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HEALTH SENTINEL

Games improve life

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To read more about IU's research game project, “The Skeleton Chase,” and descriptions of the other 11 grantees' health-game projects, go to www.rwjf.org/pioneer/ on the Web.

IU students will play ‘The Skeleton Chase,' an alternate- reality game

Monday, July 28, 2008 - 12:06 pm

“Life is the game that must be played,” American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson penned.

The juxtaposition of games and life, the latter improved through better health, is at the core of an exploding area of research and industry, and Indiana University in Bloomington is at the forefront.

This fall, 90 IU freshmen will play “The Skeleton Chase,” an alternate reality game (ARG) that will take them from one end of the campus to the other, give them clues in such places as the Memorial Union swimming pool and interaction with actors who will be paid to play characters within the game. Teams of participants will receive messages and clues via cell phones, the Internet and old-fashioned print during the eight-week game period.

High-tech monitors on the bottoms of their shoes will track their steps and movements, feeding valuable information researchers will use to decipher what components of the game are most motivating and enjoyable, to assess the level of activity experienced at various times of play and to better understand what spurs sustained improvement in physical activity

The research trio - Anne Massey of the Kelley School of Business, game designer Lee Sheldon of the Department of Telecommunications, and Jeanne Johnston of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) - received an $185,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Last fall, the foundation started a new national program called Health Games Research, which is based at the University of California at Santa Barbara. IU is one of 12 grantees given a total of $2 million for research in the games/health-improvement field.

Electronic games are everywhere. They're in grandma's elder-care facility where residents play the new Wii Fit, improving agility and stamina. Games like Dance Dance Revolution, in which the participants stand on an electronic mat dance “stage” and, with their feet, follow cues given in rhythm to music, are truly “an aerobic fitness experience,” said Debra Lieberman, director of Health Games Research.

The Food Detective game is being used by schools to help children make better food choices. Doctors are using virtual reality games to learn surgical skills. Physical therapists are using them to improve stroke patients' balance and strength. Young cancer patients who play HopeLab's Re-Mission video game have been shown to follow treatment protocols and feel more control over their illness than non-Re-Mission players.

Want to quit smoking? A Nintendo DS game, Allen Carr's Easyway to Stop Smoking, will be in stores before Christmas.

The Health Games Research program hopes to harness technology for similar good.

The first year of college, for example, historically has been equated with gaining the “Freshman 15” pounds. Late night pizzas and chips washed down with liters of soda, as well as high-fat, high-carb foods in the cafeteria, can quickly add weight.

IU and many other Indiana universities offer housing options aimed at wellness and physical fitness. Briscoe dorm at IU is home to a group of freshmen who subscribe to a common goal of living a healthy lifestyle: no smoking; eating nutritious meals; enrollment in a health and wellness course called P105; and exercising in the dorm's fitness center.

But Johnston noted that, although students made healthy decisions when living in the dorm, behavioral changes were not sustained. So she and Massey brainstormed about what might bring more lasting change.

“Students today have a different way of learning,” Massey said. “They're into social networking and team playing. They've grown up with the Internet, grown up playing online and video games. We thought, ‘How can we use technology and the game concept to really tap into the changing nature of students' expectations?'“

The Skeleton Chase has “a story, a mystery that the students are trying to solve. Physical activities are tied into the activities that are introduced in the P105 course. As (students) play the game, they are actually doing physical activities and mental activities - but they are in the background,” said Massey, with expertise is in technology and decision-making.

The game is designed to be fun and intriguing, incorporating teamwork, goal-setting and competition, while all the while messages on nutrition, stress management, physical activity and other health-improvement choices are disseminated without conscious knowledge.

Two control groups will also be part of the research - 150 general freshmen who are not in the game or in the wellness dorm or the P105 class. The other control is a group of 45 students who will not play the game but who will be in the course and the wellness dorm. Students will have blood work and health checks at the outset and along the way so improvements - or regression - can be tracked.

For grant fulfillment, students will be followed until the beginning of their sophomore year, but Johnston plans to follow game players for four years because very little longitudinal research has been done in the area of interactive games' impact on health decisions, Massey said, noting, “Some studies have looked at health interventions, but they can't explain why. What instills positive behaviors?”

In May, a national Games for Health conference in Baltimore brought together leading researchers, practitioners, educators and health experts who outlined trends and game technology transforming health education. Could there be a downside to putting health and fitness in the context of a game? Some teachers say today's students want more entertainment to hold their attention. Will children and adults spend even less time in the fresh air?

“I haven't heard a lot of concern about it,” Lieberman said, while admitting it's disconcerting to walk around and find “everyone has their IPod or cell phone up to their ear. There really is this fragmentation.

“But since I'm in this field, and I find so much value in it, it goes back to the consumer or the parent sand the individual to figure out what's best for them,” Lieberman said. “I think there are games reaching a segment of people who would not be getting health information.”

Will “The Skeleton Chase” have a lasting, positive impact on the IU participants' level of physical activity? We'll be following the research as findings unfold.

Meanwhile, get “exer-gaming”! That's the new buzz.