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“Health is worth more than learning.”

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to cousin John Garland Jefferson, June 11, 1790

A strong argument could be made that health and learning are dependent on each other. Jefferson, in the letter cited above, was urging his cousin to set aside time every afternoon for exercise and recreation, arguing that such pursuits are vital to a person’s overall well-being.

When you throw a third element into the equation — fun — another strong argument could be made that health and learning are enhanced.

“I’m a very strong believer that learning is fun,” said Debra Lieberman, the “modern mother” of using interactive games to improve health.

“So much of getting and staying healthy involves learning; it’s a very logical step to connect the two. And if you can make that connection fun and make it something people want to do, you’re more likely to achieve your goals in both areas,” Lieberman said.

Health researchers and gamers all over the country are moving toward their goals with a little more spring in their step this month after receiving money in the first round of grants from the national Health Games Research program directed by Lieberman.

“There’s no doubt that well-designed interactive games can significantly improve players’ health-related knowledge and outcomes,” Lieberman said, adding, “Now we’re trying to figure out how best to use the games we already have and how to design new ones with specific health goals in mind.”

Dozen Grantees From 112 Applications

Health Games Research, based at the University of California-Santa Barbara, received 112 applications for grants involving games and health. A dozen winners were picked to receive up to $200,000 each in the program’s first wave of research grants. A total of $2 million was awarded.

Health Games research is funded by an $8.25 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, which supports innovative projects seeking breakthrough improvements in health care. Lieberman, widely acknowledged as a pioneer in the gaming-for-health field, is a lecturer in UC-Santa Barbara’s Department of Communication and a researcher in the university’s Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research.

“The 12 new studies will give us deeper insights into how and why certain game designs are compelling, fun and effective, and for which types of people,” Lieberman said.

“These projects — and they’re pretty diverse in both intent and audience — will give us a good, broad spectrum of principles that game designers will be able to use to enhance the effectiveness of future health games and game technologies,” Lieberman said.

‘Wii-habilitation’

“I guess Wii-habilitation is as good a way as any to get across the idea,” said Stacy Fritz, director of a project using Wii games with stroke victims at the University of South Carolina Research Foundation.

One of the 12 grantees, Fritz’s study will compare the effects of two video game systems — Wii and Playstation 2’s EyeToy — on players’ mobility, balance and fear of falling.

“My interest is in people suffering [from] chronic problems from stroke-related injuries. I’m not a gamer by any means,” Fritz said, “but I have to admit, I’m getting hooked. These things can be addictive … and I mean that in a good way.”

Ann Maloney, a child psychiatry researcher at Maine Medical Center Research Institute, is working on her fifth grant-aided study involving games and their health benefits for kids.

Her project will use Dance Dance Revolution, a popular dance game, to explore the effects of family-based “exergaming” on overweight children.

“Dance Dance Revolution is good for a variety of reasons,” Maloney said, adding, “It’s easy for a lot of kids, even uncoordinated ones; there’s a wide range of songs and a wide range of speeds and ability levels.”

“Since this is a family-based project trying to get parents and siblings involved, it’s important to have a variety of styles of music. Parents can dance to Lawrence Welk and kids can dance to rap,” Maloney said.

Patrícia da Cunha Belchior at the University of Florida in Gainesville will explore the use of action video games to improve everyday cognitive function in seniors. Her game of choice is Playstation 2’s driving game Crazy Taxi.

“Interactive technology has the potential to promote health in a variety of ways,” Belchior said, adding, “At the University of Florida, we conduct research on the use of interactive technology by older adults, and we have found that interactive technology has the potential to promote independence and quality of life in later years.”

The 12 Winners

* Cornell University, Department of Communication (Ithaca, N.Y.) –Mindless Eating Challenge is a mobile phone game for younger adolescents that rewards good health habits and food choices.

* Indiana University, School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (Bloomington) — BloomingLife: The Skeleton Chase is an alternative reality game designed to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles among college freshmen. It involves an interactive, fictional story (a mystery that takes eight weeks to solve) unfolding across a variety of media (e-mail, Web sites, phone calls from fictional characters, physiological monitoring).

* Maine Medical Center (Portland) — Family-Based Exergaming with Dance Dance Revolution will identify impacts of the popular dance pad game on families with at least one overweight child, age nine to 17.

* Union College, Department of Psychology (Schenectady, N.Y.) — Seniors Cyber-Cycling With a Virtual Team: Effects on Exercise Behavior, Neuropsychological Function and Physiological Outcomes is a randomized, clinical trial designed to identify individual and situational factors that influence exercise behaviors and health outcomes in community-dwelling older adults, age 50 and older.

* University of California-San Diego, School of Medicine (La Jolla) — Behavioral Choice Theory Approach to Testing Exertainment for Adolescent Physical Activity will identify health behavior change principles used in a variety of commercially available exergames and their impact on players’ physical activity levels.

* University of Central Florida, College of Medicine (Orlando) — Practicing Relapse Prevention in Artificial-Reality Environments (PREPARE): A Game-Based Therapy Maintenance Tool will investigate role-playing games designed to enable people age 18 to 65 diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence to practice skills that can help them prevent real-world relapses.

* University of Florida, College of Public Health and Health Professions (Gainesville) — Action Video Games to Improve Everyday Cognitive Function in Older Adults will explore the effects of an action-adventure driving video game (Playstation 2’s “Crazy Taxi”) on the visual attention skills of a group of community-dwelling adults, age 65 and older.

* University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Public Health (Chapel Hill) — Presence: Predicting Sensory and Control Effects of Console Video Games in Young Adults will investigate motivations to expend energy during video game play for people age 18 to 35.

* University of South Carolina Research Foundation (Columbia) — Commercially Available Interactive Video Games for Individuals With Chronic Mobility and Balance Deficits Post-Stroke will investigate the potential of physical activity video games to serve as innovative, cost-effective ways to help people recover motor skills after experiencing a stroke.

* University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles) — Effectiveness of Social Mobile Networked Games in Promoting Active Lifestyles for Wellness will use cell phones and the Web to deliver “Wellness Partners,” a character-driven social mobile networked game, to children and adults age 12 to 44.

* University of Vermont, School of Medicine (Burlington) — Breath Biofeedback Video Game for Children With Cystic Fibrosis will explore whether a breath biofeedback video game can improve cystic fibrosis patients’ self-administration of inhaled medicines, engagement in respiratory exercises and awareness of their respiratory status.

* University of Washington, School of Medicine (Seattle) — Video Games for Dietary Behavior Change and Improved Glycemic Control in Diabetes will investigate health impacts of online mobile mini-games for people with type 2 diabetes, age 18 and older.

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