Nine research teams from universities across the US will study how interactive video games such as the Wii Active could help fight childhood obesity and how mobile phone games could help smokers quit or reduce tobacco use.

The teams will also focus on how video games can be designed to help people change behaviours and self-manage chronic illnesses as well as improve communication with autistic patients.

Games reviews, downloads and forum

"Digital games are interactive and experiential, and so they can engage people in powerful ways to enhance learning and [change health-related behavior], especially when they are designed on the basis of well-researched strategies," said Debra Lieberman, a communication researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research.

Lieberman, a leading expert in the research and design of interactive media for learning and health behavior change, said the new interactive gaming studies will provide "cutting-edge, evidence-based strategies that designers will be able to use in the future to make their health games more effective."

The nine teams, chosen from among 185 proposals, have been awarded between $100,000 and $300,000 each from $1.85 million in grant money offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The researchers will lead one- to two-year studies of digital games that engage players in physical activity and/or motivate them to improve how they take care of themselves through healthy changes in lifestyle; prevention behaviours; cognitive, social or physical skills; chronic disease self-management; and/or adherence to a medical treatment plan.

For example, the research teams will delve into the popular dance pad video game Dance Revolution to see how it might help Parkinson's patients reduce the risk of falling, or how facial recognition games might be designed to help people with autism better identify others' emotions.

The studies will focus on diverse population groups that vary by race and ethnicity, health status, income level and game-play setting, with age groups ranging from elementary school children to 80-year-olds. The research teams will study participants' responses to health games played on a variety of platforms, such as video game consoles, computers, mobile phones and robots.

"The pace of growth and innovation in digital games is incredible, and we see tremendous potential to design them to help people stay healthy or manage chronic conditions like diabetes or Parkinson's disease. However, we need to know more about what works and what does not, and why," Paul Tarini, team director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio, said in a statement.