Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Video games let children play while they learn

Kids with cancer are getting unconventional advice from some North Texas doctors: Eat your vegetables. Take your medicine. And don't forget to play your video game.

Physicians and nurses at Cook Children's Medical Center are urging youngsters to try a shoot-'em-up computer game called Re-Mission that teaches them about their disease and pushes them to keep up with treatments.

Re-Mission is just one example of an emerging spate of so-called "serious games" that blend technology, entertainment and education to reach the so-called Xbox generation.

Although such games account for just a sliver of the $7.4 billion video game industry, they've taken off in recent years -- focusing on themes from everyday money management to the genocide in Darfur.

"Technology is allowing us, now, to approach the teaching of things in new ways," said Marc Prensky, chief executive of New York-based Games2Train.

"Instead of just talking about it, you can actually do it," he said.

Trenton Shepard, an Arlington teen who was treated for leukemia at Cook Children's last year, said the Re-Mission game helps him better understand the vomiting, fatigue and mouth sores that he experienced.

The game puts players in the role of a microscopic robot that travels through the human body blasting cancer cells, defending against infections and grappling with often life-threatening side effects.

"I just like the way it shows you exactly what you're going through," Shepard, 17, said. "Tumors, you get to shoot them all."

Re-Mission was created by California-based HopeLab, a 6-year-old nonprofit organization started by Pam Omidyar, whose husband is the founder of the eBay auction site.

Omidyar paid most of the $4.6 million price tag for the game, which has been given to more than 80,000 players in 74 countries since its launch in April 2006.

The payoff came last year in a clinical study, which included Cook Children's cancer patients among the participants.

HopeLab researchers found that youngsters who played the game knew more about their disease and were more likely to follow treatment instructions, such as taking antibiotics and undergoing chemotherapy.

That's significant, because adolescents often have trouble sticking to treatment, HopeLab spokesman Richard Tate said.

The game's fun approach connects with young people, and the strategy has potential for other childhood ailments, such as obesity and autism, he said.

"There's a whole generation of people who are so native to this technology," Tate said. "Games are really a part of everyday life."

Still, Prensky, who has researched the rise of serious games, said they've been slow to catch on with mainstream video game makers who don't see much profit potential in a small target audience.

"The majority of it, I think, is being funded by either the government or foundations," Prensky said. "The question that people are struggling with now is: Can you be a commercial company, make these, and sell these, and make any money?"

Prensky, who counted 50 serious games when he began his research in 2000, estimates that more than 2,000 such games are now on the market -- although few are as sophisticated as Re-Mission.

His predictions: Developers will move to more complex games that have powerful graphics and numerous levels of play.

And the expansion of serious games will continue, even if the market remains small.

"This stuff is going to happen," Prensky said. "People will always come up with something, because they have passion about it."

Some serious games

Archimage Inc., a Houston-based design studio, is creating two video games aimed at preventing obesity and diabetes in children.

The company describes Escape from Diab and Nanoswarm: Invasion From Inner Space as "sci-fi adventures in healthy eating and exercise." With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Archimage is collaborating on the games with researchers from Baylor College of Medicine.

Massachusetts-based Design Continuum in 2002 invented a headset that connects to a Nintendo GameBoy system, allowing a child to play a game while the device administers anesthesia. The NIH paid for the research and development of the device, called PediSedate.

A group in West Virginia is working to put Konami Digital Entertainment's Dance Dance Revolution -- a foot-stomping, hand-clapping stamina-buster -- into every school in the state. Other U.S. schools, including the Academy at West Birdville in Haltom City, already are using the popular game in their physical-education classes. In February, researchers in West Virginia found that the game improved the health of players who participated in their study.

Darfur is Dying was created by mtvU, the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group to raise awareness about the genocide in Sudan. The game is a simulation, from the perspective of a displaced Darfurian in a refugee camp.