Health-Promoting Video Games Get $2M Power Up

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | November 10, 2009
Could the ultimate sedentary activity actually help you get in shape?

Teams of researchers around the country are working to create video games that encourage healthy habits, and their work just got a boost in the form of almost $2 million in grant money.

On Thursday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced it was doling out $1.85 million dollars in grants in the hopes of spurring development of games that will get people slimmer, fitter and perhaps even more social.

"Games are where people live these days," Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., told reporters during a phone conference announcing the grants. Lieberman, a communications researcher, directs the Health Games Research initiative, which is handling the grants, and is based out of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Grant winners include a driving game that could test for brain activity, as well as various exercise motivators that aim to spur couch potatoes to work out by having them exercise with virtual partners.

A researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has also created a game for children with autistic spectrum disorders that rewards them for recognizing facial cues, something these children often have a hard time doing.

The researchers, whose proposals were chosen out of about 185 entries, will spend the next year or so testing whether these games can genuinely change behaviors that lead to healthier lifestyles.

"Anecdotally, people can lose weight," Lieberman says, referring to some of the real-world effects seen with certain types of fitness-promoting games, such as Dance Dance Revolution, a popular arcade game that requires players to dance on a step pad.

Lieberman believes that some commercial games like DDR, though not specifically designed to promote health, because they do offer a genuine, if small, cardiovascular work out, could trigger a positive feedback loop, driving players to become more active.

"People who are sedentary and overweight and averse to any kind of exercise like to play DDR when that's available," she said. "In many case studies, someone like that has played DDR, got in a little better shape, realized it felt good. That was really a gateway for them to start biking, swimming, or whatever."

But is it "sticky"?

Although it's possible that video game interventions could cause short-term changes in behavior, the real question is: will the results last?

"We need more studies. We have to watch people over long periods of time," Lieberman told DOTmed News. She said that in one of her studies, she had kids diagnosed with diabetes play a game that helped them understand and learn about their condition. "It was a game about their life, so they were playing it consistently for six months. Even the most popular game usually has a three-month life-cycle, where people play it, beat it, and then they're done."