Play the Pain: A Digital Strategy for Play-Oriented Research and Action

A paper I worked on was recently published in Frontiers. You can read it here.


The value of understanding patients’ illness experience and social contexts for advancing medicine and clinical care is widely acknowledged. However, methodologies for rigorous and inclusive data gathering and integrative analysis of biomedical, cultural, and social factors are limited. In this paper, we propose a digital strategy for large-scale qualitative health research, using play (as a state of being, a communication mode or context, and a set of imaginative, expressive, and game-like activities) as a research method for recursive learning and action planning. Our proposal builds on Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic approach to knowledge production. Using chronic pain as an example, we show how pragmatic, structural and cultural constraints that define the relationship of patients to the healthcare system can give rise to conflicted messaging that impedes inclusive health research. We then review existing literature to illustrate how different types of play including games, chatbots, virtual worlds, and creative art making can contribute to research in chronic pain. Inspired by Frederick Steier’s application of Bateson’s theory to designing a science museum, we propose DiSPORA (Digital Strategy for Play-Oriented Research and Action), a virtual citizen science laboratory which provides a framework for delivering health information, tools for play-based experimentation, and data collection capacity, but is flexible in allowing participants to choose the mode and the extent of their interaction. Combined with other data management platforms used in epidemiological studies of neuropsychiatric illness, DiSPORA offers a tool for large-scale qualitative research, digital phenotyping, and advancing personalized medicine.

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