Can video games help with healthy choices?

This article has been amended following an investigation by the News. Please see the Editor’s Note below for details.

Neon flashes. Electronic beeps. Power ups and game overs. Could video games be the future of health education and prevention? One health education institute sees it as a promising venture to explore.

Thanks to a $3.9 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, School of Medicine professor Lynn Fiellin is about to embark on a study that tests whether or not video games can help prevent adolescents in urban areas from engaging in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and experimenting with drugs, that may lead to HIV infections. The interactive virtual reality-based video game being studied, “Retro-Warriors,” teaches gamers how to make healthy decisions about their bodies.

“Kids are already playing video games — on consoles, the Web, their cell phones,” Fiellin said. “If they are there already, we can use the opportunity to capture them in an environment that is fun, engaging and ‘real’ to them.”

The study, which will be conducted over five years, will involve a focus group of 330 ethnically diverse children in an after-school or youth program in New Haven. Fiellin explained that targeting adolescents from diverse racial backgrounds is important, since many racial minorities tend to live in environments that are associated with the high prevalence of risky behaviors.

Students will be randomly assigned to play either the HIV-prevention video game or a regular video game, which will serve as a control. Researchers will then study the game’s impact on the age of initial sexual activity.

The game will be adapted based on input both from adolescents in the experimental groups and experts in the fields of youth development, social cognitive theory and commercial game design.

Linda Mayes, a co-investigator and a professor of child psychiatry, said the video game format helps make information that is usually out-of-reach for adolescents in urban environments accessible and digestible.

Fiellin added that video games’ portability makes them a useful teaching tool in developing countries, where access to the Internet is growing and the HIV epidemic is pressing, but where adolescents have limited access to risk-reduction strategies.

But the researchers said the use of technology as a health-education tool is not always straightforward.

“The technological challenge of the study is creating an engaging game that effectively changes ‘real world’ behavior outside the game situation,” Mayes said.

Rhianna Gunn-Wright ’11, a women’s, gender, & sexuality studies major, said she thought that the game would effect behavioral change if designed in an effective matter. One way to solve this issue, she said, would be to represent the information in a more scientific way.

“If they focus on how the actual [HIV] virus works, but somehow show how the virus mutates and changes the body, the game could be informative and productive,” she said.

Fiellin said the key is to balance the technological and scientific aspects of the game.

“The technology should not become so cumbersome that it gets in the way of the theory and science behind the game,” Fiellin said. “I think the key to success is to use the strength and potential for engagement of the technology to help deliver positive health messages.”

Correction: 29 July 2012

This article originally misspelled the last name of School of Medicine professor Lynn Fiellin.

Editor’s Note: Sept. 5, 2012

After the Wall Street Journal fired Liane Membis ’12, the writer of this article, in July 2012 for fabricating sources, the News opened an investigation into her work as a staff reporter for the paper. This investigation found questions regarding the accuracy of quotes Membis used in her work, including one quote that appeared in this article. That quote appeared in the eighth paragraph of the article, and the entire paragraph has been removed. Before this removal, that paragraph read as follows:

“Video game play, through game mechanics, can offer rewards and reinforcements to help teens learn the information,” she said, adding that “Retro-Warriors” is designed so that players can work at their own pace to learn the information in the game.

The full report on the News’ investigation can be found here.

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