Games for Health 2012

In my day I haven’t been to a whole lot of conferences but I’ve done a few.

I had lots of mini-conferences to get continuing education hours as an attorney. They are… well… a total snooze-fest. If you are lucky you get a bottle of water for free. There are conferences like this that happen on cruise ships and in exotic locales, sadly I was never that kind of lawyer.

I accompanied Eric to his science conferences from grad school twice. We went with several members of his lab and there was much wining and dining. There were sessions crammed with speakers, in a hall full of sessions. Posters in an expo hall as far as the eye could see.

And then there are blogging conferences where there is mostly lots of laughing and chatting and partying, with a little bit of learning thrown in just because. (Are you going to BlogHer12? I AM!!!)

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Recently I got a whole new glimpse into the conference world with the Games For Health conference here in Boston. It’s an area where I have an interest despite the fact that I am neither a gamer nor a health professional. Why? Well, I have an autistic child and these days one of the things you hear about the most in the autism community is the proliferation of apps for kids to help with all kinds of development, from motor skills to language skills to social skills. I’ve been able to see this in action, since one of our therapists has an iPad.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this conference. A bunch of game nerds with ironic t-shirts? Doctors? Students? Fitness gurus?

It turns out, the answer is all of them. I’ve never seen such an interesting mix of people at a conference. Lawyer conferences are full of boring-looking lawyer types. Science conferences are full of nerdy-looking science types. Blogging conferences are full of carefully-dressed-and-styled adorable lady types. (I am so going to stick out like a sore thumb with my baby belly and my lack of heels.)

I saw businesspeople in suits. I saw gamer t-shirts. I saw men and women in about equal numbers. I saw the fit and the not-so-fit. I saw geeks of all stripes, both game-creaters and game-players. It was pretty spectacular.

At lunch I found myself at a table with a woman working for the Department of Health and Human Services, a female entrepreneur working on a site for athletes to use for fundraising, a guy working on a game to help people with their physical therapy and others. (I think this is an amazing idea. Have you ever had physical therapy? Where they send you home with a sheet that’s been xeroxed 85,000 times and a few notes? A game that would model the exercise and let you count and track your work would help so much. Especially if it didn’t tell you you’re fat, like the WiiFit. When did I quit the WiiFit? When it decided I was not pregnant but fat. There should totally be a pregnant avatar on that program.)

I sat through sessions where we brainstormed how to incorporate proper nutrition into games, learned about a game-based standardized-testing platform to gauge emotional and social development in schools, and caught up with some of the latest research.

I learned that not all “exergames” are created equal. Exergames are the ones where you have to move. And you’ve probably noticed all the news articles about how they don’t really encourage additional exercise. One study I learned about showed that the amount of energy you use on those games varies depending on how the game is designed. Not just the moves you have to do, but little things like how the menu works and how long the break is between sessions. (So if you want your kids to get the most out of a dance game, you’d be best off going with the pc-based Stepmania rather than Just Dance 3 or the traditional DDR, based on their data.)

As I sat through the sessions I realized just how instrumental games will be for our kids, how much bigger a role it will play in their lives than it did in ours. Sure, I was among the first kids to use computer games regularly in the classroom, but it’s a far cry from the Oregon Trail to what’s available today.

I was inspired enough that I’m planning to write a piece on what scientific research shows about the effects of video games on kids. Isn’t that something parents worry about a lot? I’ll keep you posted as I work on it.

As a person and a parent, I have to say how delightful it was to sit through lectures and see the excitement of all the presenters. A fun touch was that all the presentations started with what games they were currently playing. (For me, this really addictive jewel game on my phone which I won’t tell you about because I’m pretty sure it’s virus-y and has been spamming me… but I love it and can’t quite get myself to delete it.) Who would’ve thought that I’d get so excited looking at stuff like this?

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Yay, bar graphs!

At first I was a little dismayed that our fair city welcomed conferencegoers with crappy weather.

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But eventually it cleared up so we could enjoy the gorgeous view from the hotel.

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One thing all conferences have in common: people standing around outside on their cellphones.

When I think about games I think about Eric and the sound of stuff blowing up. The guy loves his games. But it was really interesting to see that the people behind the games aren’t just interested in making a fun experience. They really want to help people.

Here’s some tidbits I learned about:

  • A game being created for after-school programs in urban areas for at-risk teens. Game-makers are working with focus groups of adolescents to create a game that’s not only fun to play but helps teach about consequences and decision-making.
  • There are a lot of programs based on using community and game systems to help with things like losing weight or living with various health conditions. I love that this is becoming more common. When it comes to things like exercise or diet or other difficult tasks it can be so much easier to do it with help and support.
  • There’s a lot of research going on about the impact of games on the brain. It was great to see researchers sharing this information with game developers, to take what we’re learning and use it to make games better.
  • Check out this amazing game for kids with cancer created by HopeLab.
  • This post from MeYouHealth has a lot more great insights.

It was really obvious to me that the world of gaming is changing a lot more than I’d ever realized. It’s going to be important as a parent to keep up with the new research about how games affect our kids as well as what games are out there that can help our kids.

This was a great conference experience and I’m hoping to come back next year for Games For Health 2013!

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