Healthy games offer risks, too

By Mark Baard
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

At the recent Games for Health Conference, which focused on video games that encourage fitness and rehabilitation, Richard Marks stood in front of a television, swinging his arms while a menacing-looking sword flashed about the screen.

Next, Marks flicked his hands energetically as if he were throwing clay. On the screen, a vase took shape.

His performance looked like an outtake from the science fiction movie “Minority Report,’’ in which Tom Cruise’s character waves his gloved hands in front of a display screen to manipulate objects.

Marks wielded his own invention, the PlayStation Move, a wireless remote controller developed at Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc., where he is a senior researcher.

The Move is Sony’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii Remote, with triggers and buttons and built-in motion sensors. Connected to the PlayStation 3 via Bluetooth, and tracked by a camera pointed back at the player, it’s the latest example of how video games are shedding cables and — to the delight of doctors and physical therapists — encouraging players to become more physically active.

But some researchers suspect the video games industry, which touts the health benefits of so-called exergames, is paying little attention to the risks those games pose to players.

“Games really are becoming more like exercise,’’ said Alan Au, a graduate student in the Department of Medical Education and Biomedical Informatics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“But I’m not convinced that when designing these games, their developers are thinking about the injury aspect,’’ he said.

Each year at Games for Health — held at the Hyatt Harborside in Boston, and now in its sixth year — Au discusses media coverage of injuries suffered by video game players. Many reports describe minor repetitive strain injuries.

Whether they are bowling or playing tennis in Wii Sports, or hauling downhill in We Ski and Snowboard, some players are apparently playing too hard, or for too long.

“The stories are about people playing games excessively,’’ Au said. “People are forgetting that if you play Guitar Hero for five hours, your arm is going to be sore.’’

Nintendo, which last month unveiled a partnership with the American Heart Association to promote “physically active play,’’ lists on its website warnings about repetitive motion injuries, eyestrain, and other risks associated with playing Wii games.

But a pilot study that’s being conducted at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston this summer may be the first to address the injury problem directly, by looking into the biomechanics of Wii gaming.

Spaulding’s researchers will attempt to quantify the improvements that stroke patients can experience by playing Wii games, said Dr. Rosalyn Nguyen, a clinical fellow in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the hospital.

As part of the study, 20 participants will play off-the-shelf Wii games, while researchers try to detect movements that put them at physical risk.

In other games, such as those designed to help battlefield veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, having a health care professional on hand seems even more important. In simulations developed by Seattle-based Firsthand Technology Inc., veterans with post traumatic stress disorder slowly revisit the scenes of bus bombings and other attacks.

In Firsthand’s simulations, crowded city streets and buses packed with civilians can bring a veteran back, virtually, to his most traumatic experiences, slowly helping him to cope with what he went through during wartime.

“At first, a soldier might just sit in the Humvee, and that’s all he does,’’ said Firsthand president Howard Rose.

The company also develops educational games using a software platform from Concord-based 3DVia, part of the French company Dassault Systemes.

In the battlefield simulations, “a therapist can mediate the patient’s experience, so they are not traumatized again,’’ Rose said.

Apart from injuries and the risk of trauma, video games might present other problems for players.

A paper outlining the Food and Drug Administration’s new Medical Device Home Use Initiative describes a report of a player who said the defibrillator in his chest malfunctioned while he was playing a Wii game.

When he stopped playing, the defibrillator started working properly.

Compared with cellular phones, however, wireless games are low-power devices and are considered by engineers to be less likely to interfere with medical devices than microwave ovens or mobile phones.

When Sony was developing the Move, it was more concerned that the device would be affected by electromagnetic radiation from other sources in the home.

But that does not mean Marks was not thinking about safety.

At the end of an interview at Games for Health, he raised a Move remote, which is topped with an illuminated ball, and brought it down hard on a table. The ball, made of soft rubber, folded like the nipple on top of a baby bottle.

In addition to the soft tip (a feature that is likely to save a few television screens, at least), the device has a tapered, tool-like handle to improve the player’s grip.

“People think we do these things for aesthetics,’’ said Marks. “But we have actually have good reasons for adding these features.’’