Games for Health: Exploring How Video Games Can Improve Health and Health Care

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

“Children learn by doing, human beings learn by playing,” says John Lumpkin, M.D., M.S. in public health, senior vice president and director of the Health Care Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Putting important information into a game may be the best way to learn and get healthy, says Lumpkin. “Between everything that I’ve done as a physician about trying to improve health, and the video games that I used to play just for enjoyment, I began to realize that games could play a very important role, not only in encouraging people to exercise, but games could help people learn about their health and, even more importantly, can help them manage their illness if they are sick.”

This is where the Games for Health Project comes in. Founded in 2004 and sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Games for Health has been bringing together game designers and developers, medical professionals, researchers, and others for the Annual Games for Health Conference to share and discuss the role of video games in health care.

The three-day conference, held in May, included more than 400 participants and 60 speakers covering topics such as active gaming, rehab, and physical therapy, disease management, health behavior change, biofeedback, epidemiology, training, nutrition and health education, and cognitive exercise.

“It’s about using the power of games, whether it be game design or technologies, to solve problems in health and health care … we’re in the problem-solving business here,” says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Games for Health Project. Despite the relative infancy of this unexplored area, games are already having a serious impact on keeping us in shape and active, helping our health treatments with therapeutic and rehabilitative interventions and maximizing our cognitive abilities.

With youth obesity on the rise and fewer young people involved in organized sports, the gaming industry has come up with active gaming or “Exergaming” — the combination of exercising and video games—to encourage a less sedentary lifestyle. This includes games like “Dance Dance Revolution” or” iDance,” interactive floor and wall systems, the Wii fitness program, and the Brain Bike and Gamercize equipment, by Exergame Fitness, that have participants move in order to activate their game console’s controller.

In West Virginia, Dance Dance Revolution has been incorporated in the physical education curriculum and is currently available at all middle and high schools, with the help of the Using Video Games to Promote Activity multi-state grant from the USDA.

“That’s why so many people don’t exercise, because it’s inherently not fun,” says Stephen Yang, Ph.D., co-director of Exergame Lab, which let participants try out the latest developments in active games at the May 2010 Games for Health Conference. Yang encouraged people to replace their morning workout with an Exergame, because it’s just as effective as hopping on the treadmill — minus the boredom. “When playing these games you get into a sense of flow — a sense of distraction where you’re engaged in the game play. It’s more enjoyable and you don’t perceive things to be as hurtful or as tough to do.”

With video games, health care professionals can make treatments easier and more fun — and possibly more effective. For example, Bayer HealthCare has invested in a blood glucose monitoring system called the Didget, which allows children with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels while playing an adventure game, to encourage consistent testing and healthy habits. Players earn points through using the device, which can be transferred to the game on their Nintendo DS.

Other similar innovations in the field are helping doctors collect data from patients to offer better diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, the cost is drastically reduced when these programs are made available on game consoles or mobile devices. “Not only can we have fun, but we can use tools to achieve the same effects at a significantly reduced cost,” says Lumpkin. “Using a balance pad hooked up to a Wii can help people who’ve had a stroke gain their balance back as well as an $18,000 piece of equipment.”

New training simulation games are also evolving for health professionals to maximize their skills. Laparoscopic surgeons who played video games in the past — more than 3 hours per week — make 37 percent less errors than their non-playing colleagues, according to “The impact of video games on training surgeons in the 21st century,” a report published in the Archives of Surgery in 2007. “Video game skill and past video game experience are significant predictors of demonstrated laparoscopic skills,” the study found.

For example, BreakAway Ltd. has training simulation games like “Pulse! Virtual Clinical Learning Lab for Health Care Training” and “Dental Implant Training Simulation.” Players can train to perfect surgical dexterity, better identify symptoms in patients and determine priorities in emergency situations. “Most of these doctors say, I’m in the operating room all day,” says Tim Lanings, president of Grendel Games, “so please give me an entertaining game that does train the skill set and is fun to do.”

But what about all of those violent video games — how are they healthy?

Cheryl Olson, M.S. in public health, Sc.D., co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, was given a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the effect of video games on adolescents.

According to her findings, “video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions.” Olson said says, “I don’t think we have evidence that video games are inherently worse for kids than other media.” Just like anything, moderation and common sense are essential, she says, and encourages parents to get involved and consider that if their child chooses to spend so much time and energy on a game, there might be something to it. Parents can learn more about the results of the study from “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do,” co-authored by Olson and Lawrence Kutner, clinical psychologist, Harvard Medical School.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 68 percent of U.S. households play computer or video games, and industry sales have quadrupled since 1996. Professionals in health and gaming industries are figuring out how to harness this commitment for solving current issues in health care and making people healthier.

“You need to give people a challenge that matches their ability,” says Rob Hone, creative director of Red Hills Studios, which presented its physical therapy games for patients with Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy at the conference. “Whether it’s for training, health, or education, they’re going to apply themselves, they’re going to get into a flow state. In fact, they’ll be so focused that they’ll forget about everything else. That’s why the health games will work, because, in this case, we’re building it so that underneath it all, it’s actually making them better.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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