Conversations about video games and health a decade or two ago often focused on their promotion of a sedentary lifestyle, or worries about exposing kids to too much violence. Those concerns still exist, but there is also a growing body of research looking at how electronic games can be used as a public health tool.
This fall, a new peer-reviewed academic journal on the topic will be launched to publish research in the field.
N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been supporting games for health for six years.
“Games are fun,” explains Paul Tarini, a senior program officer at the foundation. “If what you’re interested in doing is helping someone manage a chronic disease that needs daily maintenance, or helping yourself develop a habit to help yourself feel healthier, you can do it the old-fashioned way. Or if games really work, you can do it and have fun at the same time.”
Tarini said he sees the launch of the journal as evidence of steady interest in the field, still in its infancy
“There’s an increasing number of people who are interested in the question of whether games work, how well they work, and what makes them work,” Tarini said. “If we weren’t beginning to see a critical mass of people who are interested in those questions, we wouldn’t see somebody saying. ‘I think it’s time for a journal.’ “
Foundation-funded researchers are looking at how effective games that are already on the market, such as Wii Fit, are at motivating people to exercise. They are also developing new games to help Parkinson’s patients improve coordination through dancing, and help people manage diabetes, stop smoking, and improve cognitive function.
At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research, researchers have teamed up with programmers to develop a series of games that help autistic children develop skills in facial recognition.
“We believe when we have computer games, and lots of kids with autism like computer games and find them inherently rewarding and motivating, they might play them at home,” post-doctoral research fellow Gregor Kohls said.
A therapy that kids can do on their own, and won’t have to be talked into, is the goal, Kohls said.
The Center for Autism research has run trials with a basic computer game. Now, it’s developing sleeker, higher-tech versions based on popular commercial computer games.