Video games often have the reputation as being “bad for you.” But one European research project, called Playmancer, seeks to challenge that reputation. Playmancer has been designed to help patients undergoing physical rehabilitation, and even mental health issues like bulimia and gambling addiction.
At the Roessingh Rehabilitation Center in the Dutch town of Enschede, one thing is clear: it takes a lot of gear to play Playmancer. The game requires wearing a tight-fitting, full-body suit and cap.
But physical therapists here believe that the effort is worth it.
“The more you train, the more you gain,” says Miriam Vollenbroek, who chairs the research and development efforts at Roessingh. Her research focuses on how new technologies can assist in therapy.
“Many of our patients here have chronic neck or back pain, and their course of treatment can be long and repetitive. Playmancer, by making therapy more motivating, more enjoyable, can help them stick with their exercise program.”
For the past few months, researchers at Roessingh have been trialing Playmancer with a dozen patients, of all different ages, to see if the game can really add a bit of fun to the healing process.
“We had some patients over 60, and they also like the game,” says Vollenbroek. It’s not only for very young adults. It’s also something that can be used for the elderly, and that’s important I think.”
I decide to give the game a try. After I get suited up, I’m asked to stand on a treadmill.
My suit is covered with shiny little plastic knobs. A series of cameras around the room pick up my movements, and calibrates the software to the range of motion in my neck, back and shoulders.
It’s the same kind of motion capture system used to do animation in some recent Hollywood films.
On the screen in front of the treadmill, my character begins to walk through an underground tunnel. I’m required to walk at a certain pace, while gathering gold coins and avoiding dangers.
The motions I’m forced to make are designed to stretch what needs to be stretched for rehab. In another part of the game, for example, I am rock-climbing up a cliff, stretching my upper back and shoulders.
As I react, the system picks up my motions and adjusts the level of the game according. It gets harder or easier depending on my comfort level.
My reward for a job well done? Another chapter of my character’s ongoing story is revealed.
“You’re like this Indiana Jones type,” says Jeppe Nielsen, one of the lead developers of Playmancer at Serious Games Interactive in Copenhagen, Denmark. “That puts the player in a positive, pro-active role sort of, I want to do this, I want to explore stuff and find stuff.”
Nielsen says it wasn’t easy balancing the needs of health professionals with good game development.
So I ask him why they didn’t just create a game for an existing gesture-based gaming system like the Microsoft Kinect, or the Nintendo Wii.
“The Kinect is good, but it’s probably good for fun,” Nielsen says. “It’s not very precise. We had to use the suits for this project because we had to measure precisely where the joints are, and what muscles are you using. That just wouldn’t work with the Kinect or with the Wii.”
Even more difficult, say developers at Serious Games Interactive, was designing the mental health version of the game, which is designed to help treat eating and gambling disorders.
“It’s easier to understand the outcomes with physical rehab,” says Simon Eigenfeldt-Nielsen, founder of Serious Games Interactive. “But with psychology and mental health, it’s much harder to measure.”
Eigenfeldt-Nielsen says that it took a few tries to get the game right, but that he’s happy with the version that is being trialed at a mental health facility outside of Barcelona.
In this version of the game, the idea it get players to break the bad thought patterns that lead to eating or gambling disorders. The game play demands that players slow down, breathe and think carefully about their next move.
“None of these games stands by itself,” says Elias Kalapanidas, the coordinator of the Playmancer project.
“The games complement existing programs, and that’s goal, the aim of the program – not to substitute for experts, but to help them better cope with their patients.”
The Playmancer trials in Spain and the Netherlands are just finishing up. Researchers and game developers alike will be taking a close look at the data in the next few months. They hope to feed what they have learned back into version 2.0.
Miriam Vollenbroek at Roessingh sees great potential in this kind of technology.
“Games like this will go into the home,” says Vollenbroek. “There should be technological developments that allows home-based patients to easily use this system, and see the game on their own television screens.”