BURLINGTON, Vt.—Computer gaming often conjures up images of slackers so engrossed in a virtual world that they harm their health by skipping meals and exercise, spending endless hours with their eyes glued to the screen and their hand clicking away.
At Champlain College and other academic institutions around the country, designers are looking for a better role to play, developing games aimed at helping people improve their health in a variety of ways, be it getting diabetics to eat right or leading Parkinson's patients through rehabilitation.
Amanda Crispel, program director of game design, game art and animation at Champlain and CEO of a startup company, Hoozinga Game Media, is working with the Vermont Health Department to promote a new game intended to help smokers quit.
"Khemia," which is Latin for "alchemy," is designed to give smokers looking to kick the habit something to do with their minds and hands for the five to ten minutes a cigarette craving typically lasts, Crispel said.
"It's behavioral modification," she said. "You have set up a behavioral pattern, a set of neurons that says when this happens, that happens."
"Khemia" is designed to disrupt the pattern associated with smoking and, in conjunction with other tools such as nicotine gum, reduce those cravings over time.
The game itself is fairly simple and involves shooting at targets. It comes embedded in a website whose theme is quitting tobacco.
Players enter their reasons for quitting and their "triggers," or daily occurrences that lead them to smoke. The site tracks such data as how many days since have players quit, how many cigarettes they have stopped themselves from smoking and how much money they have saved.
The Vermont effort was reported previously by The Burlington Free Press.
A similar effort is under way in New York City, at Columbia University's Teachers College, where a team including a professor and students has developed a smoking cessation game for mobile devices like the iPhone. Players manipulate activity on the screen by breathing into the device's microphone -- the breathing aspect is designed to mimic smoking.
"If we can capitalize on the motivational aspect of games and the availability of mobile devices, there is tremendous potential to positively affect health and wellness for smokers who want to quit," said professor Charles Kinzer, the program's director. "This could have implications for health care costs as well."
Debra Lieberman, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said computer games can be valuable tools for addressing health problems but emphasized that they need to be backed by strong research -- both as they are being designed and during follow-up to see how well they are working.
"The health games field is growing really fast," she said. "What's not keeping up is our evidence base, our research. Before you just grab and use a health game, you have to ask some questions about its quality. Is there any evidence that the game works?"
Lieberman directs the Health Games Research program at UCSB and is administering $4 million in grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to researchers around the country. One of the grants, for $150,000, went to the Columbia project.
Crispel said computer games are increasingly recognized as a powerful communication medium. "Even YouTube is still passive," she said, because the viewer is just absorbing video and sound.
A computer game that demands active participation can create a psychological phenomenon called "flow," which her company's website describes as "an intense state of immersive concentration in which the mind is completely absorbed in the task at hand."
The result is "a wide-open channel to the brain," Crispel said.
But she cautioned smokers against trading their tobacco addictions for computer-game addictions, which she says some Champlain students have done.
"Is it possible for someone to transfer their addiction (from tobacco) onto this game? Yes, it's possible," Crispel said.
Columbia's Kinzer, though, said trading a tobacco habit for a computer-game addiction isn't the worst idea. "You can die from smoking," he said.