Archive for September, 2011

I’m feeling a bit dishonest about something. Well, maybe that’s too strong a word. Let’s say disingenuous. Careful readers will have noticed that I’ve been engaging in a little linguistic sleight-of-hand with respect to games and health. I’ve argued that videogames can help treat a variety of physical and mental issues, and then gone on to talk about how people are adapting existing technology and developing new games to meet a specific health need. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s part of what makes videogames such a powerful tool.

“But wait,” you say. “These aren’t real videogames. They’re just training tools. Regular people can’t go out and buy them. How can a standard, run-of-the-mill Xbox or Wii game—you know, a real videogame—make people better? What do they have to offer? Where’s the evidence? Wait. Have you been lying to me all this time?”

Okay, okay, take a deep breath and sit down for a second. First of all, I have mentioned some real games in earlier posts, but… okay, mea culpa. You got me. Keep reading, though, ‘cause this is for you.

Playing the Wii can help you recover from a stroke. And I don’t mean some custom-built, made-for-rehab game here. I’m talking about the standard Wii Sports that anyone can go out and buy for 30-40 dollars (less if you’re a smart shopper). How do I know? Because videogame designer and overall genius Kent Quirk—who happens to be a friend of mine—actually did it. Regular sessions playing Wii Tennis and Wii Bowling were part of his post-stroke rehab. Kent summed it up this way:

Being able to stand up for 10 minutes and play a game of Wii Tennis was a real victory for me. And I certainly wasn’t going to go out on a tennis court and play real tennis at that point. So that was motivating and helpful to me.”

Motivating and helpful. Now contrast that with standard physical therapy. PT—or pain and torture, as it’s affectionately known by many who’ve gone through it—is painful, repetitive and downright boring. The problem is, it’s also necessary. So how can you take a treatment modality that’s vital for recovery and make it, well, fun?

Make a game out of it. Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, a neurologist and director of the Stroke Outcomes Research Unit at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has been studying clinics and hospitals that do just that. Here’s what he found:

Basically, we found that patients in the Wii group achieved a better motor function, both fine and gross, manifested by improvement in speed and grip strength.”

The Wii’s not just for stroke rehab, either. It can be used to help people recover from things like broken bones, surgery, and even combat injuries. Why? Like traditional PT, the Wii uses the same principles of performing repetitive, high-intensity tasks that help repair damage. The difference is that the Wii makes it fun. Says James Osborn, who oversees rehab services at southern Illinois’ Herrin Hospital,

When people can refocus their attention from the tediousness of the physical task, oftentimes they do much better.”

At WakeMed Health’s facility in Raleigh, NC, patients from nine to 89 play Wii games to improve strength, endurance and coordination. According to Bill Perry, a retired police officer and WakeMed patient who used the Wii to help recover from a stroke,

It really helps the body to loosen up so it can do what it’s supposed to do.”

Doctors and therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center agree. They find that Wii therapy works very well for patients injured during combat operations in Iraq. Here’s Lt. Col. Stephanie Daugherty, Walter Reed’s chief of occupational therapy:

They think it’s for entertainment, but we know it’s for therapy.”

And what happens when you turn therapy into entertainment? Patients are more motivated to do it, they stick with it longer, and they get better faster. It remains to be seen whether active videogame systems like the Wii, Playstation Move or Xbox Kinect will ever replace traditional PT. But this much is undeniable: they sure as hell make it more fun.

To read more on how doctors use the Wii for therapy, check out this link.

For an overall summary of how the Wii is used for PT, click here.

You can see some videos of the Wii in action here.

For more info on stroke rehab and the Wii, click here

… and here.

And for an ABC news story on how senoirs use the Wii for rehab, click here.

Video Game Live Poster

I spent a couple of hours last night listening to some really good theme music performed to a full house by a couple of top-notch symphony orchestras. The music had range, depth, emotion, and was equal to Hollywood’s better work.

Except it had nothing to do with Hollywood. These themes weren’t from movies. They were from videogames. And did I mention that they were good?

To most readers who’ve kept up with the gaming or music industries, this is old news. The rest of you may be surprised. I was caught off-guard myself, and I’ve been at this for a while. Remember, we’re talking about videogame music performed live by professional (and highly-regarded) orchestras.

Videogames have always pushed the boundaries of technology: Their need for speed led to faster computer processors, game graphics and artwork drove the evolution of graphics rendering and hardware acceleration, and the complexity of Myst required more disk storage capacity, which gave rise to CD-ROM drives. Hardware and software have historically benefited from advances in videogames.

Now they’re saving the symphony. Don’t believe it? Just ask Andy Brick. Why? He’s an award-winning composer of film, TV and videogame music. In 2003, he conducted the Czech National Symphony Orchestra for the first-ever Symphonic Game Music concert—which sold out, along with the four subsequent concerts. And he’s the principal conductor and music director for PLAY! A Video Game Symphony. In short, Brick knows whereof he speaks. When I spoke with him, he had this to say:

I mean thank God for the sake of the orchestras that there’s something out there that’s bringing these younger audiences back to the concert halls, because orchestras are dying, they still are. I don’t think it’s as bad today as it was 10 years ago, but you know, when we started, we were the only “game” in town—the Symphonic Game Music concerts. Now there’s one, two, three others that are doing it, and everyone’s successful… You don’t have as much of an urge to go to a rock concert if you don’t know the songs that they’re gonna play. Well it’s the same way in a symphonic concert. You know if you’re 17, 18, 19, 25 years old, and they’re gonna play like a Shostakovich symphony, not many people of that age who don’t have a significant musical background know what to expect… But if you go and you tell them you’re doing the theme from Zelda, you know, everybody is ‘oh, I know that! I played that game for 35,000 hours, and I want to go check that out, that’s gonna be great.’ So they buy a ticket to the concert, and all of a sudden, the orchestra is engaged and they’re playing for, not only a live audience again, but they’re playing for an audience of 25-year-olds, and maybe, after hearing that, maybe then they’ll go check out Shostakovich.”

PLAY! A Video Game Symphony

It’s not just orchestras who are feeling the love. Driven by advances in audio fidelity and the demands of gamers for better sound, publishers and developers are hiring composers and live musicians to create and record videogame music. Game composers are also finding work in Hollywood, scoring for big-budget movies. Ever heard of Michael Giacchino? Well, you know his work: he composed the scores for, among others, Star Trek (2009), The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Up (which earned him an Oscar for best original film score). And he cut his teeth scoring for, you guessed it, videogames.

Okay, but does game music really rival Hollywood? The answer, according to Andy Brick, is yes:

My experience has been that game music has to rise to a different level than films. And when it filters down to the concert level, it becomes the best of the best. So the concerts really are quality pieces of music.”

But you don’t have to take his word for it. Give a listen, and decide for yourself.

You’ll find some of Any Brick’s compositions here.

This link will get you samples from PLAY! concerts.

You can check out some videos from Video Games Live concerts here

… and here.

And check out the PLAY! website here.

Public safety is a tricky business. It is, by its nature, risky: Paramedics, firefighters, police, EMTs, first responders—they have dangerous jobs, and often put themselves in harm’s way to help others. When they go to work, lives are often at stake—sometimes theirs, sometimes ours, and sometimes both. For reasons that should be obvious, adequate and effective training of individuals pursuing this line of work is absolutely critical: Call me crazy, but getting thrown cold into an emergency situation doesn’t strike me as the best way to assess your skills.

Okay, so training is important. However, it’s also expensive, and budgets for public safety at all levels—local, state and federal—are stretched even during times of economic prosperity. It’s time-intensive as well, can be limited in reach, and usually requires safety personnel to travel outside their communities—taking them off the streets and reducing their departments’ abilities to respond to emergencies at home. I don’t know about you, but I’m not aware of any towns nearby that have dedicated training facilities on-site.

So how do we reconcile the need for comprehensive training with the expense of providing it?

Wait for it…

By using videogames, of course (you expected a different answer, maybe?).

This is exactly what groups like Virtual Heroes do for a living. Using 3-D game engines and game design techniques, Virtual Heroes builds scenarios within an immersive, virtual environment to help medical, military, public safety and healthcare professionals respond to catastrophic events in the real world. One of their flagship products, HumanSim, allows healthcare workers to sharpen their skills in realistic situations without risking real lives. They also create simulations for commercial clients who want to expand their ability to deliver on-the-job safety training. I watched one targeted at electrical workers. Arc flashes are scary things…

Okay, but how does this impact you, me, a typical big-city urbanite, or the average citizen in small town America? Let me bring this home. I live in western Massachusetts. Belchertown, to be exact. The end of last week, our local paper, The Sentinel, reported a story from the next town over about police and fire personnel training on an immersive, 3-D driving simulator. Big deal, right?

Actually, it is. First, the simulator was brought to them—right into the police and fire departments—allowing more personnel to go through the training than if the departments had to send them off-site. Also, had there been an emergency during the training sessions (thankfully, there were none), every single police officer or firefighter would have been available to respond. Perhaps more importantly, though, this training was provided free of charge, allowing cash-strapped departments to offer driver training to all their personnel—something they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. According to Granby Police Chief Alan Wishart, who also took a turn behind the wheel,

We would not be able to do this on our own. If it wasn’t for them [Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (MIIA)], it could be years before some of the officers saw this type of training. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

Granby Fire Lieutenant Brian Pike agreed, adding that they could provide additional scenarios—and there are hundreds available—without taking out the trucks.

Less emergency worker downtime, more personnel trained, zero cost to the community—it all adds up to more experienced public safety departments, better emergency response, and more lives saved. So the next time you hear a public safety success story, you may have to thank a videogame.

To read the original article, check out The Sentinel here.

You can learn more about Virtual Heroes here.

And you can read more about the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association’s simulator here.

Picture this: you’re behind the wheel of a military Humvee on the road to Fallujah, your unit’s team leader in the seat next to you and half a squad of Marines in the back. Tensions are high: Iraq is still a hotbed of violence, you’re traveling a dangerous road, and everyone knows the risks. Still, nothing’s happened yet. You’re just beginning to relax when a roadside bomb—one of the infamous IEDs—rips through the truck with a deafening roar. Your team leader dies instantly, but you barely have time to notice because the Humvee’s now on its back. Screams sound from behind you. Looking back, you can see your team through the billowing smoke—and it’s not pretty. A Hollywood makeup artist with an unlimited budget and a taste for the macabre would have a hard time duplicating the scene. Some of the men are dead, the rest horribly wounded. There’s something burning in the back, noise and smoke are overwhelming. You need to do something, but what?

Try taking off the VR headset.

Fortunately for you, this was only a simulation. But for many US servicemen and women, variations on the above scene are all too real. And for those who survive, healing from the physical wounds may be the easy part.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has always been a serious problem, and it’s getting worse: Iraq and Afghanistan are unique in the history of US military conflict (length of deployments, faster than usual redeployment, etc.), and seem to be contributing to growing mental health problems. According to Steven Huberman, PhD, dean of Touro College’s School of Social Work, in New York City,

Since the deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan started… we’re seeing a significant difference from other military involvements, in the number and types of injuries, the types of deployments, the nature of the military force, and the impact on families and kids.”

PTSD is often hard to identify, always difficult to treat, and has far-reaching impacts on sufferers and their families. In order to recover, victims have to confront the memories and emotions surrounding the traumatic event and eventually work through them. Ignoring them only creates more severe problems. The trick is confronting the memories safely.

Enter Virtual Iraq. Virtual Iraq is an immersive, 3-D virtual world that allows a PTSD patient to re-live a traumatic situation in a safe environment. Based on the videogame Full Spectrum Warrior, Virtual Iraq places the patient into a therapist-controlled combat scenario. During the scenario, the therapist exposes the veteran to the sights and sounds of battle at a level that he or she is emotionally capable of handling. As the patient progresses, the therapist can turn up the heat, enhancing the realism of the scene by delivering additional sounds and images—jets flying over, insurgents coming out of palm groves, IEDs, explosions—into the environment. The videogame provides a safe environment for the patient to confront their emotions and ultimately gain control over the PTSD.

Says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California—and Virtual Iraq’s developer,

VR puts a person back into the sights, sounds, smells, feelings of the scene… You know what the patient’s seeing, and you can help prompt them through the experience in a very safe and supportive fashion. As you go through the therapy, the patient may be invited to turn on the motor. Eventually, as they tell their story, you find out that it wasn’t just a vehicle in front, it was a vehicle with five other friends… The guy that died was going to be discharged in two months. You start to see a rich depth of story.”

This type of treatment—called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET)—isn’t limited to combat vets, though. There are virtual environments for treating much more common fears, including flying, heights, storms and public speaking. Virtually Better—the company behind Virtual Iraq—also has other environments designed around specific traumatic events: Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Here’s Skip Rizzo again, this time in his roles as Associate Director – Institute for Creative Technologies, and Research Professor – Psychiatry and Gerontology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles:

Results from uncontrolled trials and case reports are difficult to generalize from and we are cautious not to make excessive claims based on these early results. However, using accepted diagnostic measures, 80% of the treatment completers in our initial VRET sample showed both statistically and clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depression symptoms, and anecdotal evidence from patient reports suggested that they saw improvements in their everyday life situations. These improvements were also maintained at three-month post-treatment follow-up.”

Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of Virtual Iraq, though, comes from this 22-year-old Marine injured during combat operations in Iraq:

By the end of therapy I felt more like one person. Toward the end, it was pretty easy to talk about what had happened over there. We went over all the hot spots in succession. I could talk about it without breaking down. I wasn’t holding anything back. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted.”

This young man—and there are many others—gained his life back in large part through the healing power of a videogame.

Maybe videogames do have something positive to offer after all.

A quick Google search for Virtual Iraq will give you more information than you ever wanted, but here’s a selection of the best links:

Here’s an article from the New York Times Health section.

The New Yorker magazine published an article on Virtual Iraq here.

Check out this article about Virtual Iraq from Veterans Today.

NPR has a similar story here.

The US Army’s official web page has a story on VRET and PTSD here.

Here’s Fast Company’s take.

A discussion of Videogames and PTSD is here.

And you can find Virtually Better’s website here.

Execution of Thomas Armstrong, 1683

Human beings have a tendency towards violence. Even the most casual observer of history knows this. Just examine all the interesting, innovative and frankly horrifying ways we’ve designed to injure and kill one another: the rack, drawing and quartering, bayonets, stoning, Columbian neckties, landmines, firebombs, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons—the list is nearly endless. In fact, our propensity to violence and the variety of means we’ve created to carry it out makes one wonder how the human species has managed to hang on this long.

But it may all be over soon. Late in the 20th century, we developed a truly horrible weapon, one targeted at the most psychologically vulnerable of us—our children—and that turns all exposed to it into ruthless, mindless killers. We invented the videogame.

Sounds kind of silly, right? But that’s exactly what videogame detractors would have us believe. Think about it: if there’s a violent act committed by one of our youth, videogames are identified as a—if not the—cause. This is nothing new. Emergent media has always suffered from suspicion and accusation—comic books, radio, TV, movies and videogames have all been viewed by many as harbingers of doom, heralding society’s imminent collapse.

Not to be blunt, but they’re wrong. The fact that we’re having this exchange proves it. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s latest figures, 72% of US households play videogames. That’s a lot of potential killers. And yet we’re still here. Go figure.

Now, before you accuse me of whoring for the media, let me make something clear: I don’t feel that overexposure to violent images in any form is a good idea. As a parent, I take my responsibility to filter what my son sees and experiences very seriously—and I would expect others to do the same. At the same time, I grew up watching TV and movies and playing games, and they didn’t turn me into a socially-maladjusted serial killer.

A recent article in USA Today addresses this very issue, and confirms what gamers have known all along: when it comes to violence, focus on the player, not the game. While it’s true that no one knows exactly what makes a person violent, recent research suggests that personality has a lot to do with it. According to psychologist Patrick Markey of Villanova University,

If you’re worried about a video game turning your son or daughter into a killer, don’t worry about that. But is your kid moody, impulsive, or are they unfriendly? It’s probably not the best idea to have that child play violent video games. Video games are not simply good or bad for everybody, but for some individuals who have certain dispositions, if they play video games they’re much more likely to be negatively affected.”

In other words, use a little common sense, parents. Pay attention to your kids, and keep an eye on what they’re watching and playing. And get involved. Here’s a thought: if you’re really worried about what games your kids are playing, play with them. It’s a great way to gain a little knowledge (and a whole lot of perspective) and interact with your kids. And you might even enjoy it.

Just hide the kitchen knives before you do.

You can read the USA Today article here.

And here’s another article on videogames and violence in kids.

Check out  the Entertainment Software Association’s website here.

And download a fact sheet about games and gamer demographics here.

For about 33 million people around the world, videogames may be a matter of life and death. That’s because gamers have just accomplished something that had confounded scientists for 15 years: They’ve unlocked one of the great mysteries of AIDS.

And they did it in three weeks.

Using an online game called FoldIt, gamers cracked the protein structure of a retrovirus similar to HIV—a critical step in understanding the cause of AIDS and developing drugs to beat it. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, scientists enlisted the help of gamers worldwide—and were astonished at how quickly they got results. Published yesterday in the journal “Nature Structural & Molecular Biology,” this is the first time gamers have solved a long-standing scientific problem, and may be the only time in history that gamers and scientists have appeared as co-authors. Bear in mind, also, that very few, if any, of the gamers have a background in biochemistry. Calling this a monumental accomplishment is an understatement on the level of referring to the Sun as a bit warm.

FoldIt screenshot

So how did they do it? Through modeling. Developed by the University of Washington in 2008, FoldIt is a game with a purpose: groups of players compete against each other to unfold chains of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins. When players sit down at their computers to play the game, they are presented with a 3-D model of an amino acid. As they work to unfold it, they can use online tools to rotate the model and view it from any angle. This allows players to “see” the protein structure in a way impossible through a microscope: in full 3-D. Why is this important? Pharmacologists need 3-D pictures of a protein in order to identify potential target sites for drugs. Seth Cooper, one of FoldIt’s creators, explained the gamers’ success simply:

People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at.”

And while that’s inarguably true, Firas Khatib, of the University of Washington’s biochem lab, acknowledged and validated something that gamers have always known. He said,

The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Kudos to all the gamers who made this a reality. Now just imagine what else we could solve if more people put that energy to use.

To read the original paper, click here.

You can also check out this article in Yahoo! News.

And to learn more about FoldIt, check out the website here

… and watch a video of the game in action here.

It’s Monday. I’m a little tired and not feeling too deep, so I thought I’d share one of my favorite recent videogame discoveries with you: the trailer for the upcoming re-launch of Tomb Raider.

The First Lara

Lara Croft c.1997

Many of you may know Tomb Raider’s anatomically-exaggerated heroine, Lara Croft, from earlier games in the series, or from the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. For those of you who don’t, she’s roughly a tougher, grittier, female Indiana Jones. She’s widely recognized as one of videogaming’s first strong female leads, but her skimpy outfits and enhanced “assets” drew a fair bit of criticism from those who questioned why a strong female character had to look like a stereotypical teenage male fantasy in order to appeal to serious gamers. And it’s hard not to agree with them. I’ve been a gamer most of my life, and was once a teenage male, and I can tell you two things: First, I care more about gameplay than the main character’s appearance, and second, I always preferred my fantasies to be more realistically-proportioned.

More to the point, though, as a male I don’t have a problem playing through a good game as a female character—and she doesn’t have to defy gravity to keep my interest. Gameplay comes first; character gender isn’t all that important—and I suspect most gamers would agree with me.

The new Lara

Lara Croft, 2011

Which is why I’m so excited about the new Lara. Yes, she’s designed to be attractive, but not unrealistically so. She’s a gritty, determined survivor—everything she was supposed to be initially. This time around, though, she has a wider emotional range and is far more vulnerable—and not in a stereotypically weak female way. She’s a young woman reacting realistically to an unfamiliar and dangerous situation, relying on strength, intelligence and self-reliance to survive.

But I digress. I said I wasn’t going to get too deep, and didn’t want to delve into gender stereotypes or the perception of women in media. Here’s the point: Videogames are big business. 2010 domestic videogame sales alone rang in at $18.58 billion—nearly twice Hollywood’s $10.5 billion box office gross. And the best games now attract A-list talent, from voice actors and musicians to writers, directors and composers.

Videogames have come a long way since the ‘80s. Story, character, plot, visuals, audio, gameplay—all are more sophisticated and engaging than ever. Budgets for games rival those for Hollywood movies, and game releases are now high-profile events, involving massive press coverage and trailers that look as good as, if not better than, anything Hollywood puts out.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the new Tomb Raider trailer here.

If you’re as amazed as I was (remember, this is for a videogame), you can see how it was done here.

And if you’re really interested, you can surf over to the official Tomb Raider website here.

Pay attention, Hollywood, ‘cause you just got schooled.