Grants Awarded For Inspiring Health Games Research

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has revealed 12 universities that will receive grants to research the use of video games as healthcare tools. Games have shown clear potential to serve healthcare, from helping stroke victims rehabilitate, encouraging seniors to exercise and teaching behavior for therapy. Exhaustive research and hard data will further drive the growth of games as healthcare tools for people of all ages, and the grant recipients aim to support this goal.

It's about taking advantage of the burgeoning video game trend instead of attacking it, said Deborah Lieberman Ph.D., communications researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, during the organization's announcement conference today.

"Research has shown you can learn whatever a video game offers. The question is, what are you going to teach?" said Lieberman.

12 universities were awarded $200,000 grants for innovative research concepts that will either develop new games or use existing commercial games to address specific health issues across all areas of the population. An MMO designed to help alcoholics learn relapse prevention and a social mobile game that would teach healthy eating habits to adolescents are just a couple of the winning ideas - one of them even involves Crazy Taxi.

The primary goal of the research, as Lieberman said, is to build a strong evidence base to better understand how games can serve as a springboard to health behavior change, and the Foundation's Chinwe Onyekere said her organization felt it important to invest in these ideas, given the need for evidence to compel the field forward. The Foundation is investing $8.25 million in the Health Games Research national program, for these and additional grants in the future.

"We're a portfolio looking 10 and 20 years down the road, hoping we can really make an impact on the future of health and healthcare. We are keenly aware of how video games are in homes, crossing socioeconomic status backgrounds, with young and old playing games," said Onyekere.

Lieberman said that anecdotal evidence in support of games as health tools abound, from stories of Wii Bowling nights at senior centers to Dance Dance Revolution and the EyeToy being used to help people in physical rehabilitation regain balance and mobility. Lieberman is also enthusiastic about the potential offered by Wii Fit, but the benefit of games reaches beyond body movement "exergaming" — games make useful motivators and behavioral teaching tools, too, she said.

"A game involves a challenge to reach a goal - that's why we love to play them. It makes us want to do better, and we take pleasure in succeeding. Stroke victims work harder and reach further in rehab when they have a game environment in which to try out their skills." They stop thinking about their pain, she said, and think about goals instead, to "tremendous results."

The 12 grantees, chosen from 112 entrants, will lead one- to two-year studies centered on their proposal. The full list is as follows:

Cornell University, Department of Communication (Ithaca, NY) - Mindless Eating Challenge is a mobile phone game for younger adolescents that rewards their good health habits and food choices. The study will investigate how strategies of persuasion in a game can promote healthy behaviors in daily life. The game uses eating tips, mobile phone snapshots of food that players plan to eat, nurturing of virtual characters and feedback from the system and from peers to promote good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Indiana University, School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (Bloomington, IN) - BloomingLife: The Skeleton Chase is an alternative reality game designed to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles among college freshmen. It involves an interactive fictional story (a mystery that takes eight weeks to solve) unfolding across a variety of media (e-mail, Web sites, phone calls from fictional characters, physiological monitoring) and real-world physical and mental challenges that players must surmount to gather clues. The study will compare the impacts of competitive versus collaborative game versions.

Maine Medical Center (Portland, ME) - Family-Based Exergaming with Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) will identify impacts of the popular dance pad game on families with at least one overweight child, aged 9 to 17. Participating families will be randomly assigned to receive the DDR game or a pedometer. The study will assess, over time, players' amount, type and enjoyment of physical activity, quality of life, body mass index and body composition. It also will examine family dynamics in the activities they do together and factors that influence their motivation to be physically active.

Union College, Department of Psychology (Schenectady, NY) - Seniors Cyber-Cycling with a Virtual Team: Effects on Exercise Behavior, Neuropsychological Function and Physiological Outcomes is a randomized, clinical trial designed to identify individual and situational factors that influence exercise behaviors and health outcomes in community-dwelling older adults, aged 50+. The system combines a stationery bicycle with FitClub cardiovascular exergame software, which uses a touch screen to provide individualized feedback to the player and a three-dimensional virtual environment for exercise that can be shared with other players competitively or collaboratively.

University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine (La Jolla, CA) - Behavioral Choice Theory Approach to Testing Exertainment for Adolescent Physical Activity will identify health behavior change principles used in a variety of commercially available exergames and their impact on players' physical activity levels. The study will use the Xavix system (exergames with sport equipment controllers for tennis, boxing, bowling, cardio-fitness and other sports) to assess the frequency, intensity and duration of physical activity in people aged 11 to 15 that are given a Xavix to use at home for several months. The researchers also will investigate how the social interactions that take place during game play may influence health behavior change.

University of Central Florida, College of Medicine (Orlando, FL) - Practicing Relapse Prevention in Artificial-Reality Environments: [PREPARE]: A Game-Based Therapy Maintenance Tool will investigate role-playing games designed to enable people aged 18 to 65 that are diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence to practice skills that can help them prevent real-world relapses. The relapse prevention games are embedded as mini-games within an extensive multiplayer online game. The study will compare behavioral and health impacts of treatment plus access to the game versus treatment without access to the game.

University of Florida, College of Public Health and Health Professions (Gainesville, FL) - Action Video Games to Improve Everyday Cognitive Function in Older Adults will explore the effects of an action-adventure driving video game (Playstation 2's "Crazy Taxi") on the visual attention skills of a 3 group of community-dwelling adults, aged 65 and older. The study will compare participants who play "Crazy Taxi," those who receive a traditional visual attention training program and those who are given no training at all. It will evaluate visual attention performance and cognitive speed and skills, as well as investigate how players' levels of engagement in the game may influence their motivation to carry out the visual attention training program. University of North Carolina at

Chapel Hill, School of Public Health (Chapel Hill, NC) - Presence: Predicting Sensory and Control Effects of Console Video Games in Young Adults will investigate motivations to expend energy during video game play for people aged 18 to 35. The study will compare physiological measures of energy expenditure while people play traditional video games (those that involve pushing buttons on a standard game controller or on a Wii motion-sensing controller) versus active video games (those that require physical movement, using inputs such as a dance pad, balance board or guitar). It also will explore players' sense of being present in the game and their intrinsic motivation to play, two factors that are known to increase the amount of time people will spend playing a game. This is the first time that research will identify impacts of these factors on players' energy expenditure; study results may lead to recommendations for making traditional games more active and active games more compelling.

University of South Carolina Research Foundation (Columbia, SC) - Commercially Available Interactive Video Games for Individuals with Chronic Mobility and Balance Deficits Post-Stroke will investigate the potential of physical activity video games to serve as innovative, cost-effective ways to help people recover motor skills after experiencing a stroke. The study will compare the effects of two video game systems (Wii and EyeToy) on players' mobility, balance and fear of falling.

University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles, CA) - Effectiveness of Social Mobile Networked Games in Promoting Active Lifestyles for Wellness will use cell phones and the Web to deliver "Wellness Partners," a character-driven social mobile networked game, to children and adults aged 12 to 44. The game is designed to motivate real-world wellness through a player support system that involves family members and friends, and by incorporating elements from virtual pets, roleplaying games and online social networking. A single-player version provides a fictional game character that offers encouragement, reminders, progress checking and communication with others. The multiplayer version allows players to enlist members of their social network to be partners or helpers. The study will examine how various components of the game may motivate healthy behaviors.

University of Vermont, School of Medicine (Burlington, VT) - Breath Biofeedback Video Game for Children with Cystic Fibrosis will explore whether a breath biofeedback video game can improve cystic fibrosis patients' self-administration of inhaled medicines, engagement in respiratory exercises and awareness of their respiratory status. The game uses a breath controller and game software developed by the research team in collaboration with patients in the target user group. In addition to potentially helping cystic fibrosis patients self-manage their condition and maintain better health, the game may also be useful for children and adults with asthma and other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

University of Washington, School of Medicine (Seattle, WA) - Video Games for Dietary Behavior Change and Improved Glycemic Control in Diabetes will investigate health impacts of online mobile mini-games for people with type 2 diabetes, aged 18 and older. The games are designed to help players attain better blood sugar control by improving their ability to estimate carbohydrates and calories in food portions and by improving their eating habits. In addition to assessing the impact of the games on dietary knowledge and food choices, the study will explore effects of two game design strategies: tailoring and tethering. Tailoring involves customizing a game to meet an individual player's preferences and goals. Tethering involves embedding a learning task within the strategies that players must use to win a game.