UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Immersive virtual reality health games: a narrative review of game design Tao, Gordon; Garrett, Bernie; Taverner, Tarnia; Cordingley, Elliott; Sun, Crystal


Background: High quality head-mounted display based virtual reality (HMD-VR) has become widely available, spurring greater development of HMD-VR health games. As a behavior change approach, these applications use HMD-VR and game-based formats to support long-term engagement with therapeutic interventions. While the bulk of research to date has primarily focused on the therapeutic efficacy of particular HMD-VR health games, how developers and researchers incorporate best-practices in game design to achieve engaging experiences remains underexplored. This paper presents the findings of a narrative review exploring the trends and future directions of game design for HMD-VR health games. Methods: We searched the literature on the intersection between HMD-VR, games, and health in databases including MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, and Compendex. We identified articles describing HMD-VR games designed specifically as health applications from 2015 onwards in English. HMD-VR health games were charted and tabulated according to technology, health context, outcomes, and user engagement in game design. Findings: We identified 29 HMD-VR health games from 2015 to 2020, with the majority addressing health contexts related to physical exercise, motor rehabilitation, and pain. These games typically involved obstacle-based challenges and extrinsic reward systems to engage clients in interventions related to physical functioning and pain. Less common were games emphasizing narrative experiences and non-physical exercise interventions. However, discourse regarding game design was diverse and often lacked sufficient detail. Game experience was evaluated using primarily ad-hoc questionnaires. User engagement in the development of HMD-VR health games primarily manifested as user studies. Conclusion: HMD-VR health games are promising tools for engaging clients in highly immersive experiences designed to address diverse health contexts. However, more in-depth and structured attention to how HMD-VR health games are designed as game experiences is needed. Future development of HMD-VR health games may also benefit from greater involvement of end-users in participatory approaches.

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Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)