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Video games actually can be good for you

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Several times a week before dinner, Janet and Jim Herlihey of West Chester, Pa., remind their sons Michael, 12, and Paul, 10, to get in a good half-hour of video game time before eating.

Parents telling their kids to play video games? That's right. The boys are among the estimated 5% to 7% of children who have attention deficit disorder, and video games, as prescribed by their psychologist, have helped them learn to focus, their mother says.

In addition to a Sony PlayStation 2, the family has some special equipment: a S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames system that consists of a special controller, a helmet with built-in sensors for monitoring brain activity and a Smartbox that receives the brain signals.

As long as the boys remain calmly focused on the game, it plays normally, says their Philadelphia psychologist Domenic Greco. But if a player's mind wanders, the Smartbox sends a signal to the controller hindering acceleration or character movement in the game.

The Herliheys connected online with Greco, who designed the system by adapting a similar one that NASA used for pilot training. After treating the boys last year at his office in Philadelphia, he recommended the at-home video game therapy.

Neurofeedback via joystick?

Currently, Greco says that more than 50 clinics are using S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames systems to help children and adults with ADD. Today, the company begins a full-scale home marketing push; the systems, which cost $548 (PS2 not included), are now available online at

Video-game-based neurofeedback may be "an interesting and possibly promising treatment, but there's still not enough research to recommend it as a first-line treatment" for children with ADD, says Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "Families are often loath to consider medication but ... it's the single most proven treatment."

Janet Herlihey admits she was skeptical at first. She had not allowed video games in the home because "they didn't seem like a good match for my family," which also includes Peter, 8, and Beth, 6. "When they first sat down to play, they were physically rocking the entire chair," she says. "Now, they sit calmly and their eyes are doing all the tracking."

Despite receiving standard neurofeedback treatment for ADD in the past, Michael still had memory problems that affected his schoolwork and left him frustrated. In successfully playing video games, Michael has to calmly focus on the task at hand, says his mother. After nearly a year of game-based therapy, he has learned to transfer the game-playing focus skills to school and even soccer, where he's become a prolific scorer, she says.

In Paul's case, he has regained his love of reading, something that had become an activity that he could not sit still and focus on, says Janet Herlihey.

Video games as therapy -- just one example of the changing attitude that some in the health care and medical industries have toward video games, an often-criticized pastime.

Training and treatment, too

Looking past the violence and adult content in games such as Grand Theft Auto, a growing number of researchers have begun to embrace the medium's high-quality 3-D environments and simulation programs.

There were nearly 40 projects in various stages of development on display at last week's Games for Health Conference in Baltimore, says the group's co-director Ben Sawyer. Games for Health is an offshoot of The Serious Games Initiative (, which seeks to push the evolution of games technology to aid in problem solving, public policy and social issues.

Some of the highlighted projects and potential benefits:

*Patient treatment. The U.S. Navy is testing Sony's Eye Toy, a camera that connects to the PS2 and transfers the person's image onto a TV screen, along with the interactive dance mats used for the game Dance Dance Revolution, says the project's principal investigator, Mark Wiederhold of the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego. The idea is to create programs to help rehabilitate soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

*Training. U.K.-based Blitz Games is developing Interactive Trauma Trainer, a PC game-style simulation program to help prepare battlefield surgeons for decision-making and treatment in combat.

Another program being tested, New Dawn Estates, a role-playing simulation developed by pullUin Software of Vermillion, S.D., helps certified nursing assistants learn nursing-home treatment protocols.

*Prevention and education. The Federation of American Scientists and Brown University have created Immune Attack, a 3-D game about the immune system to help high school and college students better understand the complex subject.

"All of these things require more research and they are going to lead us in a lot of different ways. In three years, we'll know more," Sawyer says.

Says Greco: "The next thrust is creating attention in the gaming world to recognize that people are looking for something more in video games."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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