- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Researchers across the country will try to determine whether certain interactive computer games can motivate children to eat better and stay healthy, teach alcoholics skills to prevent relapses or help elderly patients improve their vision.

Twelve research teams have been awarded more than $2 million in grants to examine such theories over the next two years. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded the grants through its Health Games Research (HGR) program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The grant recipients were made public yesterday.

The goal, foundation leaders said, is to build the pool of scientific data supporting the use of computer games to improve health and to produce design principles that the industry can use to craft effective health games.

“We’ve got some really interesting game designs now, and we’ve got the technology to do more with games,” said Debra Lieberman , director of HGR. “This is a very valid way to reach people and help them change their health.”

Ms. Lieberman, a communication researcher at UCSB’s Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, said research in the past 20 years has shown that well-designed computer games can improve health outcomes, but recently the games have become more sophisticated and experts seem more open to the idea.

Among the grant recipients, Cornell University’s Communication Department will test a mobile-phone game for younger teens that rewards good habits and food choices. The University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions will examine whether PlayStation’s action-adventure driving game “Crazy Taxi” can help senior citizens improve visual attention skills.

Stacy Fritz, a physical therapist at the University of South Carolina, will explore whether popular sport video games such as Nintendo’s Wii will effectively motivate stroke patients to improve balance and mobility. She said that persuading patients to stay active is a constant challenge and that the games could be “a more interesting way to look at physical therapy.”

Many rehab clinics already use games like Wii, Ms. Lieberman said.

At the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, psychiatrists and technology experts are developing an interactive digital game to help alcoholics practice skills that prevent relapse. In the virtual world, patients will have to make choices and perform challenges on behalf of an “avatar,” a virtual character. Challenges could include jogging past their favorite bar, ridding their house of alcohol or reducing stress in their lives.

It will allow patients to “practice their relapse prevention skills in a safe, realistic environment,” said Dr. Marcia Verduin , a psychiatrist at UCF and the lead investigator. “In this world, if they fall off the wagon, it hasn’t done any real damage.”

Dr. Verduin said they expect to find that patients who play the game will have fewer relapses or take longer to relapse, than those who won’t play the game.

Ms. Lieberman said the grant program aims to delve deeper into the nexus between motivating people to change health behaviors and crafting fun effective computer games. “It’s not just, ‘did the games work?’ but ‘how and why?’ ” she said.

With so many Americans playing video games, the foundation sees “a huge opportunity to improve health and health care” and hopes the research will generate new insights that will help the field “really take off,” said Chinwe Onyekere, a program officer at RWJ Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio.

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