Promoting virtue via video games

August 19, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Video games have been blamed for making kids fat, introducing them to sex and violence, luring them away from family conversations and shortening their attention spans.

Now a small number of game makers, backed in some cases by philanthropists, educators and scientists, are creating games meant to get young players to exercise, focus, monitor their health and even relax.

A computer game called Play Attention is used in school districts around the country, including one in Western Maryland, to get kids with attention-deficit disorder to focus. A company called Digital Praise - whose motto is "Glorifying God Through Interactive Media" - is selling adventure games that teach players about values such as patience and trust.

Konami's exercise game Dance Dance Revolution, which some players say has helped them lose weight, has spawned a number of imitators. A Minnesota father has developed a glucose meter called GlucoBoy - which will hook up to Nintendo's Game Boy - to motivate young people with diabetes by rewarding proper monitoring of blood sugar with video games.

As politicians renew questions over how the video-game industry polices itself, pointing to hidden sex scenes in the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, games and devices that explicitly promote healthy behavior still make up a small part of the $10 billion-a-year video game market. But they provide a window into what some experts say will become a significant new use of gaming technology.

If well-designed, the games should make parents and kids happy. Sam Groves, 15, says his parents like the nonviolent theme of Dance Dance Revolution - and the fact that the game gets him moving. He has lost 15 pounds since he started playing in December.

"They'd rather me play DDR than anything else," said the New Windsor teen.

Next month, an initiative called Games for Health will hold its second annual conference at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where health care professionals and game creators will discuss ways to collaborate on games that help kids with cancer manage the disease and hospitals distract patients from pain.

Marc Prensky, a game designer and author who tracks "social impact games" on a Web site, says the number of titles in that category has grown from 50 in 2000 to more than 500:

"I think there was just a growing realization that this medium is a useful one for education, that it's already educating."

So far, the exercise games have been most successful at crossing the bridge between entertainment and health.

More than 2.5 million copies of the home version of Dance Dance Revolution have been sold in the U.S. Sony's new EyeToy games put players on the screen, encouraging physical activity in the virtual world.

DDR shows the motivational power the right video game can have, says James Gee, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

"Kids did not get up to play that game saying they want to lose weight," he said. "Their orientation is, `This is a party.'"

Anita Frazier, who monitors video games for the NPD Group, says Dance Dance Revolution "opened up the industry's minds in terms of the kinds of games that could find an audience." But to succeed, the game has to be fun, she says.

Cindy Tenicela of Silver Spring says that's what drew her three children to Dance Dance Revolution several years ago. When she accompanied her then-12-year-old daughter to a tournament, "I was impressed that all the kids I met were straight, were sober, weren't smoking, weren't partying. You want to encourage that."

Now Tenicela plays, too.

Mike Markoe, director of student services and special education for Washington County schools in Western Maryland, says game-playing has helped students with attention problems to focus in their school work. Wearing a helmet that tracks their brain waves, students try to make objects fly across the screen or build pyramids using only their powers of concentration.

While the district has no formal data, Markoe said teachers report that students who have been playing the game for 30 minutes twice a week are paying better attention in class. As for the kids, "they do enjoy it."

That impulse prompted Paul Wessel, a Minneapolis father, to invent the device he calls GlucoBoy. His son, who has diabetes, often misplaced the device that monitored his blood sugar.

"But he would always know where his Game Boy was," said Wessel, who hopes to have GlucoBoy ready for sale by the end of next year. "That was kind of the `aha' moment."

If video games can be designed to be good for you, why aren't there more games like these? Gee, the education professor, says the same market forces that prompt sequel after sequel of popular titles such as Madden NFL Football keep new modes of gaming from gaining mass traction.

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