Digital Games Emerge as New Tool to Foster Health, Exercise

Article excerpt

These days, students at Halcyon Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala., cannot wait to get to physical education class.

As part of Alabama's Wee Can Fight Obesity campaign, Halcyon Elementary is one of dozens of schools that received a free Nintendo Wii Fit, a video game system that requires players to move around to earn points, also known as 'exergaming.'

"They don't even realize they're exercising," said Audrey Gillis, the school's PE teacher. "It's fabulous."

Gillis' students use the Wii two to three times a week during the 30 - minute PE class and "they just love it--we actually had some of the little children cry because it wasn't their Wii day," she said.

"These kids are active for 30 minutes straight--they don't stop," Gillis told The Nation's Health. "If we can get them to enjoy physical activity as children, then they're more likely to stay physically active as adults."

Gillis' experience is just one example of the growing intersections between public health and digital games. While using game - related challenges in public health endeavors is not new, video games and avatar - based simulations are emerging as an effective way of teaching healthy behaviors. Today, gaming technology and design is being used to address a variety of public health and health care issues, such as tobacco cessation, mass vaccination, physical inacivity, health promotion, chronic disease management and rehabilitation. In fact, February marked the debut of a new scientific journal, called Games for Health: Research, Development and Clinical Applications, or simply G4H, devoted to the topic.

"Games can influence everything from your attitudes about health to your perception of risk to your belief in your capability to take care of your own health, which is critical," said Debra Lieberman, PhD, director of the Health Games Research program at the University of California - Santa Barbara, an associate editor of the new journal and director of the Health Games Research program. "Games really are the most interactive media that we have today. Now, we need to bring evidence - based practices to this field, just like every other field of health and public health."

The Health Games Research program, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has awarded millions of dollars to researchers working in the field. For example, one grantee is developing a mobile phone game called Lit2Quit to help people kick the smoking habit. Built on the premise that smokers get a sense of satisfaction from the breathing action associated with cigarettes, Lit2Quit challenges players to breathe into their phone's microphone to move objects successfully around the screen. While the game is still in its testing phase, anecdotally, smokers have reported reduced cravings after playing, Lieberman said. Another program grantee is using robots to engage seniors in exercise games, she said. In the game, a robot sits on a table, instructing players to copy its movements and detecting whether players are doing it correctly.

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"Games can provide powerful experiences," Lieberman said. "They can help tremendously and research is showing that again and again."

For game developer Kognito Interactive in New York City, the research looks promising. In a study published in the debut issue of G4H, Kognito's "Family of Heroes" game was found to be an effective tool in helping families of veterans take an active role in encouraging veterans exhibiting psychological stress to seek help. The online simulation game brings players into a virtual environment where they learn about the signs of post - deployment stress, what to do in a mental health emergency and what kinds of Veterans Affairs services are available. …