Health's Got Game

From exercise to medical training aids, video games score when it comes to keeping you fit

May 29, 2008|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun Reporter

The plane lifts off and is soaring high above the urban landscape. The sun creeps behind a tall building. Then suddenly, the sky gets a little darker, and the ultralight craft isn't alone. Another plane is coming, and it's firing its weapons.

This is a Dogfight -- a new computer game by Electronic Sports, where competitors go head to head in an effort to shoot each other down.

It's not just another new arcade game. Yes, there is a screen complete with realistic computer-generated sights and sounds. But it's hooked up to a stationary bike, and competitors have to pedal to play.

This is a so-called "healthy game," and the visuals aim to distract the players from the "drudgery" of cycling in place, said Joe Dean, the company president and chief executive. It's one of hundreds of new games that are the latest weapons in the battle against obesity and other health-related problems.

They are played on computers that have long been contributors to the sedentary ways of children, who spend hours at a time sitting behind a screen in pursuit of the high score. Some game developers, health care companies and medical researchers now are teaming up to use the joystick's power for good.

Many new games require players to move to make them work and are increasingly being used in schools, community centers and gyms. Other games aimed at education rather than exercise are being handed out by health care companies to patients and school kids and by medical institutions to trainees and first responders.

Together, they broadly comprise the nascent but rapidly growing healthy games market. The segment may now make up close to one-third of the nation's $1.5 billion "serious games" industry, which includes games with some sort of purpose beyond entertainment like modeling and simulation for business or the military.

Healthy games are not likely to generate the buzz or record sales of the traditional video game Grand Theft Auto IV, which topped $500 million in its first week this month. But at least one may push them more into the mainstream and grab more of the $40 billion overall video game market worldwide. Nintendo's Wii Fit went on sale to individual consumers this month for about $90 and offers skiing, soccer and other games to agile players with a footboard.

"The special nature of games is that they motivate you," said Ben Sawyer, a Portland, Maine-based technology developer who launched the Games for Health Project (gamesforhealth.org) four years ago to assess the effectiveness of the genre and put on a conference for those in the field.

"Games have an ease and a sexiness about them," he said. "Can we actually change people's habits and the health of at-risk populations through games? It makes sense that we can."

Sawyer's Games for Health conference brought gaming professionals to Baltimore this month to learn from each other, help some find funding for their ideas and let others show off their equipment.

Dogfight was on display there. Executives, who have opened a Salt Lake City sales office, were hoping to attract a chain of gyms to invest in the new technology. It's already an arcade game.

Another game was Lightspace Play, which uses a stage that's just over 9 feet by 9 feet and harks back to the disco era with its glowing tiles. It prompts school kids to jump from square to square to hit a virtual tennis ball or hockey puck or dodge a dodgeball or snowball. It's been marketed to schools and community centers for several years and is designed to get kids thinking that exercise is fun, said Katie Miner, Boston-based Lightspace Corp.'s operations manager.

On the health front, video games aren't just for cardio workouts either.

Digital Steamworks of Hunt Valley has created Play Visualizer that turns football and other game tape into three-dimensional action. The Baltimore Ravens use it so players equipped with special glasses can watch video versions of themselves throwing passes, tackling opponents or running for the end zone.

Kaiser Permanente and Humana health care companies showed games they hope will make learning about disease care and proper nutrition more engaging. Humana, a gaming conference sponsor, has been testing the effectiveness of games for seniors and students.

Kaiser has developed Amazing Food Detective and offered it to schools. It takes kids through a virtual mystery until they uncover the proper things to eat. Since the game doesn't actually get the kids moving, it shuts off automatically after 20 minutes and prompts the players to do something active.

"We're trying to see what works," said Kaiser spokeswoman Lorna D. Fernandes. "Childhood obesity is a big problem that costs everyone. We really need to look at everything."

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