GDC 06: Games for brains

PopCap, Games for Health discuss the effect of gaming on developing, sustaining cognitive abilities.


SAN JOSE, Calif.--In a brief Tuesday-afternoon session at the Game Developers Conference, an audience seemingly dominated by academics learned of a study, funded by developer PopCap and run by the Games for Health project, intending to investigate the possible cognitive benefits of playing video games.

According to Ben Sawyer, producer of Virtual U and cofounder and director of the Games for Health Project, the idea for the study came from portions of PopCap's own customer base, who claimed that they were using the puzzle game Bejeweled as a mental exercise. PopCap then sought out Games for Health, with the intention of exploring the topic in more depth.

Sawyer commented that there were two interesting qualities to the study: first, that this was the first time a serious-games initiative had funding from a game company to do research, and second, that all the data would eventually be public. Sawyer then introduced the afternoon's speaker, Darius Kazemi of Games for Health.

Kazemi started off with an important point. "I am not a medical professional," he warned. "I am a game developer."

He suggested that some of the reasoning driving the study is a "common sense" argument that gamers often attest to: that gaming keeps a player's mind sharp and is somehow seen as "mental exercise."

He outlined the three phases of the proposed study: a literature review, interviews of experts in the field, and the publication of a white paper summarizing their findings.

Citing various scholarly papers, Kazemi explained that the project was only in the mid-to-late stages of phase one but had already found two emerging trends with respect to dementia and other elderly mental ailments. So far, he said, they had seen studies that viewed games as a preventative measure to avoid dementia and studies that saw games instead as a treatment. He acknowledged that the literature found correlation, but not causal links, and did mention that they involved board games and not video games.

On several occasions Kazemi cited the Alzheimer's Association's ongoing "Maintain Your Brain" campaign, which has four separate components: staying mentally active, remaining socially involved, staying physically active, and adopting a brain-healthy diet. Seemingly, he wished to underscore that the key to a healthy mind does not rest merely in cognitive exercise. Kazemi jokingly questioned whether the ideal mind game would combine World of Warcraft (social), Dance Dance Revolution (physical), and Bejeweled (mental), and he presented a humorous slide to illustrate this possibility.

Kazemi and Sawyer used the remainder of the allotted time to take questions from the packed audience. Many of the questions, however, turned into suggestions, inviting polite--though occasionally defensive--rebuttals from the speakers.

From the audience, Brenda Laurel, founder of the now-defunct female-oriented Purple Moon game company, suggested that Games for Health insert small qualitative studies in between the expert interviews and the white paper to form hypotheses capable of being tested with small sample sizes. Another audience member suggested investigating non-puzzle games, since many of them engage players in unique ways.

There was also concern from several members of the audience of the risk of bias. The verbiage of the white paper proposal, for instance, suggests that the study seeks to validate the "benefits" hypothesis and not challenge it. Furthermore, given the source of funding, another audience member feared that a value judgment had already been made on the subject and questioned the involvement of game developers in this sort of research.

Sawyer responded, "The role for game developers isn't necessarily to come back and say, 'I've got some new game mechanic that fires off a neuron in the right part of the skull to make it work.' The point is that they built a diary, they built a technology, they took the work that was already done. I don't see how that role's going to change. That's the role that's promising to developers, and the 'ammunition' we want to give them is ammunition to get in touch with researchers who can help them. And the ammunition is the knowledge so that they don't get working with somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about."

Sawyer and Kazemi were open to the possibility of the research turning out negatively, however. Early on, Kazemi said that a $100 million US market was already predicted for health-related brain games. Sawyer said that the research would not affect that market, at least not initially, no matter what conclusion it reached.

"This is going to be well over a $100 million market already," said Sawyer. "The research could fall out from underneath that market. But the market exists. Which is…"

"Scary?" asked Kazemi.

"Yeah," continued Sawyer, "but [it] also could be potentially telling, too. Again, it's a double-edged sword. There are so many of them in this space. It has a lot of opportunity because people are clearly interested in this. And we have an aging population."

Indeed, the average age of the video gamer is continually rising. And if the research turns out the way the industry wants it to, one game of Tetris a day may indeed keep Alzheimer's away.

For more news from the event, check out GameSpot's GDC 2006 page.

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