Video game technology is like duct tape. The ways in which it can be used are limitless.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the recent Games for Health Conference at the University of Southern California (USC). Held in Los Angeles on the day before the opening of the E3, the event attracted more than a dozen speakers from the video game and healthcare industries to talk about how game tech is being used to enhance mental and physical health. You can view a trailer for the GFH Conference here.
Readers of GamePolitics are no doubt familiar with some of the alternative uses for games such as the Dance Dance Revolution program in West Virginia schools which is aimed at combating childhood obesity. Or perhaps you've heard of Ben's Game and others like it which help kids deal with painful treatments.
But games can improve lives in a number of other ways. Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus, an SNES game released in 1994, starred an asthmatic dinosaur who progressed by avoiding hazards like dust clouds and cigarette smoke. The game was designed as an alternative way to teach children important asthma management skills. Studies showed that Bronkie was more successful in teaching kids about their condition than watching a 30-minute video on the same topic. Focus groups also demonstrated that children with asthma were drawn to and identified with a game protagonist who proudly held his inhaler on the game cover - an image the developers had to fight for, by the way.
In a more modern example, Immune Attack is a first-person, real-time strategy game which employs authentic biology concepts to teach students about the immune system in a fun and engaging way. Developed by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Brown University, and USC, the game challenges players to rebuild a human body's immune system from scratch by training cells to identify and combat infections.
Contrary to the common public image of gamers as isolated loners, games can also provide a way to practice social skills. With advances in artificial intelligence and 3-D graphics, computers can accurately simulate complex social interactions. Imagine software that allows you to interact with a virtual personal trainer who customizes your diet and exercise regimen. How about a virtual tutor who walks you through your calculus homework? Another idea is a virtual date who you could practice your best lines on, building confidence and giving you a chance to make an ass of yourself over and over in private until you get it right.
Dr. Lynn Miller is one of the minds behind the Interactive Sex Project, an interactive video designed to reduce HIV risk behaviors by allowing players to make critical decisions on a virtual date such as where to go, whether to bring a condom, and how to respond to an opportunity to take drugs. Players are allowed to make up their own minds and are presented with the consequences of their actions. If you are not sure what to do, the video's hosts are always there to offer advice. The project currently uses footage of real actors but Dr. Miller hopes to employ virtual characters in the future.
Positive health benefits from gaming can also be found in the most unlikely places. For example, playing
Guitar Hero may actually double as physical therapy for people with carpal tunnel. Using a GBA to play Advance Wars may help you stay fit by making treadmill time less monotonous. Even the health system in GTA San Andreas promotes a healthy lifestyle for your game character. In San Anadreas you can choose to disregard physical exercise and eat nothing but fast food but if you do your character will become fat over time. As Georgia Tech Professor Ian Bogost observed, "[In GTA] it's desirable to be able to run for obvious reasons."
-Reporting from San Diego, GP Correspondent and health nut, Andrew Eisen
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