Her eyes glued to a large screen, Hannah Lederman carefully hopped from arrow to arrow on a square game mat, trying to match the thumping beat of a pop tune. She squinted in concentration; her team was ahead, but not by much.
Lederman, 12, and her sixth-grade classmates from Natick’s Kennedy Middle School took a day off from class Wednesday to try a new, health-centric version of the video game Dance Dance Revolution at the eighth annual Games for Health Conference, which runs through Thursday at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel in Boston. The conference brought together more than 400 developers, engineers, and health professionals, and showcased video games designed to help players recover from brain injuries, learn developmental skills, or just get in shape.
There were a few school kids there, too. “I love to get up and move around,” Lederman said, as she stepped off the mat. “Just sitting in the classroom, you get kind of hyper.”
The students were playing a prototype the Classroom Edition of Dance Dance Revolution, the mega-hit video game by the Japanese company Konami Digital Entertainment Inc. The school-friendly version of the game, scheduled to be released this fall, eliminates the racy songs available in consumer editions and raises the number of players from four to as many as 48.
It also encourages students who dread traditional gym classes to get up and move around. “We found that kids of all shapes and sizes will play, because nobody’s really watching you,” said Clara Baum, the senior director of strategic marketing and partnerships for Konami.
The annual conference was cofounded in 2004 by Ben Sawyer, owner of game design consulting firm Digitalmill in Portland, Maine. Sawyer has been involved for more than a decade with “serious games,” which are designed to provide benefits such as job training, education, or to promote health.
For example, The Treasure of Bell Island, a game featured at the conference, was developed for the Department of Defense by Los Angeles-based Blue Marble Game Co. to help victims of brain injury. The game is an app that runs on tablet computers using Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Players strategically explore an island, playing a variety of mini-games along the way, such as tapping on berries to drop them into a moving basket. Each exercise is meant to challenge a specific cognitive ability that may be impaired by a concussion or other mild brain injury.
The game collects data on a player’s motor response times and other mental functions, which can then be reviewed by a clinician or therapist. For example, a player with a brain injury might be easily distracted by butterflies that appear during the berry mini-game. The program would count how many times the player tried to touch the butterflies, which are irrelevant to the task.
“In Afghanistan, soldiers with concussions get brain rest, and then they play XBox games,” Flynn said. “Unlike those games, it actually gives [caregivers] data about how the soldier is doing.”
The health games field is accelerating with the development of new technologies, according to Sawyer, who said mobile devices in particular offer ubiquitous access to patients and consumers. Sawyer’s company worked with the Yale School of Medicine to develop a mobile game to teach teenagers how to make better decisions when it comes to taking risks — including the use of drugs or alcohol.
“The idea of using software to improve personal health has been around a long time, but not until apps came along did we really see engagement,” Sawyer said. “Now people have a brain game, a diabetes app, a diet app on their phone, and they’re mashing these together and using them at the same time.”