008

IU receives Health Games technology grant, sends students on Skeleton Chase

May 29, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University announced today (May 29) that it received a $185,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to explore how an interactive digital game can be designed to improve players' health.

Health Games

Anne Massey (left), Lee Sheldon and Jeanne Johnston

Print-Quality Photo

IU joins 11 other research teams supported in this first round of funding from Health Games Research, an RWJF national program established to strengthen the evidence base related to the development and use of games to achieve desirable health outcomes.

Researchers in IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Kelley School of Business and College of Arts and Sciences will study whether their newly designed alternate reality game (ARG) can help college freshmen develop healthy habits that could last a lifetime. ARGs combine Web-based and other new technologies with real world, real time scenarios to challenge participants with puzzles, games, mysteries and other aspects of the interactive narrative. The researchers are targeting college freshmen, men and women arguably in one of the most exciting and stressful periods of their lives.

"There is a paucity of research addressing how to influence physical activity and health behaviors within this population," said Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor in the School of HPER's Department of Kinesiology and principal investigator of the grant. "The identification and evaluation of methods that target the unique characteristics of the college age population during this critical transition period in their lives is paramount to establishing lifelong healthy behaviors."

Johnston is collaborating with Anne Massey, Dean's Research Professor in the Kelley School's Department of Operations & Decision Technologies, and Lee Sheldon, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Telecommunications. Sheldon is designing The Skeleton Chase, which for eight weeks will pit 30 teams of three students each against each other as they solve an "undisclosed" mystery and learn about nutrition, stress management, physical activity and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle along the way.

"I'm very excited about The Skeleton Chase because it is the next generation of so-called 'serious' games," Sheldon said. "It isn't didactic. It isn't about health or wellness or fitness. It's full of the mystery and suspense and adventure that make commercial games and alternate reality games so much fun. Yet, when they are through with the game, players will be fitter, healthier and wiser. Every participant truly will have won."

Massey will be parsing the students' experiences to gauge how much they enjoyed the game and why. She said that while there is a lot of interest in using games for more than just entertainment, there is limited understanding of how game design elements contribute to play experience. Massey will be developing a psychological attractiveness metric and procedure to assess not only the strengths and weaknesses of design elements embedded in The Skeleton Chase, but assess other games as well.

"We're dealing with the millennial generation," said Massey. "Their expectations about learning are different than anything we've seen before. They want experiences and socialization. Technology is nothing new to them. They're very goal oriented. Considering this, we see there is a role for games in health behavior change. They're already playing them."

To assess the effectiveness of The Skeleton Chase, the researchers will measure physical activity, health and wellness outcomes before and after game play and again at the end of the school year to see how students fared. Students participating in the study live in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center, one of seven specially themed environments in IU Bloomington residence halls. Johnston said Residential Programs and Services is supporting a pilot project designed to examine the impact of participation in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center on health and well-being within the college student population.

Health Games Research is headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The program is funded by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF's Pioneer Portfolio, which supports innovative projects that may lead to breakthrough improvements in the future of health and health care.

"This groundbreaking study led by Indiana University will identify new interactive behavioral health strategies to use in the design of future health games and technologies," said Debra Lieberman, director of Health Games Research. "Together, the 12 studies funded this year will help us better understand how people respond to various types of health games, and this will potentially lead to new game-based applications that can more effectively engage and motivate players to improve their health."

The 12 grantees were selected from 112 research organizations that applied for Health Games Research funding during the first funding call, which focused on games that engage players in physical activity and/or games that promote and improve players' self-care.

As IU and the other 11 grantees conduct their studies, Health Games Research will provide them with ongoing assistance and research resources.

For more information, contact Johnston at 812-855-5073 and

About Health Games Research

Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio, supports research to enhance the quality and impact of interactive games used to improve health. Its grantees conduct outstanding, innovative, theory-grounded research aimed at discovering effective principles of health game design. Health Games Research also contributes to national conferences and professional meetings and distributes research findings and other information related to health games. It works creatively and collaboratively with health care and health promotion professionals, game publishers, technology firms, government agencies, educators, researchers, community leaders and other decision-makers who create, buy, recommend or fund the development of health games. For more information, visit or contact

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. The foundation's Pioneer Portfolio supports innovative ideas and projects that may trigger important breakthroughs in health and health care. Projects in the Pioneer Portfolio are future-oriented and look beyond conventional thinking to explore solutions at the cutting edge of health and health care. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit