Electronic games can guide you to improved health

Back in 2009, Jane McGonigal achieved what she calls an "epic win": She spent a whole day out of bed. In January, she had another epic win, but this time it was running a half marathon.

The game developer and author credits SuperBetter, an online game she invented after she was laid low by a concussion. An additional 35,000 people have played the game in attempts to build resilience and reach health and wellness goals of their own -- losing weight, stopping smoking, recovering from surgery or injury, she says.

McGonigal is a keynote speaker at the eighth annual Games for Health conference, taking place in Boston through Thursday. She will introduce a SuperBetter app for iPhones and iPads -- and join hundreds of other developers and researchers looking for the next big thing in electronic games that are good for you.

These include so-called exergames (games such as Wii Fit and Dance, Dance Revolution, which are meant to get you moving), but also video games and apps that might help you eat better, manage chronic illness or recover from a crisis. There are even games to help your doctor learn new surgical techniques.

The quest for better health games is almost as old as video games themselves and filled with "a lot of false starts and a lot of products that are not that efficacious," says Ben Sawyer, organizer of the conference, which is part of a project sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Some games have failed initial scientific tests. In one recent study, researchers who tracked movement in kids given active Wii games were surprised to find those kids got no more daily exercise than those given traditional video games.

One possibile explanation: The kids figured out they could play many games just by flicking controllers with their wrists, says Thomas Baranowski, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Also possible: The kids got moving with the games but slacked off elsewhere.

His team hopes to try again with another game system, Xbox 360 Kinect. Meanwhile, they are working on a game in which moms get virtual preschoolers to eat their vegetables -- and maybe learn to do it in real life.

If that app works, it will join a list of proven successes, which include a game called Re-Mission (it helps teens and young adults cope with cancer) and a virtual-reality cycling game that was recently shown to boost cognitive performance in elderly people.

"We do know that games can make a difference," Sawyer says.

Many more are in the pipeline, says Debra Lieberman, a communications researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara: "The field is growing quickly and in all kinds of directions." She directs the national Health Games Research project, which maintains a database of health games. Current count: 424.

Experts say games in the future will increasingly be:

Mobile. Phones, tablets and other devices will make games cheaper, more accessible, more personalized and more private. (Think about a teen playing a game about HIV risks on his phone, rather than a computer in his classroom, Sawyer says.)

Sensor-based. Wearable sensors will become cheaper and will communicate more seamlessly with our other devices, making it easier and more fun to track, tweak and build games around everything from our daily step counts to our sleeping patterns.

Social. Friends, family members, online acquaintances and even virtual partners will spur players to higher performance, research suggests.

Based on behavior-change research. "Knowledge can change behavior, but it's not enough," Lieberman says.

McGonigal's game doesn't involve a sensor and is just going mobile, but it was built with research and social support in mind, she says.

To get better in SuperBetter -- to reach those "epic wins" -- players must enlist at least one person they know in real life. They also can draw on support from other online players as they work through a series of "quests" and battle bad guys (obstacles that get in the way of healthy habits and thought patterns).

The game helps people reach out, she says: "It can be easier to say, 'I want you to play this game with me for 10 minutes a day,' than to say, 'I want you to call me every day.'"

But does it actually help people reach their goals? Stay tuned: Researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania are following some players to find out.

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