Wii-habilitation, health games get $2 million study grant

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funds research into how the Wii and other interactive games can improve the rehab of stroke victims or help ward off the freshman 15.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read

Forget Wii parties. Wii-habilitation is where it's at.

The popular Nintendo device for playing games like virtual bowling or tennis has turned into a rehab tool at cutting-edge health care centers around the country. And now researchers at the University of South Carolina are turning the trend into a research project that will study exactly how well the Wii and other games can help stroke victims recover motor skills and overcome a fear of falling after their trauma.


The research is part of a new $2 million grant from philanthropic group the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which will be administered by the University of California Santa Barbara's Health Games Research Center. On Thursday, the two organizations announced that 12 different research projects, including USC's Wii project, will receive funding of up to $200,000 each to study how interactive games can be used to improve public health and the health care profession. The studies will last between one to two years.

"We're trying to find positive ways to use video games," Debra Lieberman, director of the Health Games Research Center, said during a press conference Thursday. "A 'good' game, which help people learn methods of self-improvement, could displace more time-wasting games out there."

The Health Games Research Center was funded about four years ago by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF's Pioneer Portfolio, and the new $2 million grant is the inaugural round of funding by RWJF to establish studies on interactive games for health. It will invest another $2 million on research projects beginning in January 2009.

Among the other research initiatives announced Thursday:

Cornell University's Department of Communication will test a cell-phone game called the Mindless Eating Challenge with a group of teens. The game uses virtual characters and nutrition tips to try to influence teens to eat right.

Indiana University's School of Health has created the Skeleton Chase, an alternative reality game that designed partly to help incoming college students fight the "freshman 15." The game, a mystery that unfolds over eight weeks through clues delivered via online and offline media, will promote physical activity and measure how college kids learn best--whether it's through competition or collaboration.

The University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts has developed Wellness Partners, a character-driven social mobile game for children and adults aged 12 to 44. The game, which combines social networking and caring for virtual pets, is designed to test how well people respond to a virtual support network when trying to form healthy lifestyle habits.

Union College's Department of Psychology will test senior citizens' "cyber-cycling," or exercising on a stationery bike with a networked 3D screen. The virtual environment lets the over 50 set compete with peers.

The University of Central Florida's College of Medicine will examine whether virtual world role-playing games can influence the recovery of former alcohol abusers.

The University of Florida's College of Public Health will study whether action-adventure games like Playstation 2's Crazy Taxi can improve senior citizen's visual attention skills. Will it help them drive better, for example?

As part of the Wii project, the University of South Carolina will compare the effects of Nintendo's device to EyeToy, a camera-based game that monitors players movements while they virtually clean windows or pop bubbles.

"The neat thing about a game is that it involves challenges to meet a goal. We take great pleasure (in that)" Lieberman said. "Stroke victims work harder. These are new ways to offer rehabilitation."