Turn On, Tune Out, Get Well?

Leukemia patient Ben Duskin plays a cancer-fighting video game he helped design.
Leukemia patient Ben Duskin plays a cancer-fighting video game he helped design. (Make-a-wish Foundation)
By Alicia Ault
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

How do video games affect child health? By fueling violence, shrinking attention, promoting obesity and dulling interest in academic pursuits, if their critics are to be believed. But some physicians, psychiatrists and public health experts see a more positive side: They're betting electronic games can be adapted as tools to ease medical treatments, improve patient outcomes and boost fitness and knowledge for users young and old.

Government agencies including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Office of Naval Research and other branches of the Department of Defense are placing bets of their own, funding the development of health-related video games.

Some of those projects and others were on display recently at the second annual Games for Health conference at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Between lectures, participants crowded into two windowless rooms for a first-hand look. In one, they could test themselves on the Kilowatt, an isometric exercise device in which players use body strength to interact with scenes on a video screen -- for instance, muscling a car around a race track. In another room, attendees donned a virtual-reality helmet for a simulated plunge into FreeDive, a fantasy underwater world meant to distract pediatric patients from pain or anxiety.

In an age where so much of life revolves around a computer, a cell phone or a personal digital assistant, advocates of so-called serious video games see their potential to reach many more Americans.

"The medium has matured to the point where enough people understand and use [electronic video games] that we can now put them to other uses than just entertainment," said Ian Bogost, a founder and partner in Persuasive Games, an Atlanta-based company that designs and builds video games geared to learning and social change.

So far the market for serious games is puny -- maybe $50 million, compared with the $7.3 billion spent annually worldwide on commercial games, said Ben Sawyer, co-founder and co-director of the Games for Health Project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. New applications like FreeDive, which is being developed for what is essentially a new market -- hospitals -- could change that.

The first hurdle for game designers: coming up with a concept that's not just beneficial but engaging. The next challenge: amassing proof that the games can help patients. That requires researchers to study the games -- as they are doing at places like the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the New Jersey Medical School in Newark.

While parents might fret at a child's immersion in Nintendo or Xbox or PlayStation, a game's almost hypnotic appeal can help distract a child about to receive anesthesia or have dialysis or chemotherapy. Terry Spearman, team leader for child life services at the Children's National Medical Center, said distraction -- through games, music, storytelling and relaxation methods -- is a well-documented technique for helping children manage anxiety and fear in the hospital.

Video games "sound like another, higher-level form of distraction," said Spearman. The game categories being developed include:

· simulated- and virtual-reality games being used to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder;

· " exergames," which invite participants to exercise while playing; and

· learning games, which teach about a health condition or distract children from painful procedures.

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