Video games may have potential health benefits

Does "Dance Dance Revolution" burn more calories than PE class or improve Parkinson's patients' balance? Researchers intend to find out.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Dec. 4, 2009

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A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative is exploring how digital games can improve health for people of all ages.

Health Games Research, a national program supported by the foundation, awarded about $1.85 million in grants Nov. 5 to study games that engage players in physical activities or motivate them to make healthy lifestyle changes.

Among the grant recipients is the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Researchers there will test the effects of games on the brain activity and facial perception skills of 8- to 12-year-olds who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The games will challenge them to notice subtle differences in faces and expressions, a skill lacking in many children with autism.

Researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., will study three modes of exercise involving: "Winds of Orbis," a video game that uses upper- and lower-body movement to control characters; "Dance Dance Revolution," which involves dancing on a pad that detects a player's steps; and traditional school physical education activities.

Participants will be inner-city elementary school students randomly assigned to the activities. Researchers will measure the students' enjoyment level, attitudes toward physical activity, and amount of exercise and calories burned.

Meanwhile, Teachers College at Columbia University in New York will evaluate the effectiveness of a smoking reduction game application for mobile phones. A group at Long Island University's Brooklyn, N.Y., campus will assess the benefits of "Dance Dance Revolution" in helping Parkinson's disease patients reduce their risk of falling.

"We are seeing a lot of evidence that games are a great environment for learning and for behavior change," said Debra Lieberman, PhD, director of Health Games Research (link).

Lieberman also is a communication researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research.

"If you can design a game well that aligns the health goals with the game goals, you can really get people motivated to learn about health and try out new skills," she said.

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