We usually read about videogames being bad for our health: encouraging laziness, lack of sleep and less physical activity. But the EU’s Playmancer project aims to change all that. It’s developed a “healthy” videogame to help doctors and therapists treat a number of health issues.
Supposedly Playmancer can treat everything from binge eating to gambling addiction.
The game itself is fairly simple. In it the player explores a tropical island, playing various mini-games to advance. One is a climbing game where the player must move up a cliff while avoiding obstacles. The whole time he is hooked up to sensors that monitor his physical and emotional responses. As he reacts to different stimuli in the game world, these sensors transmit data back to his doctors. They can then measure his reaction to stressors or see whether his movements are normal.
The data output can also influence the game world, however. In the climbing game negative emotions cause more obstacles to appear along the path. This helps patients learn to better recognize and manage their emotional states.
Elias Kalapinidas, Coordinator for Playmancer, explained:
This game goes beyond virtual reality. Virtual reality reproduces the surrounding environment, but it offers no rewards system. Our aim was to motivate patients to know their body and mind better. Videogames are entertaining and motivating, so we thought they can provide effective complimentary therapies in different diseases.This videogame is like a bonding factor between patients and their therapists and doctors.
The Playmancer project began in 2007. It has since gone through a lengthy development process–partly because of the tricky nature of creating a “healthy” videogame. Psychologist Susana Jiménez-Murcia said that’s because certain design features could be harmful to patients. An example: initially developers wanted to create an online game where patients would play with others around the world. But the psychologists believed some players could become addicted. So the idea was scrapped and Playmancer restricted to a single player.
So far patients have been getting good results. One of the gambling addicts treated with the system said:
At first I found it bizarre that my addiction to gambling could be treated with a videogame. But after some sessions I understood the point. The videogame helps me to know my state of mind at any given moment. For instance, it can help me to realise I’m becoming too nervous. So I can work on my own emotions to try to calm myself down.
Will patients across Europe soon be gaming their problems away?
Probably not. For one Playmancer is still under development. And even once the project is complete it will still have to be integrated into EU countries’ healthcare systems. As Dutch scientist Miriam Vollenbroek explained:
There is no problem with acceptability by patients and therapists. There is also no problem with existing technology. But it is really an organizational change. So the only short-term problem is the financial aspect, at least here in the Netherlands; how our Social Security system is going to reimburse this kind of treatment. That could take a long time.