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Can Video Games Help Sick Kids Stick to Their Treatments?

By Veronique Greenwood
May 3, 2011 1:34 AMNov 19, 2019 9:22 PM


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Video games might do more than get you off your fanny.

What’s the News: Getting in shape with Wii Bowling was just the beginning: scientists are now studying whether videogames that use breath as a controller can encourage healthy habits in children with cystic fibrosis. What’s the Context:

  • Cystic fibrosis is an inherited, debilitating disease that causes thick, ropy mucus to build up in the airways and throughout the body, leading to serious complications. One of the primary therapies is daily rounds of “huffing,” forceful exhalations to dislodge mucus. Getting children to follow their prescribed therapy, though, is difficult—they’re more likely to want to want to do something else (like play video games).

  • Biofeedback games, which take an input like increased pulse and translate it into action on the screen, have been around for a while—Freer Logic has a game intended to help kids with ADHD learn to focus, while other games teach players to control their breath and pulse, like meditation-influenced Journey to Wild Divine and games based on HeartMath’s emWave system.

  • Linking video games to breath, then, might go a long way towards making huffing less of a drag. In the games used in the study, which were built by students at Champlain College in Vermont, a device for measuring lung capacity called a spirometer is used as a controller. In one game, players rambling though a wooded world encounter slime-coated animals that can be cleaned off with a few puffs on the spirometer; in another, a racecar powered by breath zips around a track.

How the Heck:

  • The team gave children computers and spirometers, and, as a control, had them leave the equipment around but not play the games for 2–4 weeks. They then played the games over a similar length of time. The scientists recorded how many times kids huffed over both periods and also measured their lung capacity after each period.

  • During the experiment, kids had much better huffing track records than they had had before getting involved in the study. But interestingly, just having the equipment around was enough to make them stay on task. They huffed about the same amount during the control period as they did during the game-playing period. So while it’s definitely positive that kids were sticking to their therapy as a result of the experiment, it’s not clear that the video games caused it. Just knowing that someone other than their normal doctor was keeping track of their adherence might have played a larger role.

  • Another interesting tidbit is that even though game playing didn’t make the kids huff more, they were able to take deeper breaths after having played the games for several weeks. It’s not clear why this would be—perhaps practicing deep breathing with a direct goal in mind, like cleaning off an animal or driving a car, is more effective than doing it without.

Not So Fast: The study was very small: just 13 kids participated. It’s hard to draw any kind of conclusion from so few subjects, and the lack of difference between the control period and the game-playing period suggest that there may be complicating factors that should be controlled for. The Future Holds: Hopefully more, larger studies. While it's always possible that video games really don't have anything to offer cystic fibrosis suffers, if they could be designed and deployed in such a way that they do make a difference in getting kids to adhere to therapy, they'd be most welcome. (via ScienceDaily

) Image credit: TheMuuj/Flickr

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