This research-backed video game is good for health recovery

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Researchers at Imperial College London have made a new mobile game about controlling balloons that helps patients suffering from physical impairments make a faster, healthier recovery. Yes, it’s a video game that’s both good for your health and for furthering education and research.

In Balloon Buddies, which runs on a tablet, a “healthy” participant supports a “less abled” player as they work together (ie., playing cooperatively) to score points. Both players balance a ball on a beam by controlling the height of the balloons on either end. They control the balloons using a GripAble device — a tool designed for improving hand and arm weakness — either by squeezing to inflate the balloons or releasing to deflate them. Players maneuver the beam to collect stars and earn points.

Researchers found that patients actually did better when playing with a partner who was assisting them, versus when playing on their own. More interestingly, the poorer the patient’s single-player performance, the better the improvement in cooperative mode. In other words, the more engaged involvement from healthy volunteers, the more likely patients were to increase their efforts in training, which could lead to better gains in physical performance. The findings were published this week in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation (JNER).

“Video games are a great way of providing repetitive exercise to help patients recover from debilitating illnesses,” said Dr Michael Mace, the lead author from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. “However, most games are designed for users to play on their own, which can actually discourage and isolate many patients.

“We developed the Balloon Buddy game to enable patients to train with their friends, family, or caregivers in a collaborative and playful manner. The technology is still being developed, but we have shown that playing jointly with another individual may lead to increased engagement and better outcomes for patients.”

The pilot study was small and included 16 stroke patients and 32 healthy participants over a period of three months, but the researchers believe this kind of rehabilitation could be useful in various scenarios, such as with patients recovering from arthritis or musculoskeletal injuries, as well as remotely at home or in community centers.

The researchers are now conducting a larger study to determine whether playing the game results in more efficient learning and if patients are more motivated to train for longer lengths of time.

Photo credit: Fergus Burnett, Imperial College London

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