Gaming Can Save Your Life

Gaming Can Save Your Life

Gaming is fun, but a growing number of titles are harnessing games’ potential to improve users’ health and quality of life in the face of serious illness and injury.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

Everyone knows that gaming can improve hand-eye coordination, but beyond that, the activity is often cast in a dim, unproductive light — think teenager, bean bag, Orange Crush soda and salty potato chips. That image is being increasingly challenged and transformed by developers who are just beginning to scratch the surface of the full potential of mobile social gaming to cure a wide range of ills.

Veteran game designer, author and traumatic brain injury survivor Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter” debuted this month, showcasing social gaming as a tool to battle health ailments like social anxiety, weight management, chronic pain and even diseases like cancer.

McGonigal’s approach to gaming as an activity that can exercise problem solving skills guided her in developing SuperBetter, and underscores her assertion that gaming can heal and even change the world — a notion that was put into practice when the author of “Reality is Broken” suffered a mild brain injury in 2009.

In consultation with doctors, psychologists, scientists and medical researchers, McGonigal drew from her own gaming background and set out to create a game to help heal her own injury and build up her personal resilience, which is key to recovery.

SuperBetter is designed to help users achieve health goals — or recover from an illness or injury — by increasing personal resilience, which means staying curious, optimistic and motivated even in the face of the toughest challenges.

“When I first heard about Superbetter, I assumed that it was basically designed to help people with physical recuperation, but after talking to McGonigal and playing with the program, I’ve found that the game is much more open-ended, allowing users to focus on whatever part of the recovery process they think is most important to them,” said Alex Goldman, an NPR blogger who used the social game to help in his own physical recovery after a car accident. “In that way, it’s a very robust tool, allowing for incredible customization.”

Superbetter requires completing seven “missions,” which are objectives for the game. They include going after an “epic win” — a long-term goal completed in six weeks, and “signifies a huge step towards becoming better; creating a “secret identity,” which personifies the bad habits targeted for reform; identifying “power ups,” or things that motivate towards the goals and makes the user feel good; outlining “quests,” or smaller goals to help attain the epic win; recruiting “allies,” those who can encourage in the mission; and selecting “future boosts,” something to look forward to in the near future.

Users can customize Superbetter to target a wide range of real-world ailments in a virtual and interactive way, joining another “serious” game, “Re-Mission,” developed in 2005.

The “Re-Mission” game, designed specifically for those undergoing cancer treatments, allows users to control a microscopic robot in the body of someone undergoing cancer therapy to fight the disease and manage the side effects of treatment. The goal of Re-Mission is to cure the virtual patient, which entails learning about how cancer moves within the body.

Re-Mission helps users better understand what is happening with their own bodies, and studies back up the game’s effectiveness. The act of playing works with parts of the brain responsible for motivation at a higher level than non-interaction methods like watching and hearing. As a result, the game yields higher therapeutic rewards.

The White House is exploring the potential connection between gaming, health and overall engagement, with President Obama tasking the senior policy analyst at the Office of Science and Technology with studying how to make games for topics like education, health, civic involvement and the environment.

The move to capitalize on gaming’s potential underscores the growing perception of gaming’s benefits. The administration also follows educational leaders who incorporate gaming into both traditional and special needs educational settings for children.

For example, the popular franchise “Dance Dance Revolution” debuted a classroom edition of the game earlier this year at the California Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation & Dance State Conference.

This version of the game allows nearly 50 mat controllers to connect to just one computer, so dozens of students to play as they boost their fitness and have fun at the same time.

There is growing belief video games, properly designed and used in the right context and circumstances, can engage and motivate users in a way traditional methods cannot. Harnessing play platforms in creative ways could become the latest hot topic in promoting resiliency, managing illness, promoting health, and these areas may just be the tip of the iceberg.

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