If you think video games are just for fun, some folks beg to differ: more than 300 of them, to be exact, who gathered in Baltimore recently for the 2008 Games for Health conference. Sponsored in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the conference explored how cutting-edge video-game technology can be applied to health and health care. This can range from “exergaming,” or video games used for exercise (think Dance Dance Revolution or Nintendo Wii’s version of tennis), to games used to reduce stress or pain, aid in rehabilitation, or cut the risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases.

Among the most exciting advances are those that have the potential to help people with serious medical conditions. A few examples we heard about in a teleconference our reporter attended last week and in an accompanying press release:

  • Guitar Hero for amputees. A new, one-armed version of the popular video game, unveiled in prototype form at the conference, is designed to aid in the rehabilitation of people who’ve had an arm amputated.
  • Wii for Parkinson’s. A specially designed version of the Wii—called PDWii, for Parkinson’s Disease, and currently under development in California—would be used to aid balance and mobility and help track progress in Parkinson’s patients. Similar technology could also help people recovering from strokes.
  • Ditto for young burn victims. A virtual-reality device designed to control pain and stress among young patients undergoing burn and orthopedic procedures.

For more on the burgeoning applications of video games in the health arena, check out the web site of the Games for Health Project, www.gamesforhealth.org. And stay tuned for our evaluation of the much-anticipated Wii Fit, which is to debut in the United States May 19.

Jamie Hirsh, associate editor