University researchers to study video games' effect on health

The research may discover new ways to quit smoking, lose weight

Nine research teams from universities across the U.S. will study how interactive video games such as the Wii Active could help fight childhood obesity and how mobile phone games could help smokers quit or reduce tobacco use.

The teams will also focus on how video games can be designed to help people change behaviors and self-manage chronic illnesses as well as improve communication with autistic patients.

"Digital games are interactive and experiential, and so they can engage people in powerful ways to enhance learning and [change health-related behavior], especially when they are designed on the basis of well-researched strategies," said Debra Lieberman, a communication researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research.

Lieberman, a leading expert in the research and design of interactive media for learning and health behavior change, said the new interactive gaming studies will provide "cutting-edge, evidence-based strategies that designers will be able to use in the future to make their health games more effective."

The nine teams, chosen from among 185 proposals, have been awarded between $100,000 and $300,000 each from $1.85 million in grant money offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The researchers will lead one- to two-year studies of digital games that engage players in physical activity and/or motivate them to improve how they take care of themselves through healthy changes in lifestyle, prevention behaviors, cognitive, social or physical skills, chronic disease self-management, and/or adherence to a medical treatment plan.

For example, the research teams will delve into the popular dance pad video game Dance Revolution to see how it might help Parkinson's patients reduce the risk of falling, or how facial recognition games might be designed to help people with autism better identify others' emotions.

The studies will focus on diverse population groups that vary by race and ethnicity, health status, income level and game-play setting, with age groups ranging from elementary school children to 80-year-olds. The research teams will study participants' responses to health games played on a variety of platforms, such as video game consoles, computers, mobile phones and robots.

"The pace of growth and innovation in digital games is incredible, and we see tremendous potential to design them to help people stay healthy or manage chronic conditions like diabetes or Parkinson's disease. However, we need to know more about what works and what does not, and why," Paul Tarini, team director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio, said in a statement.

The nine grant recipients are:

  • Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which will test the tests effects of facial perception games on the brain activity and facial perception skills of 8- to 12-year-old children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • George Washington University in Washington, which will compare physical, psychological and behavioral effects of three activities: playing Winds of Orbis, a video game that involves an upper and lower body workout as the player moves in order to control a character's movements in the game, playing Dance Revolution, a popular video game that provides a lower body workout as players dance on a pad that detects their dance steps, and engaging in traditional physical education activities at school.
  • Georgetown University which will also assign obese and overweight urban high school students to play the Wii Active competitively after school with the goal of lowering their body mass index (BMI), play the Wii Active cooperatively in a team after school with the goal of helping each other reduce their BMI, or play with no access to Wii Active after school.
  • Long Island University, in Brooklyn, N.Y., which will compare the use of a commercially available dance pad video game, Dance Dance Revolution, to two traditional treatment options that help people with Parkinson's Disease reduce their risk of falling by increasing their balance, strength, endurance, motor coordination and visual-motor integration.
  • Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Mich., which will study how college students using the Eye Toy: Kinetic camera-based video game may work harder with a partner in a strenuous physical task than when working alone, especially if the partner is moderately better at the task.
  • A secnd team at Michigan State University that will study short-term and long-term effectiveness of the Mount Olympus game to combat obesity. Mount Olympus is a 3D fantasy role-playing game that requires players to move their upper and lower body in order to control their character's movements.
  • Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, which develops and evaluates a smoking reduction game delivered on a mobile phone.
  • University of California, San Francisco, which will study how a video game can enhance cognitive health in older adults.
  • University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which will examine the influence of virtual social characters on a person's motivation to exercise.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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