Shigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo exec whose obsession over his own weight led him to create Wii Fit, isn’t the only Dr. Gamer in town. Just last week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (through its Health Games Research program at the University of California, Santa Barbara) split $2 million in grants among a dozen university programs that are studying ways to merge medicine and video game interactivity.
A common theme among the winners: Getting inactive teens to exercise. Indiana University, Maine Medical Center, University of California, San Diego and University of North Carolina are all examining how gaming affects physical activity. Other ideas involve rehab and good dietary behavior. Gaming has gone from the arcade and living room to the workplace and hospitals, and it’s even threatening to replace the shrink’s sofa. In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, writer Sue Halpern describes how psychologists are relying on virtual reality to treat troops who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after their tours of duty in hotspots like Iraq or Afghanistan.
Is this the gaming industry’s future? It’s hard to say. But there’s something ironic about the popularity of both casual and serious games: Analysts keep telling us that casual games are taking off because we people have less time to play games for fun and yet we’re seeing more games emerging as a way to help us cope with the real world. Try that one on for size.