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Below you will find selected reprints of previous media coverage of the Games for Health Conference. Media inquiries for this year's event and in-general for the Games for Health Project can be addressed to media@gamesforhealth.org


Digital gamers target disease
The WashingtonTimes.com
May 11, 2008
Amy Fagan

Instead of pitting players against monsters, criminals or aliens, a new computer game enlists them in the real-life fight against other deadly enemies: diseases and viruses.

Gamers who play "Foldit," a computer game developed by University of Washington scientists, will actually be protein folding, a process used to unlock the mysteries of human proteins, which help the body perform countless functions, from breaking down food to carrying oxygen in the blood, but also play roles in some diseases and viruses.

"We're hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it's done by," said Zoran Popovic, an associate professor of computer science and engineering who was part of the team that developed the game. "Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize."

Scientists spend countless hours and dollars trying to better understand the shape and function of proteins, and the creators of "Foldit" hope the game will transform game players into armchair scientists who will help make discoveries about biological mysteries, ranging from Alzheimer's disease to vaccines.

"We're trying to use the brain power of people all around the world to advance biomedical research," said team member David Baker, a professor of biochemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.


Each protein is made up of an amino acid chain that folds into a particular ideal shape, emitting the lowest amount of energy. The scientific community already knows the genetic makeup of many proteins, but doesn't know how they fold up into these complex shapes.
"Foldit" turns protein folding into a competitive sport, as players click and twist the snakelike 3-D images on their screen. The goal is to condense the protein down to its most compact shape, with the fewest number of gaps or holes. The "Foldit" computer program calculates a score, and high scores are investigated further by the University of Washington scientists.

Finding the ideal structure and shape of a protein "can help you understand what the protein does, how it acts, and might provide a starting point to block its action if it's involved in disease," Mr. Baker said.

Initially, as "Foldit" was tested, about 700 players were given proteins whose ideal structure and shape were already known.

Last week, the game was opened to the public and included proteins with unknown shapes. The University of Washington team presented the game at a gaming conference in Baltimore on Thursday, and now about 30,000 people have played the game, which is available on the Internet at "fold.it"

The team plans to track and record what the best players are doing and refine the game accordingly, Mr. Popovic said.

In the next version of "Foldit," planned for a summer release, players will be able to design brand new proteins aimed at neutralizing toxic waste or fighting HIV, Mr. Baker said.

For instance, he said, players could be presented with the virus that causes the common cold, along with a protein that scientists think shows some promise of being able to combat it. Like scientists, players would be able to alter the protein's makeup, add or subtract amino acids, and change its shape to make it fit tightly into the flu virus, like a jigsaw puzzle piece that could theoretically deactivate the virus.

Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Games in Health Project, said scientists and gamers are constantly finding new and exciting ways of merging their two fields to promote health research.
During the two-day Baltimore conference, his group heard from an epidemiologist who was able to glean important public health information by studying what happened in the virtual world after a popular video game released a blood disease into the game.

Games are also being used to motivate people who are in physical therapy, Mr. Sawyer said.
In the world of protein-folding, Sony, Intel and others teamed up with Stanford University to develop a program that uses computers to try to fold proteins. Mr. Baker developed a similar computer program in 2005.

But "Foldit" takes all of this one step further by harnessing the brain power of potentially thousands of people to help solve these protein puzzles, Mr. Sawyer said.

"I think it's well-designed," he said of the new game.

The game was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer science and engineering. They worked with Mr. Popovic and Mr. Baker, along with David Salesin, a professor of computer science.

University of Washington team members said some people simply seem to be gifted at solving 3-D puzzles like the protein shapes — and some are much more capable than scientists. Mr. Popovic said that in the initial group of 700 players, a few stood out with high scores immediately, including one person from New Zealand and another from Canada.

Mr. Baker said his 13-year-old son, Benjamin, is faster at folding proteins than he is.
He added, "I imagine that there's a 12-year-old in Indonesia who can see all this in their head."

The "Foldit" project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft and Adobe Systems, and through fellowships at Nvidia and Intel.

This Is Your Brain on a Videogame
May 12, 2008
Sharon Begley

If proponents of video and computer games are right, the generation that grew up honing its hand-eye coordination by shooting aliens in Halo should be starting to nail real-life aircraft-carrier landings right about … now. But while studies show that the games can improve visual and spatial skills—and that playing violent ones makes it harder to control anger, especially when someone goads or disses you—only now are scientists studying the games' overall effects on players' hearts and minds. Next week, at the Games for Health Conference in Baltimore, Carmen Russoniello of East Carolina University will report that three nonviolent puzzle and word computer games affect heart rates and brain waves in a way that suggests they might be used therapeutically, such as for treating high blood pressure or depression.

Russoniello assigned volunteers, ages 19 to 57, to either search the Web for articles or to play one of three games: Bejeweled 2, which taps visual and spatial skills; Bookworm Adventures, in which players make words out of Boggle-like arrays, and Peggle, a Pachinkolike aim-and-shoot game. After 15 minutes he wired them up to EEGs, which measure brain waves, and a heart monitor, and then he asked them to fill out questionnaires about their mood.

Compared with the group that searched for articles, the heart monitors showed, only Bejeweled (an untimed version) reduced physiological stress. But with all three, the players felt less fatigued than before the games, less "mentally confused," more vigorous, less angry, less depressed and less mentally tense. The different games affected each of these to varying degrees—Bejeweled increased vigor the most, for instance, while Peggle reduced mental tension the most. EEGs hint at what caused these feelings: Peggle upped brain waves linked to a desire to engage with life, while Bejeweled reduced brain waves associated with avoiding and withdrawing, and Bookworm got brain waves in sync, a state associated with relaxation.

Now for the caveats, starting with the fact that the games' maker, PopCap, paid for the study (though Russoniello says it had no say in the design or data analysis). More problematic, the data are silent on whether the mood and brain changes last more than a few minutes; in contrast, mental training such as meditation seems to bring permanent beneficial brain changes. The challenge now for videogame manufacturers itching to make what are essentially health claims: showing that the games reduce stress and improve mood better than a good book, a stroll in a garden, a movie or any other activity that tickles your brain waves.

Gaming Your Way to Fitness
NPR: Morning Edition (Transcript)
May 15, 2008
Allison Aubrey

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
If it were possible for you to get fit in the next few minutes, these next two reports might do it. In a moment, we'll find out how two members of our own staff measure up against a new presidential fitness test. NPR's Allison Aubrey put them through their paces.

And she'll also report on the exercise you could get in front of your TV. Video games designed to provide a workout are becoming big business, so she attended a conference called Games for Health.

ALLISON AUBREY: There's been a lot of chatter that the Nintendo Wii motivates families to get up and move around. Next week, Nintendo releases in the U.S. an even more active set of games called Wii Fit. One of the games is a hula-hoop challenge.
Very good. You look ready. Your shoes are off.

The first player hops on the Wii balance board, where the game can sense all of his movements. We're in a packed demonstration hall at the Baltimore Convention Center. The player is Alastair Thin. He's a Scottish exercise physiologist attending the convention.

Dr. ALASTAIR THIN (Exercise Physiologist): I know what exercise is. Ican measure exercise on a bike or treadmill.

AUBREY: But getting your heart rate up with a hula-hoop game? Well, let's find out. Gillian Laughren(ph) of Gaming4Health revs up the excitement with her play-by-plays for virtual characters.

Ms. GILLIAN LAUGHREN (Gaming4Health): Now watch this. People are throwing hula-hoops at him and he's hula-hooping, and he has to capture them on his head. There he goes. Will he catch it? I understand if you put out your arms it helps.

AUBREY: As he ducks and dives, Alastair Thin's performance begins to attract a crowd.

Ms. LAUGHREN: How many hula-hoops can he wear? He's up to three. Keeping three in motion.

AUBREY: When Thin hops off the board a few minutes later, he puts his finger to his wrist to take his pulse.

Dr. THIN: 156.

AUBREY: So your heart rate's 156?

Dr. THIN: That's hard exercise.

AUBREY: So tell me, how do you feel?

Dr. THIN: Yeah, a little bit breathless. (unintelligible)

AUBREY: All right. You started off with a dress shirt on, now you're down to a t-shirt.

Dr. THIN: I'm not used to this hot weather.

AUBREY: Alastair Thin has a funny name for an exercise physiologist. He teaches in a much cooler climate of Edinburgh, Scotland. For his students, the weather can be an obstacle to outdoor exercise at least part of the year. So when Wii Fit first hit store shelves in Great Britain last month, Thin was ready in his exercise lab to test it out. He bought two game consoles and recruited 11 students to try a bunch of games. Each of them wore a heart rate band so he could get measurements on how much of a workout they were really getting. And he made a video recording, starting with the Wii step-aerobics game.
Dr. THIN: You can see, a bit like the "Dance Dance Revolution," that the moves are being up on the screen there.

AUBREY: But Thin says students had a little trouble following the game, so their heart rates rose to the equivalent of a moderate walking pace. By comparison, he says, six minutes of hula-hooping got the students to the cusp of a moderately intense cardiovascular workout.

Dr. THIN: The whole thing is it's not just your hips. It's your arms, your shoulders, your legs, your ankles. Everything's working there, and you're exercising really pretty hard.

AUBREY: The point of XerGaming is that it's supposed to be more appealing than just walking or running on a treadmill. And when Thin surveyed his students they did report that it was fun.
What's unclear is whether they would have had the same experience without other students playing along. Was it the camaraderie or the competition that kept them going? These are the questions Thin wants to answer with additional research.

Dr. THIN: Well, that's why it's very important to get sort of good measurements as to just how much physical activity's involved.

AUBREY: Convincing studies could help push virtual gaming into more public spaces such as schools, gyms and recreation centers.

A company called XerGames Technology is already moving in that direction. At the conference, salesman David Monk demonstrates a thrilling game with their interactive Sportwall. It looks like a 12-foot electronic whack-a-mole game.

Mr. DAVID MONK (XerGames Technology): The sky's the limit on what you can do with this. Each panel can handle ten to twelve kids in a relay-style game, and it doesn't take up any space. It only sticks out about four and a half inches off the wall.

AUBREY: To demonstrate, Cameron Goldstein and his brother toss beanbags at different light up targets.

Mr. CAMERON GOLDSTEIN: The target moves around, and the point is to get where the target is.

AUBREY: The boys are clearly engaged and having fun. But the question is why do kids need all the lights an action? What's wrong with good old-fashioned play? I put the question to Brian Batease. He runs a company called Lightspace, which makes a virtual dodge ball game.
For starters, he says it's safer.

Mr. BRIAN BATEASE (Lightspace Corporation): I guess nobody gets hit in the face with a ball with this game, you know. They get hit in the foot with it by a piece of light, right? So anything that's going to get kids, you know, off the couch once a week, it's going to be huge.



Wii Fit, Tipping The Scales on Exercise
May 25, 2008
Mike Musgrove

After all the good times we've had together, it's nice to know my Wii doesn't think I'm fat.

Last week, Nintendo launched an unusual product designed for use with its fast-selling game console. Called Wii Fit, the $90 package comes with a game disc and a sturdy, 10-pound platform that users stand on, shifting their weight from side to side to control their in-game characters. The device and its software can also weigh users and calculate body mass.

Nintendo's Wii system is famous for getting people off the couch to play its tennis and bowling games; now the company aims to introduce users to yoga moves, ab crunches and push-ups, all performed atop the new Wii Balance Board, as the platform is called.

Wii Fit has already proved popular in Japan, where it has sold 2 million units since its release last year. Design of the hardware and software was overseen by Shigeru Miyamoto, the famous Nintendo game designer behind many of the company's biggest hits, such as the Mario franchise.

Game companies have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of trying to tie physical activity to video games. The idea goes back at least 25 years, to the heyday of the Atari 2600 game console, which had a similar-in-spirit device called the Joyboard. In more recent years, some games designed for the PlayStation 2 used a special camera to try to "watch" users' movements as they did aerobics programs with the system.

One device on the way, from a company called iToys, aims to motivate kids to move their bodies more in the real world by offering rewards in the virtual world. As they play and move, a pedometer records points that can be redeemed in a virtual world when the device is plugged into a computer. The device, called ME2, is scheduled for release late this summer.

Ben Sawyer, a co-director of Games for Health, a regular conference where software developers discuss and show off game technology that improves health and health care, said there's a lot to like about Wii Fit.

He said he'd like to see school districts eventually adopt the system, in the same way that some school districts have successfully incorporated the popular Dance Dance Revolution games into exercise and weight-loss programs.

That's a long way off for Wii Fit, he observed. After all, even if price weren't an issue, Wiis are still notoriously hard to find. "The biggest strike against it is that there aren't enough Wiis," he said. "People still can't get one."

Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said other game developers were already working on games and software that incorporate the Balance Board. She said the company was still trying to meet demand for the Wii, but she would not say when the device would be in ample supply.

There are more than 40 activities packed into the Wii Fit disc, ranging from skiing and hula hoop games to rowing, squat and leg-extension exercises. In keeping with the traditional structure of video games, users can't access every feature on the disc at first: The more you "play," the more activities you unlock.

Heck, if you feel like going for a run, you can even stick the Wii controller in one pocket and jog in place, and off goes your "Mii" avatar on a circuit run around a virtual video-game park, populated with all the avatars that you and your friends have put together on the system.

Never has a game console put itself into your personal business as aggressively as the Wii does shortly after you pop in the Wii Fit disc.

"Did you sleep well?" "Did you have breakfast yet?" Log on in the mornings before work, and you're greeted with a such questions. Skip a few days, and the Wii Fit gently tries to make you feel guilty for being a slacker.

Maybe the Wii doesn't think I'm overweight, but it does seem to regard me as a klutz after I flubbed a few balance-related tests. I'm not sure I like the implications I detect in some of its questions: "Do you feel like your body isn't responding the way you would like it to?" "Do you find yourself tripping when you walk?"

The software is set up so you can also use it to track any exercise you're up to when you're away from the Wii; those worried about privacy can keep their weight fluctuations and workout habits password-protected.

So far, I have yet to break much of a sweat with the Wii Fit. As I contort my torso to follow the directions of the software's mellow yoga instructor guy, he encourages me to "visualize" my "ideal body" as I focus on my breathing and balance.

Wii Fit is interesting, and I look forward to spending some more time with it. But if I were to ever do more than just visualize that ideal body, I think I'd have to start going to the gym again. The real one.

May 29, 2008
Meredith Cohn

Pulse\ In this medical training video game from Hunt Valley's BreakAway Ltd., trainees can learn to treat injuries from explosives or diagnose anthrax. Players can see the inside of a hospital and walk, flip through charts and examine patients. They are prompted to check the eyes and listen to the heart.\ 2. Amazing Food Detective\ This Kaiser Permanente game takes kids through a virtual mystery until they uncover the proper things to eat. It shuts off after 20 minutes and prompts the players to do something active.\ 3. Lightspace Play\ Lightspace Corp.'s game has glowing tiles and prompts school kids to jump from square to square to hit a virtual tennis ball or hockey puck or dodge a dodgeball or snowball.\ 4. Play Visualizer\ The game from Hunt Valley's Digital Steam works turns football and other game tape into three-dimensional action. The Baltimore Ravens use it so players can watch video versions of themselves.\ 5.

Kids play on "Lightspace Play," which uses a stage that's just over 9 feet by 9 feet and harks back to the disco era with its glowing tiles.\ 6. BreakAway Ltd. is targeting professionals with the virtual medical school it is developing with "Pulse."

The plane lifts off and is soaring high above the urban landscape. The sun creeps behind a tall building. Then suddenly, the sky gets a little darker, and the ultralight craft isn't alone. Another plane is coming, and it's firing its weapons.\ This is a Dogfight -- a new computer game by Electronic Sports, where competitors go head to head in an effort to shoot each other down.
It's not just another new arcade game. Yes, there is a screen complete with realistic computer-generated sights and sounds. But it's hooked up to a stationary bike, and competitors have to pedal to play.

This is a so-called "healthy game," and the visuals aim to distract the players from the "drudgery" of cycling in place, said Joe Dean, the company president and chief executive. It's one of hundreds of new games that are the latest weapons in the battle against obesity and other health-related problems.

They are played on computers that have long been contributors to the sedentary ways of children, who spend hours at a time sitting behind a screen in pursuit of the high score. Some game developers, health care companies and medical researchers now are teaming up to use the joystick's power for good.

Many new games require players to move to make them work and are increasingly being used in schools, community centers and gyms. Other games aimed at education rather than exercise are being handed out by health care companies to patients and school kids and by medical institutions to trainees and first responders.

Together, they broadly comprise the nascent but rapidly growing healthy games market. The segment may now make up close to one-third of the nation's $1.5 billion "serious games" industry, which includes games with some sort of purpose beyond entertainment like modeling and simulation for business or the military.

Healthy games are not likely to generate the buzz or record sales of the traditional video game Grand Theft Auto IV, which topped $500 million in its first week this month. But at least one may push them more into the mainstream and grab more of the $40 billion overall video game market worldwide. Nintendo's Wii Fit went on sale to individual consumers this month for about $90 and offers skiing, soccer and other games to agile players with a footboard.

"The special nature of games is that they motivate you," said Ben Sawyer, a Portland, Maine-based technology developer who launched the Games for Health Project (gamesforhealth.org) four years ago to assess the effectiveness of the genre and put on a conference for those in the field.

"Games have an ease and a sexiness about them," he said. "Can we actually change people's habits and the health of at-risk populations through games? It makes sense that we can."
Sawyer's Games for Health conference brought gaming professionals to Baltimore this month to learn from each other, help some find funding for their ideas and let others show off their equipment.

Dogfight was on display there. Executives, who have opened a Salt Lake City sales office, were hoping to attract a chain of gyms to invest in the new technology. It's already an arcade game.
Another game was Lightspace Play, which uses a stage that's just over 9 feet by 9 feet and harks back to the disco era with its glowing tiles. It prompts school kids to jump from square to square to hit a virtual tennis ball or hockey puck or dodge a dodgeball or snowball. It's been marketed to schools and community centers for several years and is designed to get kids thinking that exercise is fun, said Katie Miner, Boston-based Lightspace Corp.'s operations manager.
On the health front, video games aren't just for cardio workouts either.

Digital Steamworks of Hunt Valley has created Play Visualizer that turns football and other game tape into three-dimensional action. The Baltimore Ravens use it so players equipped with special glasses can watch video versions of themselves throwing passes, tackling opponents or running for the end zone.

Kaiser Permanente and Humana health care companies showed games they hope will make learning about disease care and proper nutrition more engaging. Humana, a gaming conference sponsor, has been testing the effectiveness of games for seniors and students.
Kaiser has developed Amazing Food Detective and offered it to schools. It takes kids through a virtual mystery until they uncover the proper things to eat. Since the game doesn't actually get the kids moving, it shuts off automatically after 20 minutes and prompts the players to do something active.

"We're trying to see what works," said Kaiser spokeswoman Lorna D. Fernandes. "Childhood obesity is a big problem that costs everyone. We really need to look at everything."

Hunt Valley's BreakAway Ltd. is targeting professionals with the virtual medical school it is developing. In Pulse, trainees can learn to treat injuries from explosives or diagnose anthrax, which is often mistaken for the flu. Players can see the inside of a hospital and walk, flip through charts and examine patients. They are prompted to check the eyes and listen to the heart, which can be heard beating.
There are plenty of other games and ideas that hold promise in the health arena, said Chinwe R. Onyekere, a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The charitable foundation granted $8.2 million over four years toward Sawyer's four-year-old Games for Health Project.
She said part of the foundation's mission is to help reduce obesity and other health issues that have been cropping up in younger Americans. There's no conclusive evidence yet to show that video games work, she said. But they are so widely popular that tapping them to help solve health care problems seems worth a try.

"We're hoping the research shows it works," she said. "And we're hoping to build a community so they can find each other and learn from each other."

Douglas Goldstein is convinced healthy games are effective. He formed iConecto, a company that has launched a Web site this month called gaming4health .com. It's a database of more than 100 healthy games and a social networking site for developers and users. He'd like to make it a distributor of games, too.

He sees everyone from kids in school to athletes in training to regular people at the gym playing healthy games. For now, Goldstein will focus on making a cohesive industry out of a bunch of companies trying to individually market or give away their products.

"There's a need for these games," he said. "If you can get healthy by playing a fun game, why not do it?"

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com\ \ Games people play\ About 16 percent of Americans exercise on an average day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Time Use Survey, which is available at www.bls.gov/spotlight. Roughly five times as many people watched television on an average day during the same time period, from 2003 to 2006.

Here are some other facts from the survey:
The Pacific region had the most regular exercisers, with 20 percent working out on an average day; the South Central region was the least active, with 13 percent regularly exercising; and the South Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, was about average at 15 percent.

People with a bachelor's degree or higher were most likely to regularly exercise, with 23 percent working out on an average day. Those with less than a high school diploma were the least likely, with 10 percent regularly exercising.

Walking was the most popular activity, with 30 percent choosing it on an average day. Weightlifting was next popular with 13.1 percent. Other popular activities were using cardiovascular equipment, swimming, running and basketball.

Football, basketball and golf were the most popular sports for men, while aerobics, yoga and walking were most popular among women.