Picture this: You climb to the top of a hill where gray llamas, surrounded by jagged snow-capped mountains, graze amid bright green bushes and trees. You have come to this hill to reach a temple floating above you in the sky. To get there, you must make an ally of one of the trees on the hill. But this isn't your average tree. This one inhales, holds its breath for five seconds, and slowly exhales. If you can mimic that pattern for two full minutes, the tree will build you golden stairs to the palace.
A dream? An image to be conjured during an esoteric yoga exercise? Not at all. It's part of a computer game called The Journey to Wild Divine, created by The Wild Divine Project. Combining elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and Kabbalah, the $159.95 game comes with sensor rings that slip over three fingers to monitor heart rate and muscle tension. The object: to teach players to relax and relieve stress -- hardly the goal of your typical video and computer games.
Wild Divine is leading the charge into a new market: games that promote better health. The $23.2 billion gaming industry has been built on games of violence and frenzied action. One of the most popular series is Grand Theft Auto by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. (TTWO ), in which players tear drivers out of their cars, mug them, and run over pedestrians.
Now, some game developers are starting to use the impact that games can have on emotions and learning in a new way. They're creating games to help people relax, learn proper nutrition, overcome phobias, and even help children cope with attention deficit disorder (ADD). While healthful games are a tiny slice of the market today, gaming experts say they have the potential to take off in the years ahead. "People now want to play games to learn something," says Mia Consalvo, an assistant professor at Ohio University, who sits on the board of the Digital Games Research Assn.
A group of little-known advocates is pushing the market forward. It doesn't include the big names in computer gaming, such as Take-Two and Electronic Arts Inc. (ERTS ). Instead, the backers are upstarts such as Wild Divine, educational toymakers like LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. (LF ), and university and government researchers, including some from NASA. "I really see this as a missed opportunity so far," says Alan Pope, an engineer and psychologist at NASA's Langley Research Center, which has patented gaming technology.
VIRTUE IN THE VIRTUAL
Healthful games are beginning to draw lots of players. Wild Divine sold 4,000 copies of its game in December, the first month the game hit the market. That's far short of the millions the top mainstream games sell, but it's enough that the 12-employee outfit in Eldorado Springs, Colo., expects to turn profitable this fall. "It's the best spiritual adventure game I've played," says 50-year-old Tomas Bodle of San Rafael, Calif., who says Journey helps him cope with being unable to work since a neck injury more than a year ago. "You can't tear me away from it."
More complex games may help people cope with lifelong conditions, such as phobias. Today, the only widely accepted way to fight a phobia is with real-world experimentation and acclimation. A patient who is afraid of heights, say, has to climb a cliff together with a therapist and look down. That can be unsafe and costly. Stéphane Bouchard, a researcher at the Cyberpsychology Laboratory at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, developed a game that helps patients conquer fears in the comfort of a therapist's office. Patients don 3-D goggles and head-motion trackers to take a virtual glass elevator up a 15-story building. After getting off on the floor of their choosing, they walk along a two-foot-wide ledge circling the building on the outside. The game gives the doctor and patient more control over the whole experience. And the 80% success rate is similar to that of traditional treatments, Bouchard says.
Healthy games aren't aimed just at adults. CyberLearning Technology LLC, a startup based in Blue Bell, Pa., has developed a system to help children who suffer from ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The BrainGames system, based on technology developed by NASA's Pope, works in conjunction with many off-the-shelf video games and helps increase the frequency of brain waves, which research has shown are lower in children with ADD.
It works like this: Using a headset with embedded sensors, the system tracks the frequency of a boy's brain waves while he plays a racing game. When the player exhibits low-frequency patterns, his race car slows and other cars pass him. That gets his attention so he concentrates, producing higher-frequency brain waves. His car then speeds up -- positive reinforcement for his cerebral change. The idea is that the higher-frequency pattern will continue even after kids stop playing the game.
The early results are encouraging. Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Natoli, a pediatrician who lives in Yorktown, Va., says that her 11-year-old son, Omar, was able to stop taking medications for his ADHD after participating in a clinical study using CyberLearning's device. "This means no side effects," she says. "And he would look forward to every session. Getting therapy that was fun was great!" Lindsay Greco, operations director at CyberLearning, says hundreds of orders have been placed for the $350 system that is expected to be introduced by September.
Even simple games can treat complex emotions. Research has found that people with poor self-esteem exhibit a perverse vigilance in discerning expressions of rejection in others. So scientists at McGill University in Montreal developed a series of games that provides positive feedback in creative ways. In one, players must click on smiley faces that zoom across the screen on clouds. McGill psychologist Mark W. Baldwin says that a study of 139 people showed that playing these games for 10 minutes a day resulted in higher self-esteem. McGill made the games available to the public for free on May 6.
Until health-oriented games really take off, big-game developers aren't likely to go beyond the popular first-person shooter or sports games that currently dominate the industry. More research is needed to establish just how useful the new generation of games is in promoting better health. And many doctors say the games' efficacy in treating anxiety and ADD haven't been studied long enough for the results to be reliable. But proven or not, more and more startups are coming up with healthful games. And what they're getting in return is more than just positive karma.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.