The Positive Side of Video Games
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 are creating games meant to encourage young players to exercise, focus, monitor their health and even relax.
A computer game called Play Attention is used in school districts around the United States to help 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, Md., teen.
Later this month, an initiative called Games for Health will hold a 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," he said.
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 United States. 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.
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."