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Education: Play two video games and call me in the morning

Video games prop open a door in kids’ brains, creating an opening through which knowledge can march with almost no resistance. Game-playing children absorb enormous amounts of information and develop outlandishly high skill levels. Trouble is, virtually none of what they learn has any value beyond the joystick and glowing screen.

But medical researchers are also exploiting the magical power of video games to convey useful information. Recent findings provide compelling evidence that the right games can train kids with diabetes and asthma to keep their conditions under control.

Researchers at Stanford University Medical Center worked with about 60 kids aged 8 to 16 suffering from diabetes. The children were given a video game to take home. Some got an ordinary game, such as Tetris; the other half took home a specially designed game, called Packy & Marlon, in which two elephants try to survive on an outing by collecting food in a simulated environment-all the while remembering to check their blood glucose and administer insulin to themselves.

The result: Over the study’s six-month period, the kids who played Packy & Marlon needed 77 percent fewer urgent-care visits to a doctor or emergency room than the kids who played the placebo game. The researchers told kids in both groups to play their games as much or as little as they wanted. The study reports that the children spent about the same amount of time playing Packy & Marlon-about 1.5 hours a week-as the control group devoted to the noninstructional game.

Another game from the same company that makes Packy & Marlon-Mountain View, Calif.-based Click Health-teaches asthma sufferers the basics of how to keep breathing well. Year-long trials of Bronky the Bronchiasaurus are under way with 200 asthmatic kids-half in Oakland and half in rural Washington state.

In Bronky, players have to maneuver a dinosaur hero through a standard-looking video-game-style world, picking up treasures and stomping on enemies as the screen scrolls horizontally. Multiple-choice questions pop up on the screen, interrupting the action by quizzing the player on tactics for avoiding asthma “triggers” and on the proper technique for measuring one’s own “peak flow.” After a wrong answer, the game directs the player to find Hazel, a character who will re-teach basic asthma-care techniques.

Next up from Click Health will be an electronic pet, similar to the wildly popular Tamagotchi, that will help teach kids with cystic fibrosis how to keep their often fragile bodies in the best possible working condition. Another game could aid children with sickle-cell anemia, says Click Health’s founding chairman and CEO Alan Miller, who previously founded two successful video-game companies, Activision and Accolade.

The effectiveness of video games in teaching real-life skills to children cuts both ways, says one new-media researcher. “People are always asking about the negative effects of video-game violence,” says Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman. Showing that Click Health’s games can change kids’ behavior for the better also accentuates the concern that violent games are equally effective at imparting their less benign lessons, Bruckman says.

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