Video games promoted as effective health-care training

Video games promoted as effective health-care training

MADISON, Wis. — Scientists are turning on its head the popular notion that video games can only promote aggressive behavior or passive learning. The explosion of real-world learning applications for games may astound critics of the virtual world.
The first annual Games for Health conference featured games promoting nutrition, self-awareness and medical skills. Sessions on September 16 and 17 at the Monona Terrace opened a discussion on best practices for using video games in health care and considered future directions.
Kurt Squire, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of curriculum and instruction, spoke on his experiences researching simulations and games in learning environments. David Williamson Shaffer, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, told the audience about his interest in how computer-based media change the way people think and learn.
The event also drew presenters from from the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of Texas, Beth Israel Medical Center, and the game industry.

A new literacy

Educational frontiers in using either off-the-shelf or specially made video games are being forged in the fields of business, education, government and health care.
The conference focused on the health care partly because of the immediate payoffs associated with meeting health-care goals through the more cost-effective methods of video games. These games include biofeedback-based games to teach players to reduce biological signs of stress and games that help people with phobias, diabetes, asthma and heart disease.
Other games featured at the conference included exercise simulations, and a bicycle that can be hooked up to a popular video game that takes people racing through city streets.
In a Thursday morning session, Michael Erard, a writer and editor with the University of Texas School of Nursing, said a review of more than 1,000 research projects conducted since 1984 revealed some intriguing possibilities for future research.
Not surprisingly, research on the relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior was conducted most often. Fifty-five papers focused on the subject. Other topics that interested many researchers included the effects of video games on dependency and addictive behaviors, Erard said.
One of the least-researched topics was what skills are learned through solving problems in video games. Erard said that the majority of research did not study very large or ethnically diverse groups of people. He was also surprised to find very little research on how video games can be used to promote health among, for example, people with HIV or pregnant women.
Squire, whose research interests include effective video-game design and interfaces, demographic differences between gamers, and other issues that inform theories behind video games, will look at a few of those subjects in the future. He said his work with Professor James Gee at the UW-Madison School of Education will look at game theory for targeted areas, including health care, because of its potential for immediate impact.

Learning through games

The emerging educational theory behind video games is based on research that shows the Internet has spawned a new type of learning called information literacy. This moves away from the traditional model of passive learning through lecture and reading to a more interactive model using computers.
Researchers say video games have many attributes that help people learn:

  • They activate prior learning, because players must use previously learned information to move to higher levels of play.
  • Games provide immediate feedback in scoring and in visual and auditoriy stimulus, which allows learners to more quickly modify their learning strategies before the ineffective ones become entrenched.
  • Skill transfer from games to real life is much more likely to occur.
  • Motivation to learn new ideas or tasks is higher when games are used for most people (although some prefer to learn in traditional ways).

Questions for researchers

Games used for some behavioral or therapeutic reasons, such as helping children diagnosed with hyperactivity focus their attention, have traditionally been the tools of last resort or when other therapies fail, Squire said. Future research may look at how these therapeutic games work as one component of complementary therapies.
Researchers are also looking at how game therapies will help achieve health goals compared to more expensive and traditional therapies, and how new game technologies compare to those of the 1980s.
Squire also noted that the field is ripe for research into how video games will be used for aging baby boomers. Although some people prefer to learn through traditional literacy, he said, most seniors can find some interest that has been transferred to video games, such as traveling or crossword puzzles. The effect of these video games on nursing homes of the future may be an area for researchers to explore.
Both Erard and Squire noted that research needs to be done with diverse populations. Video games have been skewed toward males in the past, although it would be hard to find a girl who hasn’t played one, Squire noted. But research in the past 20 years or so has come from 20 countries, Erard said.
The Serious Games Initiative, which organized the conference, is a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars effort applies gaming technologies to a range of “serious” issues in the public and private sectors.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab, the UW center that develops and tests technologies to enhance teaching and learning. Another sponsor, The Learning Federation, is a partnership of companies, universities, government agencies and private foundations to promote a national research plan for digital learning technologies.
Christine Javid is a Madison-based freelance writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at